by Alex Garland
Book Review by Hal Jacobs
A shabby hotel room in a rundown part of Manila Bay. Wet stains on the road glow red as the sun drops from the sky. Men chase each other through dark Manila streets. Two homeless boys scatter nails on the road. A grandmother watches her beloved ER on television. The smell of a dead pig, bloated by the sea. The pain of first love. A child's deformed chest. Blood everywhere.
These are the pieces of the story that Alex Garland tells in "The Tesseract." Garland, a 28-year-old British writer, showed promise with his first novel, The Beach, earning praise from J.G. Ballard and comparisons to Graham Greene and Hemingway. That novel is currently getting the Hollywood star treatment in the hands of leading man Leonardo DiCaprio and director Danny Boyle (Trainspotting). In his second novel, Garland delivers a richer story with the ease of a true craftsman.
The novel covers a few hours during one evening in the Philippine city of Manila Bay. "Everything weird was the bottom line." A young British seaman waits in the Hotel Patay to meet up with a South China Sea pirate boss and his crew. Meanwhile, in a nearby suburb, a young professional woman occupies herself with domestic chores: putting the kids to bed, washing dishes, humoring her mother. In the dark streets between the "ghost hotel" and the manicured front lawns, the woman's husband becomes an easy target for two homeless boys.
The novel is named after a tesseract, a four-dimensional object, a hypercube, unraveled to three dimensions. What this means for some readers is that Garland has written a literary puzzle, burying clues for game-minded folks to sniff out and discuss among themselves. What this means for the characters is that their lives steadily unravel until they meet at the end of a brutal chase.
What's so refreshing about Garland, besides his exotic locations and incredible sense of timing, is his clear, direct language. Take this scene in which the British sailor lights up a cigarette and observes something peculiar about his hotel room.
Odd, nicotine. At the moment Sean had lit up, he'd been gazing vacantly into space. One drag on the cigarette and his gaze zoned straight to the peephole - straight like a zoom lens, nicotine clarity. The peephole was blocked.
Or the young professional woman recalling her adolescent crush on a local fishing boy.
Lying awake, Rosa became aware of her bed. She'd been sleeping on the same wooden boards for the last six years, and boards of similar dimensions for the years before that - but now she was aware of them. They felt small and hard, and they creaked whenever she shifted her position.
Garland started out drawing comic strips. His father, Nicholas Garland, is a well-known cartoonist, so perhaps he learned simple language, strong visuals, and quick editing at his dad's knee the same way Ken Griffey Jr. learned from his old man how to hit homeruns. There's a young, serious, masculine air about Garland's style. His story isn't weighed down by special effects or an inventory of personal minutia that slowly builds over hundreds of pages to some distant pay off.
The Tesseract moves along with purpose and suspense, sometimes gliding back into a character's past to explore a moment that adds weight to the present, cutting away before things slow down or become predictable. This is Young Guys' Fiction. Fiction that drives forward and doesn't stop to ask directions. Fiction that keeps the interior neat - at times, perhaps, too neat - while the driver keeps an eye on the cars and scenery speeding past him.
Either The Beach or The Tesseract could fit equally well in a traveler's backpack or a young executive's briefcase. Garland writes with sophistication about exotic lands where misery and beauty live side by side - destinations you'd like to visit, or have returned from. Instead of honing his prose in graduate student writing workshops, Garland gives the impression of living in the Southeast Asian streets he writes about, while avoiding the diseases of modern civilization: cynicism, sentimentality, prurience and terminal hipness. From his perspective, the locals are far more interesting than the young British slacker. The history, complexity and day-to-day realities of Manila Bay are more gripping than an American television show about employees in a stressed-out hospital emergency room.
The only weak point in the book is, fortunately, also the briefest. There's a doctoral student afflicted with J.D. Salinger disease - spiritual numbness - who is dropped in so that he can interact with street kids. In a nightmare this enticing, the last person you want to see is a burned-out psychology student.
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from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Sunday, March 28, 1999