Australia, Author, Book review, Elliot Perlman, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Reading Projects, satire, Setting, TBR2020, Vintage Australia

‘Maybe the Horse Will Talk’ by Elliot Perlman

Fiction – paperback; Vintage Australia; 352 pages; 2019.

Elliot Perlman is one of my favourite authors. I have read and much admired his trio of novels — Three Dollars (1998), Seven Types of Ambiguity (2003) and The Street Sweeper (2012) — so was looking forward to his new novel, Maybe the Horse Will Talk, published in Australia at the end of last year. (The title refers to a children’s fable that suggests anything is possible.)

A satire about corporate greed, it’s set in Melbourne’s cut-throat legal world and addresses all kinds of relevant, contemporary issues including misogyny, sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace.

But for all its humour and clever, witty dialogue, the novel has a serious underbelly. It could, in fact, be seen as one of the first (or certainly the first I know about) that explores the #metoo movement, possibly before that became a “thing”.

Struggling to stay afloat

The tale centres on a mature age second-year lawyer and former high school English teacher, Stephen Maserov, who works for a big legal firm — hilariously called Freely Savage Carter Blanche — that specialises in construction law.

Stephen is hanging on by his fingertips. His wife has booted him out of the family home but he returns every night to tuck his two young boys in to bed, and at work he’s at risk of losing his job — a job that he hates but  needs to pay the mortgage.

One day, struck by inspiration, desperation and daring, he finds a solution to his problem: he offers to help a client make a series of sexual harassment claims go away. This sounds morally dubious and completely unethical, but Stephen has a cunning plan that he hopes will provide a win-win situation for both the client and the women making the claims. And along the way it will allow him to make a name for himself at the law firm, thereby saving his job and perhaps even salvaging his marriage.

Satire with a serious edge

The story has a relatively convoluted plot, is peopled by a series of loathsome characters with wonderful names — Mike Crispin “Crispy” Hamilton, for instance — and much of its momentum relies heavily on dialogue to propel things forward. The dialogue is smart and snappy and often laugh out loud funny.

But lest anyone think Stephen — or the author for that matter — is making light of sexual harassment, the story hammers home some salient points about who holds power in the workplace and the ways in which women are sometimes viewed by their male counterparts.

As one female character explains it, in the corporate world men fear “being frozen out, passed over, overworked, under-utilised, humiliated, being fired and ultimately unemployed”. Women fear this too. But women also have to contend with so much more in the workplace. She has…

…her clothes discussed by her male colleagues, her appearance, her body shape, changes in her body shape, her reaction to sexual innuendo, to off-colour jokes about sex, unwanted, unasked-for flirting and her reaction to that, fear of casual bodily contact all the way along the continuum, offers to trade sexual favours for career advancement and the consequences of rejecting them, blackmail and every conceivable permutation of sexual harassment and assault all the way down the line to rape.  There’s no overtime, no salary, no perks of the job that make any of that worthwhile.

The details of one particular sexual harassment case are stomach-churningly gruesome. Perlman doesn’t pull his punches.

But there’s another important point he’s making here, too, because Stephen’s unhappiness is also the unforeseen byproduct of inequality between the sexes. He works around the clock and sees so little of his family that his wife no longer wants to see him at all. His love for his children is superseded by his “need” to put work before family; to do anything else would be seen as a weakness.

Too long?

Admittedly, I didn’t really fall in love with this book. Yes, the plot is a bit far-fetched and it relies too much on coincidence to make work, but that didn’t really bother me. The issues covered appealed to me and I like reading books about office life as so few seem to be written about this topic.

And yet I just couldn’t properly engage with the characters. I struggled to properly immerse myself in the story and I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was overly long and the pace wasn’t fast enough for me.

Whatever the case, Maybe the Horse Will Talk remains a fine satire about important issues. It has some funny comic moments, is deftly plotted and features some sparkling dialogue. It’s a good book, but not a great one.

For other reviews of this novel, please see Lisa’s at ANZLitLovers and Tony’s at Tony’s Reading List. Note, I can’t find a UK publication date for this book, but a Kindle edition seems to be available in the US.

This is my 1st book for #TBR2020 in which I plan to read 20 books from my TBR over the next 6 months. Any books in my ownership that were purchased before the end of 2019 are eligible.

