Tuesday, August 30, 2011
REVIEW: The Vices, by Lawrence Douglas
What a tangled web we weave...
In The Vices, everyone has a secret. They have secrets from their secrets, and secrets from themselves. Oliver Vice is dead. He fell of the side of a cruise ship, probably a suicide, although there isn't much about Oliver's life that would suggest a reason to end it. He's rich, good-looking and successful, an admired philosopher and published writer with a secure position at a prestigious college. And he has one stunning woman in his life after another.
Those family secrets, though, they do have a way of festering. Oliver has a number of vices- as does his family- and our narrator, a clean cut guy with more quotidian problems, makes it his mission to ferret them out, come what may. Voyeur-style, the narrator bears witness to Oliver's peccadilloes and relationships, his accomplishments and his failures. An outsider to Oliver's world, an American Jew dipping his toe in European-Christian high society, the narrator is awestruck, and besotted.
There's a lot to hold his interest. Oliver's mother, Francizka, is a glamorous, domineering matriarch with a somewhat unsavory relationship with her son Bartholomew ("Mew"), Oliver's fraternal twin. Her home is immaculate and filled with valuable treasures but it's an open question how many of them will turn out to be fakes and forgeries. She worships her sons, who, for all their potential and brilliance, always seem to come up short in the way of actual accomplishments. She tells stories about herself and her first husband that don't withstand scrutiny and seems perpetually engaged in the wheedling of money from someone or something else to herself. I could read an entire book devoted to this fascinating, toxic and contradictory woman.
As for Oliver, he has a bizarrely chaste relationship with a woman named Jean whom he visits periodically in the company of whomever else he happens to be dating. His sad affair with one, poor Sophia, is the closest thing to normal this emotionally vacant man will ever know. He even manages to disrupt the narrator's own marriage to the very conventional Melissa without anyone being quite able to say why or what happened. After a brilliant start, his career founders, and his death just raises more questions, and more ghosts.
All in all, The Vices adds up to a colorful, suspenseful tale of a wealthy family living on lies and little else. I flipped the pages eagerly as the narrator's search reached its conclusion; I won't say the final reveal was predictable but I can't say it was a big surprise, either, given everything that comes ahead of it. Oliver himself struck me as somewhat drab and dysfunctional, unworthy of the fascination the narrator has for him. I felt like the narrator was compensating for his own dull life by investing so much in this strange and remote family, whose truths, while tragic, are made of the sad remains of the old world trying to escape to the new. Douglas has crafted an intriguing, fascinating hall of mirrors, an elegant, entertaining literary suspense about the tragedies of the 20th century and its lingering aftermath.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.