In his native Australia, novelist Elliot Perlman is a literary star, a writer who gets recognized by his peers with awards and by readers on the street. But in New York, where he spends about half his time, trying to find one of his books is like going on a treasure hunt.
"I'm not known here at all," says Perlman, whose 1998 debut novel, Three Dollars, was a high-profile hit down under but barely cast a shadow in the U.S. "At the Strand bookstore [in Manhattan], I saw an old secondhand Australian copy of Three Dollars. But I'd like to be a little bit more prominent than that."
He is, by any reasonable speculation, about to get his wish. In December, Riverhead will publish the U.S. edition of Perlman's second novel, Seven Types of Ambiguity. Though it is his third book, it could almost be considered his U.S. debut. His 2000 collection of short stories, The Reasons I Won't Be Coming, has never been published in the U.S. His first novel languished here after being published by the small Denver house MacMurray & Beck shortly before the press was purchased by McAdam/Cage. It has yet to be published in paperback in the U.S.
The sprawling, socially conscious novel has already attracted comparisons to Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and Philip Roth's American Pastoral. But Perlman displays none of the irony or aloofness associated with those writers, either on the page or in person. Recently, we talked over lunch at a Puerto Rican restaurant on Manhattan's West Side. The restaurant is just blocks away from the apartment he shares with his American girlfriend, a medical doctor with a Ph.D. in molecular biology. Age 40 and a trial lawyer by trade, Perlman could easily be mistaken for a graduate student, perhaps with a double major in English literature and social work.
"Seven Types is an attempt to present a sweeping vista of contemporary Western life, of a society in crisis, with its moral, political and personal dilemmas and conundrums," Perlman says. The civics lecture description doesn't do the book justice. The novel is literate and political, but its plot drives on obsessive love, greed, social climbing, betrayal and kinky sex.
A hint at how bawdy it gets: To research the book, the author frequented brothels, which are legal in Australia. Says Perlman, "I checked with my accountant and became the first man in the history of the world to say, 'I want to interview prostitutes. Is that a tax deduction?' " He emphasized, "interview." His girlfriend was supportive, becoming maybe the first woman in the history of the world to nag her boyfriend, "Did you go to the brothel yet?"
Seven Types takes its name from William Empson's landmark book of literary criticism, which describes how poetry gets its power from the ambiguity of language. The novel centers on an unemployed schoolteacher, Simon, who kidnaps the son of his college girlfriend, Anna. Though Anna dumped Simon 10 years earlier, she remains the object of his romantic obsession. By taking the boy, Simon starts a chain of actions that are revealed, with conflicting interpretations, by seven different narrators.
"I was smitten with the idea of trying to do, in a sense, for human relationships what William Empson does for language in his analysis of the ambiguity of poetry," says Perlman. He started the book 12 years ago, when the law was still his day job and becoming a published fiction writer no more than an aspiration. Shortly after he began, he put the project aside. "I realized that the architecture of the book that I imagined, the scope and ambition that I imagined for the book was way beyond the stamina of a first-time author," he says.
Instead, Perlman wrote Three Dollars, a more tightly focused novel centering on one man's attempt to keep his principles and his precarious footing in the middle class. When Picador published the book in Australia, it was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin Award, that country's top literary prize. It didn't win, but it did receive other honors, including the Age Book of the Year in Australia and, in the UK, the Betty Trask Award. Perlman also co-wrote the screenplay for the movie version of Three Dollars, scheduled to come out in Australia next year.
While not as ambitious as his second novel, Perlman's earlier fiction signals the author's interest in broader social issues, in particular how the consequences of capitalism—outsourcing, privatization, downsizing—can rend the lives of middle-class couples. "I wanted to mix the political and personal and to take all these issues that we read about in the business section and see how they ramify in the kitchen, in the living room and of course, even in the bedroom," he says. "Because a man and a woman will look at each other differently depending on whether they're employed or not and what prospects they seem to have economically."
For a man with two careers, Perlman spends a lot of time thinking about unemployment. His childhood may partly explain the preoccupation. Though his grandparents were Eastern European Jews who immigrated to Australia to escape anti-Semitism and economic deprivation, the Melbourne household the author grew up in was solidly middle class. His mother was a high school English teacher, his father an academic physicist. But it was a socially conscious family, in which he and his older sister were taught to identify with the underdog.
As he awaits the reception to Seven Types, Perlman is hoping to lose his underdog status in the U.S. "Obviously, it's hugely important because it's the biggest English-speaking market in the world, and it is also, in many respects, the beating heart of ideas. I'll be happy if I can gain even the smallest place inside the literary imagination of U.S. readers." Or, as he later puts it, "After a while, if you're a writer, you want to start appearing in the bookstores of the place you're living in."
|Holt is senior editor of the online publication The Book Standard, which will launch early next year.|