 

Australia, Author, Book review, Elliot Perlman, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Three Dollars’ by Elliot Perlman

ThreeDollars

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 368  pages; 1999.

Eddie Harnovey, a 38-year-old chemical engineer, is married to a brilliant academic with whom he has a young daughter. He has a lovely house in the suburbs, a strong moral conscience and a kind, friendly nature. He is intelligent and well educated. Why, then, is his world falling around his feet? Why is he on the brink of bankruptcy with just $3 to his name?

This is the premise behind Elliot Perlman’s award-winning debut novel Three Dollars.

Essentially it charts the rise — and spectacular fall — of a young man, who could have had everything but looks set to lose it all, including his home and his marriage.

Set in Melbourne, Australia, during the economic rationalistic 1990s, it offers much commentary on our obsession with materialistic goods and the soulless nature of business and its pursuit of ever-increasing profit regardless of the environmental or social consequences. But it is also a look at how love can conquer all — as long as you have more than $3 to your name.

Overall, I much enjoyed this novel, reading it in the space of two days. As I mentioned when I reviewed Perlman’s Seven Types of Ambiguity earlier this year, it was refreshing to read an Australian novel set in modern times in a city I once lived and worked in.

Three Dollars is a serious book, with plenty of negative things to say about modern life, but this is tempered by a strong comedic element throughout. Some of the situations in which Eddie finds himself  border on being hilarious.

Genre-wise I’m not sure whether this book should be classed as a family drama, social realism, an environmental thriller, a love story or a black comedy. It pretty much covers all these bases with aplomb.

There were several things that grated though: the author’s tendency to editorialise; his over reliance on co-incidence to move the narrative along; and the use of overly long, convoluted sentences, a kind of literary vaudeville that cluttered what was otherwise a very
well written story.

All in all, a highly entertaining and intelligent read with believable characters and a rollicking good plot.

Three Dollars won the 1999 Betty Trask Prize and the 1998 Melbourne Age Book of the Year. It was made into a movie in 2005.

Australia, Author, Book review, Elliot Perlman, Faber and Faber, Fiction, literary fiction, Publisher, Setting

‘Seven Types of Ambiguity’ by Elliot Perlman

SevenTypes

Fiction – paperback; Faber and Faber; 624  pages; 2005.

At last. A book by an Australian novelist that isn’t about convicts or the pioneers or soldiers heading off to the Great War. This one is, in fact, set in modern times — or the economic rationalistic 1990s anyway.

What’s more it’s set in the Australian city I know best — Melbourne — at a time when I was a resident. How wonderful to recognise names and places in the pages of this well-crafted novel: I have downed many an ice-cold beer at The Esplanade Hotel, drooled over the cakes that line the bakeries along St Kilda’s Acland Street, gone shopping (for books!) in Chapel Street, admired the mansions in Toorak, seen the beach at the end of Glenhuntly Road, walked along the streets of Sorrento.

American readers, British readers will not understand this, because they are collectively spoilt by so many modern novels set in their homelands. But for me, as an Australian, I can’t tell you how refreshing it was to recognise such places in the pages of a book that wasn’t non-fiction. It made the story all that more real, and all that more special, to me.

Seven Types of Ambiguity — if you have got past my rambling purple-prosed introduction — is described on the blurb as a “tale of obsessive love” but I think that’s too simplistic a summary. It’s about an unemployed teacher briefly abducting Sam, the seven-year-old son of an ex-girlfriend, and the consequences of that one misguided incident and how it impacts on so many different lives in so many different ways.

It’s also a psychological thriller, a court room drama, a romance, a satire, an insightful commentary on modern day existence, morals and values, and a kind of literary juggernaut that borrows the title of a well known non-fiction book by William Empson on literary criticism. Throw in politics, big business and prostitution and pretty much every genre and theme is covered here. You certainly can’t complain about its breadth of scope.

