Monday, August 22, 2005

Book Review: Seven Types of Ambiguity

Back in the 1930s William Empson wrote a book called Seven Types of Ambiguity. Empson defined ambiguity as "any verbal nuance, however slight, which gives room for alternative reactions to the same piece of language." In other words, a person could be reading the same piece of text and, because of the subtle multiple meanings inherent in the language, another person may understand the text in completely different way. Elliot Perlman's contemporary novel of the same name takes the idea of ambiguity and constructs a complex story from seven different points of view. The main character of the novel, Simon Heywood, becomes obsessed with an ex-girlfriend he had when he was at university. He decides to kidnap the young boy of his ex-girlfriend in order to draw her attention back to him. Beginning with a monologue by Simon's psychiatrist, Alex Klima, we see this event and its consequences from the perspective of seven different people -- hence the seven types of ambiguity. As we read each person's perspective our own perceptions of the events change and we begin to wonder what the truth really is. The story is long (around 640 pages) and covers an enormous range of human emotions and experience. Perlman even wanders into politics, literature, psychology, the law, and other subjects. Despite this wide-ranging approach it kept my attention to the very end. The ending, however, was a little disappointing and did not seem to have the same intensity as the rest of the story. Despite that, the story as a whole raises some significant questions about the nature of truth and the way we understand it. In particular, human relationships are constantly shifting in their meaning and we tend to interpret them from within our own perspective. We may think we know the meaning of other people's actions but may be completely wrong. It is very easy to pontificate from our high moral ground about the actions of others and what they mean. Even if we are the ones behaving in a certain way we may not be entirely sure why we are doing it or what it means. Seven Types of Ambiguity is long, complex, engaging, and deep. It will leave you thinking long after the book is finished. Content Warning This book contains some coarse language and sexual references.

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