“The rapid descent to alpha male dominance was complete.”
The Vices by American author Lawrence Douglas is both an intense character study and an exploration of the nature of identity and authenticity. The novel begins with the knowledge that the main character, 41-year-old philosophy professor, Oliver Vice, has disappeared while a passenger in a Cunard ship sailing from London to New York. Evidence strongly suggests that Oliver threw himself overboard, but with no suicide note left by a man who was an eternal thinker and chronicler, the story’s unnamed narrator is left with the puzzling question: why did Oliver commit suicide?
And this is how the book begins:
On July 18, 200-, at 18:00 GMT, the Queen Mary 2 left Southampton with 2,912 passengers and roughly half as many crew. She arrived at the Brooklyn dockyards on the morning of July 24, with 2,911 passengers. In a brief wire service piece, the New York Times identified the missing passenger as “Oliver Vice, 41, a professor of philosophy at Harkness College in western Massachusetts.” He was also my closest friend, and remained so, even after he ruined my marriage.
This seemingly simple passage establishes several things: Oliver’s disappearance, the strange nature of the relationship between Oliver and the unnamed narrator, and the idea that while facts and figures may exist around the perimeters of life, numbers and facts don’t offer explanations.
With the knowledge of Oliver’s disappearance, the unnamed narrator begins to introduce shades of Oliver’s complex personality. A symbolic funeral is held for Oliver (the body was never found) which is attended by Oliver’s five “widows” who are “drawn from various spots on the globe” to mourn for the man they all loved:
The ‘widows’ cried openly, but not in competition. I doubt they knew fully of each other. Like members of a terrorist cell, each lover had knowledge limited to one degree of separation, a blinkered picture of Oliver’s romantic entanglements.
From that point, the narrator goes back to his first meeting with Oliver which took place about 12 years earlier when they met in a book shop. Oliver, an independently wealthy philosophy professor considered “aloof” and “arrogant” by colleagues, was a “hot commodity” in the academic world. He was extensively published and was hired with immediate tenure at Harkness College where he enjoyed celebrity status. The narrator, with just one novel under his belt, is also at Harkness on a temporary position as the writer-in-residence . While the two men are about the same age, they are a study in contrasts. Oliver comes from old money; he’s suave, popular and polished, and while we don’t know much about the narrator’s background, he’s under considerable financial constraints (enough to worry about book purchases). As the two men become unlikely friends, the narrator is introduced to Oliver’s glamorous and eccentric family. Gradually the narrator begins to resemble Oliver. This is due in part to the fact that the narrator copies Oliver’s style of dress and even wears his cologne. But curiously, the narrator is mistaken for Oliver–it’s never the other way round. This is one of the most intriguing aspects of the book. We have a central character who’s no longer there, and then there’s the ghost of a narrator, a hollow cipher who attaches himself as an identity parasite rather like Nick in Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty.
The narrator charts his relationship with Oliver Vice, and although the narrator marries, has a career and children, his focus is squarely and obsessively on Oliver, so while there’s a top-layer story here–Oliver’s many love affairs, his bizarre extra-curricular activities, his strained relationships with his overbearing Hungarian mother, Francizka Nagy and his “gargantuan fraternal twin” brother Bartholomew, and the over-growing mystery concerning Oliver Vice’s background, there’s also an unexplored undercurrent. Why is the narrator so fascinated by Oliver? Why does the interest in Oliver swamps every other aspect of the narrator’s life?
Identity is a major theme in the novel, and the narrator seems to be a fairly colourless, nebulous personality in contrast to the larger-than-life Vice family. The narrator is exposed to Oliver’s insane home life in which the past is rolled out at every opportunity by Oliver’s mother–a woman whose terrible stories about suffering and betrayal don’t add up. Oliver appears to be a well-defined person, a vegetarian and avid art collector with definite political opinions that he is willing to risk his career for, but in reality Oliver is a morass of contrasts and contradictions who devotes a lot of energy to projecting the image that he’s created for himself. On one hand, in his professional life he is “a creature of Kantian firmness, intolerant of excuses or embellishments or missed deadlines,” and yet in his private life, he’s incapable of making the simplest decision. This dichotomy of personality is held together by a very fine and fragile web of projected persona which is eventually challenged by the events that take place. Oliver’s major book, Paradoxes of Self, is the physical detritus of his secret struggle with self-identity. At the time of his death, Oliver, plagued by writer’s block was working on another book, The Fake “a book that promised to wed his philosophical and art historical interests.” His colleagues at Harkness considered Oliver a “wunderkind who, after an early splash, had drifted into premature irrelevance.”
If Oliver has a hero, then that person is Wittgenstein (a telling selection). Oliver’s book Paradoxes of Self is heavily influenced by Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations, and what’s more Oliver quotes Wittgenstein frequently. But the Oliver Vice-Wittgenstein connection goes beyond philosophy. According to Oliver’s troubled lover, Sophia, Oliver is “like his hero, Wittgenstein. Brilliant but incapable of some pretty basic stuff.” Here’s Oliver explaining why he’s been fired by his therapist:
He became so fed up with my endless frantic rehashing of the same problems, so dis spirited by my compulsive tendency to seek advice which I then ignore or declare myself incapable of implementing, so perplexed by my penchant for self-examination without profitable end, and so alarmed by my inability or refusal to restrain my thoughts, which overheat and go nowhere, like bats flapping around a closed attic, that he began last week’s session with the simple declaration, ‘I don’t think I’m helping you. I don’t think I’m capable of helping you.’ He apologized and we shook hands; I even tried to cheer him up–he did as good a job as anybody could have…
My only complaint about the novel is that I guessed one key element, but then again, perhaps I was supposed to. This put me in the position of being one step ahead of the narrator who’s blinded, after all, by his proximity to the Vice family.
The Vices is not a novel of action or dialogue. Instead this is an intriguing and complex study of one troubled man by another. This multi-layered novel comes highly recommended for fans of Michael Frayn.
Review copy courtesy of the publisher, Other Press, via Netgalley. Read on my kindle.