The tale is told from seven different perspectives: Simon Heywood, the kidnapper; Dr Alex Klima, the psychiatrist who treats Simon but crosses a professional line to become his patient’s best friend; Anna Geraghty, Simon’s ex-girlfriend and mother of the kidnapped child; Joe Geraghty, Anna’s stockbroker husband; Angelique, the prostitute who is Simon’s current girlfriend and through some weird coincidence is also linked to Joe, one of her clients; Dennis Mitchell, an analyst and colleague of Joe’s, who later hooks up with Angelique (are you following me?); and Rachael Klima, Alex’s daughter, who, through another weird coincidence, becomes Sam’s girlfriend. Strangely enough the only person who does not narrate his side of the story is Sam, the central figure of the book.

As one would expect from the novel’s title, the theme of ambiguity is a constant. Indeed Perlman plays many literary tricks so that upon reading each new part it takes two or three pages for the reader to figure out who the new narrator is. I initially found this annoying, but I grew to like the surprise — I could never guess correctly no matter how much I thought I understood the characters.

Perlman also has his characters constantly misunderstand each other in conversation through the use of ambiguous language. For instance, when Anna is called to discuss Sam’s misbehaviour at school as a result of the kidnapping, the teacher treads softly and then completely misunderstands everything Anna says to her.

‘What’s he done?’ I asked. (…)

‘Well, he’s been calling out a lot…lately.’

‘What do you mean, lately?’ I asked the young teacher.

‘Well, since the…since the troubles.’

Since ‘the troubles’, she had said, not being able to even say the word ‘kidnapping’, so afraid, as the school had informed us in a carefully worded letter, were they of saying anything that might cause us offence and provoke litigation.

‘What, he’s been calling out since the beginning of inter-religious hostilities in Ireland?’ It was an off-the-cuff smartarse remark of the kind Simon could’ve made. (…)

‘Pardon me?’ the young teacher asked, completely at a loss.

‘I’m sorry, you said since “the troubles”, which is the name given to the Catholic-Protestant conflict in Ireland. I’m sorry. I was just being flippant. Things have been–‘

‘No, I’m sorry, for my insensitivity. Geraghty? Of course, Sam Geraghty. I have to admit I’m not always up to date with my world events. Have you lost family recently in Northern Ireland? Did Sam know the deceased directly or is it a sort of…vicarious pain? We can schedule grief counselling if you like. It can be for the whole family if you would think it would help everyone…or anyone.’

And later, when Anna wants to check whether it is true that Simon once fell in the swimming pool and was rescued from drowning by Simon, who was stalking Anna at the time, her question is misunderstood by her young son.

‘Sam, you’ve never had an accident in the pool, have you?’

‘No.’

‘No, I didn’t think so.’

‘I haven’t, really, I haven’t.’

‘I believe you, Sam,’ I said, giving him a big hug. I didn’t want to release him.

‘I always go before I get in the pool.’

‘What, say that again, sweetie. What did you say?’

‘I don’t ever do it in the pool anymore.’

The book is littered with many, many more examples — too many to list here — although I had a lot of fun spotting them as I ploughed my way through this weighty book.

But the overriding message of Seven Types of Ambiguity is the ambiguity of human relationships and how two people in a relationship can interpret that relationship in entirely different ways through the prism of their own needs, desires and maturity.

For instance, we learn early on that Simon is obsessed with Anna, his ex-girlfriend, whom he is stalking. They have not been romantically involved for more than 10 years and yet he is still very much in love with her. It is creepy and skin-crawling stuff.  Later, when Anna narrates her part of the story, we get to find out exactly what she thinks of Simon – and let’s just say it wasn’t what I expected. So, perhaps too, Perlman is demonstrating that the reader’s relationship with fictional characters can be ambiguous too.

Despite my glowing five-star review, the book isn’t perfect. Sometimes the rehashing of scenes and conversations, albeit as seen from different points of view, grew wearisome. The voice and tone of each character was also remarkably similar, and some of the sentences were confusing and overly clunky. I also had trouble with the first chapter, not quite being able to work out who the narrator was, much less who he was addressing. And, finally, I found that I disliked Simon enormously despite the fact that most of the characters in this book seemed to like him very much. Why? He sounded like a pompous, too-clever-for-his-boots, obsessive, pain in the arse type of guy.

That said, I loved this amazing, brilliant and breath-taking book. I read it compulsively in just under a week, no mean feat for me, a slow and plodding reader at the best of times who usually squeezes in a 30 minute session before lights out each evening. But I found the story gripping, the characterisation impressive and the literary ‘acrobatics’ dazzling. More please!