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Alex Garland's Sophomore Novel Is A Gripping Tale Of Urban Filipinos And The Fourth Dimension.

By Randall Holdridge

FEBRUARY 23, 1999: 

The Tesseract, by Alex Garland (Riverhead Books). Cloth, $24.95.

THE TESSERACT IS a thriller. Novelist Alex Garland sets the opening scene in a seedy Manila hotel room, where a young, nervous, drug-dazed ship's officer prepares to meet a legendarily ruthless mestizo gangster. The purpose of the meeting is to arrange protection for his English freighter against pirates in the South China Sea. Idly killing cockroaches while he waits, the officer reflects, "Everything weird was the bottom line." For instance, the eerie emptiness of the hotel, the spattered blood on the sheets, the patterned cigarette burns on the inoperative telephone, the metal disk screwed over the peephole--from the outside. Garland can really write, and the management of this opening makes the reader as edgy as the frightened sailor.

What happens next is a violent misunderstanding that seals the fates of the Englishman, the aristocratically pretentious ganglord, and some of the others in this complex cast. Their convergence emerges from an invisible inevitability. This inevitability--more or less understood and differentiated by each of the numerous puppets in this shadow play--is more or less the subject of The Tesseract, which is only masquerading as a thriller: Sometimes it's more, sometimes less.

Second novels are notoriously risky, and after the brilliant success of The Beach, Garland has a lot to prove. Not quite so compelling as its predecessor, The Tesseract is nonetheless an ambitious effort which is structurally elaborate and stylistically literary. Built to explore the divides between past and present, myth and reality, science and religion, silence and noise, rich and poor, cause and effect, the novel seeks to use a conceptual model from geometry--the hypercube, or tesseract--to establish a fundamental convergence of its plots and subplots.

To clinch the idea, Garland has composed a fragmented narrative structure which, through shifts in time, scene, and character, replicates a tesseract: the imaginary fourth-dimensional analog of a cube. Admirers of Catch-22 will appreciate this effect, although Garland's intentions are more demonstrably analytical and philosophical than Heller's artistically motivated (and more successful) tightening time spiral.

A reader could conceivably construct from folded paper a tesseract, if one could fold paper in four dimensions; this could then be labeled to show the relationships among events, characters, and ideas in the book. Adepts could possibly accomplish this feat on their computer screens. The implication is that a unity of personal histories and apparently unrelated incidents exists in the fourth dimension, which is--well, infinite and unimaginable. Very clever, really, if a bit labored.

While the novel's structure is a fascinating intellectual puzzle, the story packs a punch, too. In his creepy hotel room, the English sailor Sean tries unsuccessfully to calm his mounting paranoia. At the same moment, the sanguinary ganglord, Don Pepe, cruises toward their meeting sequestered behind the smoked glass of his silent Mercedes limo, insulated from the squalor of rush hour Manila which he, as a half-caste Spaniard, despises. His inept, sycophantic henchmen, armed to the teeth, muse to themselves about Don Pepe's famous temper and brutality. In layered flashbacks, Garland provides for each of these characters a personal history which predetermines the noise, smoke, and blood to come.

Across the city in a prosperous enclave, Rosa puts her children to bed, musing on the course of the tragic adolescent love affair which has brought her from a tropically paradisaical home village to her present state of regretful happiness among the teeming ruins of a modern Third World city. She squabbles with her live-in mother while she talks to her husband Sonny, who chats with her via car phone. Caught in the same rush hour traffic that delays Don Pepe, Sonny finds his return home from work further slowed when two street boys throw a handful of nails under the tires of his Honda.

The 13-year-old street boys often hang out near a Manila McDonald's, their entry barred by an armed guard assigned to keep up the "tone" of the franchise, inside which Sean earlier has eaten his last meal surrounded by a birthday party of "overweight rich kids with sulky faces and stripy sailor shirts, shouting at their nannies--and already groomed for a life in politics." By contrast, the plucky street kids, Vicente and Totoy, live deeply disturbed, even terrifying lives. Their histories are suggestive of the collapse of communal traditions in Philippine society. The dreams and fantasies of these appealing imps are conveyed through their relations with Alfredo, a psychologist who pays to tape-record snatches of their lives as part of a stalled research project. Brooding over the meaning of Vicente's dreams, Alfredo pokes at his own psychic wound--the suicide of his young wife. Or did he push her off the balcony of their high rise apartment?

The tension mounts until the paths of all these characters-in-motion converge violently against the backdrop of a smog-enhanced, blood-red sunset. Garland's portrait of Manila is a phantasmagoric labyrinth, strikingly achieved by delicate description and arresting metaphor. As in The Beach, the author shows he's a knowledgeable guide to Southeast Asia, and The Tesseract adds new depth by moving out of the "unspoiled" islet world of twenty-something Western adventure tourists, and into the indigenous lives of urban Filipinos.

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