on The Vices, a novel by Lawrence Douglas (Other Press)

The unnamed narrator of Lawrence Douglas’ second novel, The Vices, is a writer whose “suburban Jewish novel” lands him a residency at Harkness College in western Massachusetts. There he meets Oliver Vice, a professor of philosophy. “Over the years,” he says, “I’ve come better to understand that writing about someone dear is never an innocent gesture, is always part homage, part predation.” It’s an astute comment – but the seductiveness of The Vices hinges almost entirely on the reader’s wobbly uncertainty about what exactly the narrator has “come better to understand.”

DouglasCover.jpegThe narrative is a reminiscence of Oliver who, in the first chapter, leaps overboard from the aft deck of Level 13 of the Queen Mary II some time after midnight on July 23, 200x. They had known each other for perhaps ten years. The work we are reading is the narrator’s rendition of Oliver’s adult life as it intersected with his own “under terms later stipulated by Francizka,” Oliver’s mother. His focus is Oliver’s suffering. Early on he says, “I often would chastise myself for failing to understand his suffering, for lacking the imaginative depths to make sense of his pain … Oliver’s suffering had volume and depth. It was large, relevant, and ramifying, not merely suburban, Jewish, and neurotic. I knew the latter world intimately; I came from it, had written a novel about it, and would never fully escape its orbit.” Oliver’s suffering, he believes, is exemplary, while his own troubles are merely personal. But does Oliver’s behavior actually resemble “withering pathologies”?

A literary agent recently told me that she had no interest in trying to sell a novel featuring a writer as the main character. I presume her resistance has to do with the cerebral quality of such stories, the unfolding of psychological content and the dreary or hyperactive insularity of writers’ lives. She wouldn’t have touched The Vices, even though the narrator trains his sights mainly on Oliver (a philosopher, thus compounding the distaste of the consumer of suburban novels).

The plot line of The Vices is a tensile string of encounters – the founding of friendship, holidays spent at Francizka’s Manhattan apartment, the narrator’s life with his wife Melissa, Oliver’s links to his family and its wealth and assets, and the tracing of Oliver’s amorous relationships in America and England. There is also the question of the Vice family’s background. Are they fallen aristocrats? Is there grandeur in their woes or are they simply hooked on addictive personality disorder? In what way, if any, was the family affected or damaged by the Jewish Holocaust? At one point, Oliver’s hulking, depressive brother Bartholomew grows a Hitler mustache.

Douglas.jpegBut as the narrator sorts out the presumed facts of the Vice family’s provenance, the effort seems secondary to the turbulent undercurrent of the novel. Why is the narrator telling this story? Oliver Vice made his notorious reputation with the publication of his book Paradoxes of Self. Here is the narrator’s description of that volume (which is then followed by a sample of Oliver’s intriguing prose):

“The book – no more than two hundred pages – addressed a pair of questions that had gripped philosophers from Hume and Leibniz to Frege and Bernard Williams: is our identity stable over time and does it exist independent of our memoires and perceptions? But instead of claiming to find a new way to split the hairs of this problem, Oliver presented no definitive answers. His ambition, which was never explicitly stated, as the book had no introduction or conclusion, evidently was to expound a style of inquiry – organized as narrative and not as argument, and drawn from a broad range of literary, anthropological, and historical texts.”

Paradoxes of Self points to both the narrator’s preoccupations (his obsessions?) – as well as to the furtive aims of Lawrence Douglas. Oliver emits a mystique. He is at once principled (having confronted Bill Clinton at Oxford about the Rwanda genocide) and regarded as conservative (“he had nothing but contempt for continental philosophy, deriding Derrida as an obscurantist, Foucault ads a charlatan, Lacan as a fraud, and Heidegger as a hack”). He writes brilliantly on self-identity but describes himself to the narrator as “perplexed by my penchant for self-examination without profitable end.” Meanwhile, during one of Oliver’s contretemps with their college’s administration, the narrator “came to realize that several people on the Harkness campus routinely mistook me for Oliver. How this confusion took root has never been clear to me” – despite Melissa’s observation that he dresses like him and even wears the same cologne.

Douglas.jpgThe gratifications of The Vices are both redolent and wispy. Douglas keeps us interested in the arc of Oliver’s life while teasing us with glimpses of the narrator’s shallowness, unreliability, or inability to live up to his subject. Like Oliver, the narrator tries “to expound a style of inquiry” but doesn’t entirely succeed insofar as he has a flagging linguistic feel for the depths. Douglas’ impressive artifice is sturdy enough to give us a credible experience of a mind but sufficiently skewed to let us try to fill the gaps.

At times the narrator’s deniability hits a flat note. Douglas is most successful when simply allowing the man to struggle through the story – perhaps never more effectively than at the novel’s end when he lies about his ping pong skills. It is a slight yet deftly drawn gesture in a novel that achieves many such artful effects.

[Published August 16, 2011. 352 pages, $15.95, paperback original. Lawrence Douglas is a professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought at Amherst College.]