Tag Archives: identity

The Vices by Lawrence Douglas

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 Fakea 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.

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Colony by Hugo Wilcken

“I must kill memory once and for all

I must turn my soul to stone,

I must learn to live again.”  from the poem The Sentence by Anna Akhmatova (translated by Judith Hemschemeyer)

colonyOne of the reasons I started blogging was with the idea in mind that I’d pick up some great recommendations along the way, and that happened recently when John Self over at the Asylum recommended a book I’d never heard of, Hugo Wilcken’s Colony. I just finished the novel and I’ve one word to say SUPERB!

Colony is set in 1928 and begins just before a shipload of convicts arrives at the French penal colony of Saint-Laurent. Saint-Laurent is the port in French Guiana at which “selection” takes place and convicts are sorted and shifted to other locations. The bulk of the story is told through the eyes of Sabir, a 30-year-old WWI veteran, and in spite of the fact he’s survived the trenches, he’s quite aware that surviving in a penal colony is another matter entirely. Sabir keeps a nervous eye on fellow inmate Bonifacio, a Corsican jewel thief who holds a position of unassailable power on the ship. Apart from his threatening physical presence, since Bonifacio escaped from a penal colony and made it back to France, he knows what awaits the convicts and knows the basic geography of the area, and this makes Bonifacio a valuable, yet difficult, source of information.

Sabir is an excellent observer and a quick learner, and he rapidly and falsely manages to gain a coveted job as a gardener. He’s sent to Camp Renee where he becomes the convict pet of the deranged camp commandant.

If you tend to have a fondness for Joseph Conrad (like me) then just a very basic plot outline of Colony should have you dashing out of the door for the nearest bookshop. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed in this intense novel and its examination of colonialism, freedom, and identity.

One of the fascinating aspects of Colony is that the book takes a slightly different view of the old colonial paradigm. Whereas most fiction books on the subject of colonialism focus on a) the mistreatment of the native/subjugated population and/or b) the corrosive taint of colonialism on the dominant culture, Colony fascinates by its focus on how exactly a dominant world power, France in this case, spews out the debris of empire on the distant shores of French Guiana. In Colony, while the white men are still on the top of the heap, the book focuses on how other men who are outcasts of French society fit into the schema. Some of the convicts (Sabir and Edouard) are WWI veterans, but that fact certainly doesn’t ameliorate their sentences.The natives remain noticeably (and sensibly) in the background while the French masters exploit their fellow citizens–underlings for the most part who’ve fallen foul of the French legal system for a range of reasons.

It’s interesting to note that preceding chapter one there’s an appropriate quote from Dante’s Inferno: “I did not die–yet nothing of life remained.”  Oddly enough, in my desire to begin the novel I didn’t see this quote until later, and yet the Inferno came strongly to mind for the first few chapters of the novel, but the quote that I recalled was “Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here.” When Sabir arrives, it would seem that he’s arrived in hell–hell on earth, that is, and the only escape is death. Just as Dante describes the various levels of hell, Sabir discovers that life on a penal colony is also composed of variations of hell: arrival is just the bridge to the next level–the best level of hell is acquiring a job as a house servant for an official, and the worst level of hell–the level to be avoided at all costs–is life at the forest camps where disease, hunger and drudgery await. Here again I thought of another quote–but this time the quote wasn’t from Dante: it was from Nazi death camps, such as Dachau & Auschwitz : “Work Shall Set You Free.” (Arbeit Macht Frei). It’s a particularly sadistic, twisted and sickly ironic turn of phrase, isn’t it?

One of the greatest scenes in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness describes the futility of a French man-of-war “firing into a continent.” This sort of lunacy exists in Colony mainly through the Commandant’s futile efforts to recreate a French country mansion–complete with an Orchid garden–in the middle of the jungle, using convict labour. The Commandant’s strange form of jungle megalomania assumes the shape of incredibly detailed plans for the future, and the Commandant plays with scale models while he drinks himself into oblivion.

While on one level Colony is a marvellous story that takes place within a French penal colony, on another level the parallels within the rich text allow the reader to make subtle connections  and in the process engage in a meditation  on the subjects of freedom and identity. The convicts who are all “judicial objects[s]” arrive stripped of any personal possessions, and all that remains are their names and sometimes their crimes, but even the crimes they committed form a type of identity. Thrown out in the jungle in a dehumanizing system where the strong, the crafty and the savage survive, identities morph and become as useless as other trappings from society. 

Parallels can be drawn between WWI and the sentence at the penal colony. In the strict hierarchy of both systems, orders are given and must be obeyed as lives are thrown away, and it’s no coincidence that memories of the trenches and memories of those who died begin to haunt Sabir. Parallels may also be drawn between the Commandant’s behaviour and the obsessive behavior of an orchid grower, one of the main character’s great-uncles:

“He was remembering his great-uncle’s house in Chiswick, with its greenhouse that took up most of the garden, and the reflections of the orchids that would bounce off the glass walls. The morgue-like stillness of everything inside was what had most impressed. Row upon row of little pots, each carefully numbered and labelled. He could see his great-uncle toiling away with his orchids, potting them, repotting them, feeding them, enveloping them in a fine water mist, lavishing his love on them, day in, day out, always the same, year after year….It was an existence that had been polished and finished until it was like a perfectly round, shiny pebble, with no irregularities, a life that admitted no way in and no way out.”

But is it necessarily negative to devote one’s life to obscure projects, obsessing on the trivial until the trivial becomes the essential? Is it a ‘bad’ thing to perfect one’s existence as the orchid grower does and find some sort of happiness and sense of purpose in such an endless task? 

Wilcken seems to be saying that a sense of purpose, even an obsessive sense of purpose, can be a wonderful thing. The orchid grower continually cultivates and expands his garden while in contrast, everything the commandant undertakes fails. At one point in the novel, he imports dozens of boxes of orchids from France, but they rot en route, and the commandant moves onto another phase of his plan for the jungle, abandoning the notion of an orchid garden in spite of the fact that the jungle is laden with indigenous orchid plants.

Whereas the Chiswick orchid grower is content with his solo project, the Commandant requires others to make his fantasy complete, and perhaps therein is the problem–after all, Sabir makes his greatest errors when he decides the fate of others. The hierarchy of the penal system breeds violence, corruption and exploitation, and those in power inevitably abuse their position with direct cruelty or neglectful disinterest. The inherent unhealthiness of hierarchal systems pervades the novel–in the memories of WWI, in the treatment of the prisoners and by the vicious  conflicts within the convict population.

In the case of some of the convicts, poverty brings a variation of enslavement on the  inevitable road to crime. In many ways, Sabir’s situation is far better in Camp Renee than his former life in France. Is he more or less “free” in the penal colony? Was Sabir better or worse off as a soldier in the trenches of WWI? What does being ‘free’  really mean? In spite of Sabir’s privileged position with the Commandant, the idea that “freedom”  exists outside of the borders of the penal colony gnaws away at Sabir until he becomes obsessed with escape and “inaction is no sort of option.” The notion of escape into the jungle is an insane venture, but in the treacherous echo chamber of ideas, the convicts begin to imagine that escape is possible. As the novel develops it becomes clear that we are all prisoners of our circumstances and confined by our characters and desires.

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