What is it with books and exquisite plotting lately? Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North, St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and Jane Austen’s Emma (write up to come on that one!). I generally call myself a character novel person. Not that I don’t enjoy a good plot, I do! Most of the time though it seems that the best books are the ones centered on character with plot happening in order to provide the character with something to do. The meaning of the story lies in the character’s development. Books with meaningful characters and tight, meaningful plots that aren’t clunky or forced are hard to come by. At least in my experience.
But now to the list above I can add a fourth book, F by Daniel Kehlmann. Four books within two months. Unheard of!
F is about what happens when Arthur Friedland abandons his three sons to pursue a writing career. Arthur has a son, Martin, with his first wife whom he divorced. He has two sons, twins, Eric and Ivan, with his current wife. He has regular outings with his three sons and on this occasion he has taken them to see the Great Lindemann, a hypnotist. Arthur is certain he cannot be affected by hypnotism but when Lindemann calls him up on stage something happens. Was he really hypnotized or did Lindemann just manage to hit so close to the bone that Arthur could no longer remain in his mediocre life? Whatever the case, Arthur drops all three boys off at Martin’s house and disappears out of their lives. He doesn’t completely disappear, however, because he eventually becomes a best selling author.
Martin grows up and becomes a priest who doesn’t believe in God. Eric grows up to become a financial manager who begins an honest man but through a number of large investment errors ends up running a ponzi scheme in order to keep himself and his company afloat. Ivan sets out to be a painter but instead becomes a forger of paintings.
The story is told in sections. The first is the events with Lindemann. The second section belongs to Martin. This is followed by a section that is a portion of a book Arthur wrote about his family history which may or may not be fiction. The next section belongs to Eric and events in this chapter neatly coincide in places with Martin’s section while also moving forward in time. The fifth section is Ivan’s and it continues to move the story ahead while also fitting in with events that happened in Martin’s and Eric’s sections. The final section brings them all together again with the addition of a third generation, Marie, Eric’s daughter. This too, ties in with events that happened in earlier sections but also moves forward in time.
There is much in the book about work, choosing a path or having it chosen for you, determination and lack of it. Also, what happens when you aim for big things but discover you are only average?
What does it mean to be average — suddenly the question became a constant one. How do you live with that, why do you keep on going? What kind of people bet everything on a single card, dedicate their lives to the creative act, undertake the risk of the one big bet, and then fail year after year to produce anything of significance?
And what is work and all the things we do in life about anyway? Is it all just meant to fill up time until we die?
All the same, a day was a long time. So many days still until the holidays came around, so many more until Christmas, and so many years until you were grown up. Every one of them full of days and every day full of hours, and every hour a whole hour long. How could they all go by, how had old people ever managed to get old? What did you do with all that time?
Something only a child can ask.
The “F” of the title is never defined. It could mean all kinds of things: Friedland, family, faith, fate, forgery, fraud, father and probably a few others. The writing is fairly unadorned, there is no fancy styling here, just good, competent prose.
F has gotten a bit of buzz. While I was impressed with the plotting, I didn’t especially love the book. It might be because it has a rather bleak outlook on life. No one in the book is happy about anything. And when there are moments of happiness they tend to be fleeting or arise from escaping punishment. It all kind of feels pretty close to nihilistic. Of course the gray skies I have been living under for the past two weeks probably didn’t help matters. If the sun had come out once or twice I might have felt differently. I think it’s time to pull a more upbeat book from the reading pile!