Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Vices by Lawrence Douglas

Everything about how this book is being marketed and reviewed suggests a literary murder mystery. Look, people, it's not a murder mystery. If I'd known that, I wouldn't have bought it; but once I bought the damn thing I felt compelled to read it.

Philosophy professor Oliver Vice disappears from the deck of the Queen Mary II during a storm, presumably as a result of the sea and weather, but there is a suggestion that he committed suicide. His friend, the unnamed narrator, discusses Oliver's life in 343 detailed pages, questioning who Oliver really was.

This is supposed to be a darkly, bitterly witty book. The narrator is unreasonably besotted with Oliver, whom he repeatedly describes as being noble in his suffering. It's supposed to be amusing that Oliver's suffering is due entirely to his being so neurotic and self-absorbed that he can barely function normally; and it's also supposed to be amusing that the narrator comes out with lines like "My father may not have been a brain surgeon, but it wasn't for any lack of smarts; when he entered the service at eighteen, he scored a stratospheric 152 on the army's IQ test" (p. 148). But every time the narrator showed himself to be unaware that he was such a buffoon, I cringed--for the author.

There's a hint, around the two-thirds mark of the book, that the narrator may not even be real--that everything we're reading may be false, a fantasy created by Oliver Vice himself. That would certainly explain why the narrator apparently looks very much like Oliver, and it would explain why the narrator is intelligent and yet profoundly stupid. It would certainly explain why the narrator is so obsessed with Oliver. What it would not explain is why the author bothered.

The entire book is about identity--self-identity and the identities that we invent and show others. Not much happens in the book, which is mostly the narrator mulling things over and occasionally having a conversation. I actually do enjoy this sort of book occasionally (that is, when I'm not expecting a murder mystery), but only if the writing blows the top of my head off. The writing here is nice, moving along facilely if not deeply, but the book is far too long and not clever enough to really explore the issues it presents.

It also doesn't know where to end. The story ends on page 339 but doesn't stop until page 343.

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Kelly Robinson said...

The last line you've written sounds far more clever than the book. This actually seems like the sort of thing I might like in theory, but not if it's written so poorly.

K.C. Shaw said...

Well, it's not badly written, just not beautifully written. I'll be taking it to McKays on my next trip so maybe you can snag it and take a look at it. :)