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Tesseract by Alex Garland

By Jack | Books | July 21, 2009 |

By Jack | Books | July 21, 2009 |

First, I love, love, loved The Beach, not the DiCaprio abomination put on large screens all across the land, but the novel in all its “game over,” weed smoking, traveling beauty. There I said it. I should have stared with: First, I wanted to hate The Beach, because I did, but I didn’t and so you have the first that I wrote first. Then, I read Coma. I was not as immediately srtuck by that novella; it crept up on me slowly. It took me almost a week to love it. Enter The Tesseract. I know better than to expect much. Two novels I love by the same author in order with no offending trite bullshit (I’m looking at you Oates) in between? I sat it on it for months. Pulled it out and moved it around on my desk every few days. Read and reread the glowing reviews and thought, yeah, well you can’t very well turn on the author of the fist great novel of Generation X now can you? (No shit, reviewers said that about TB). Then, I had to take a trip for work, one that I knew would be unfathomably noxious, so I threw it in the bag. I guess I just outed myself as still hopeful, but I promise my expectation management (something at which I EXCEL) was in full force.

I was almost all the way through page six and almost wholly apathetic, but then the novel took off. “Everything weird was the bottom line, and Sean had reached it quickly.” Really? How does it take that little for the hair on the back of my neck to come to full attention and for me to be unabashedly ecstatic for what’s to come? I mean, really, what kind of whore am I? A sated one I am happy to tell you.

The Tesseract is a story in three parts. the primary action covers about a 60-minute window on the streets of Manila where a British seaman and a Filipino gangster are set to hash out protection payment issues. The culmination of this meeting brings together the characters from the other two segments of the story, but not before the narrative dissolves into back stories for both. It has no doubt been compared to Pulp Fiction in it’s delivery. The novel does a stellar job of weaving the current moment for the three different stories with the necessary back stories as well as keeping them thinly related to one another real time. That means nothing feels cheap, no coincidence that makes your teeth itch, not little tid bit kept from the reader past the second where they should know. It’s straight up, honest storytelling.

The same voice narrates each of the three stories and so there is a consistency of tone regardless of the age, sex, background of the character. More importantly, this allows for each character to be drawn not just from the perspective of the narrator and what the narrator knows, but from what the narrator can report about those around the central characters and their interactions. This is, for this reader, a huge part of the success of the novel. The development of each character in starts and stops from a myriad of viewpoints results in living breathing people on the page. Once you accomplish that, the rest is just easier. If characters are compelling, believable, relatable creations then everything they do becomes interesting even if it isn’t. And, of course, everything that happens here is interesting.

Each of the “main” characters spends a fair amount of time in their own head, and I can appreciate the Coma-esque moments that Sean in particular experiences in his panic. The interior monologue gives the reader a glimpse into the how and why easily avoidable events aren’t. It also heightens the thrill of the novel even though it makes some of the events even more predictable.

The best part of the novel though, are in these little, almost lost moments where the truly peripheral characters shine. One of the “main” characters is Rosa, an accomplished physician in Manila. Her father is deaf due to an accident. Amid the chaos that is the crescendo of her back story they share an exchange that is both heart-wrenching and grounding. She has a similar experience 30 years later in a park with an unnamed stranger. These moments exist for each of the “main” characters, making their lives seem more ordinary, but at the same time more valuable.

He’s done it again.

This review is part of the Cannonball Read series. For more of Jack’s reviews, check his blog, Read for Fun.

Dustin is the founder and co-owner of Pajiba. You may email him here, follow him on Twitter, or listen to his weekly TV podcast, Podjiba.

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