The Tesseract , by Alex Garland. Riverhead Books, 273 pages, $24.95.
O.K., so what’s a tesseract? No, it’s not expensive Italian flooring, nor is it the new Meredith Monk performance piece. It is, as we learn about 20 pages from the end of this complex and intriguing novel, a four-dimensional object-a hypercube-which, when unraveled and splayed out for those of us doomed to live in only three dimensions, looks like an extended crucifix. “A hypercube unravels to a tesseract. Four dimensions unravel to three,” as Alex Garland, the author of The Beach , the 1996 Gen-X-meets- Lord-of-the-Flies cult favorite, not so helpfully explains. “A hypercube is a thing you are not equipped to understand. You can understand only the tesseract.” Actually, I can’t understand the tesseract, either, but no matter: For all the abstruse and off-putting sci-fi overtones of its title, this subtle fiction has nothing to do with the higher math and a lot to do with good old-fashioned storytelling about big, old-fashioned themes-the mysteries of love and violence and death, the strange workings of fate.
But then, Mr. Garland, a 28-year-old Englishman, is not what you’d call timid. The Beach may have looked like little more than a slight, ironic comment on backpacker culture and a certain kind of naïve turista colonialism (its characters were aimless, able-bodied, Caucasian twentysomethings of assorted nationalities looking for a “perfect beach” in Thailand), but it was, in essence, a psychologically and anthropologically acute retelling of the oldest story of them all: the expulsion from Paradise. (Once the backpackers find the beach, with its seductive promise of a cooperative, Edenic existence totally free from want, things begin to go wrong-subtly at first, and then catastrophically.)
It’s not hard to see why The Beach was so enthusiastically received: Mr. Garland tells a good, straightforward story, and he writes with great polish and superior control; so much control, in fact, that, like his characters, you don’t really realize what’s going on until it’s too late. There you are, reading along, enjoying the sparkling Southeast Asian scenery and the thought of those endless, neatly planted rows of marijuana, and next thing you know people are being disemboweled.
In the new book, Mr. Garland returns to Southeast Asia, with a story set in the Philippines; in just about every other way, however, The Tesseract marks a significant departure from, and growth since, The Beach . As its title suggests, this work is structurally complicated, both convoluted and allusive. Like a tesseract, it is composed of three dimensions that, in the end, inevitably imply a larger and more significant fourth.
The three dimensions are three ostensibly unrelated narratives that turn out, of course, to be connected. An Englishman, Sean, flees for his life from two mobsters; a middle-class Philippine doctor named Rosa puts her two children to bed while daydreaming about her first love; and two street kids, Vincente and Totoy, recite their dreams, in return for money, to Alfredo, a wealthy Philippine doctoral student. The book is so cunningly constructed that you can’t discuss any of these three narratives in too much detail without giving away the connections; suffice it to say that each story is delicately observed and ingeniously linked to the others not merely by the contrivances of plot-a final scene that manages to get all the characters into one place-but also by the tiniest, seemingly casual elements (songs, names, numbers).
But the most attractive thing about Mr. Garland’s novel is that despite its “exotic” setting, it completely avoids the wide-eyed, National Geographic , aren’t-the-natives-interesting school of travel writing. Whether in his laconic descriptions of Rosa’s childhood in a rural fishing village, where late-summer typhoons “turn coconuts into cannonballs,” or in his equally cool but vivid imagining of a budding mobster’s businesslike, rather exacting sadism (“Hands … I said hands. Not hand”), the author, who has lived in the Philippines for extended periods, isn’t show-offy or self-congratulatory with his details. Instead, he pulls off the remarkable feat of making everything seem natural and familiar to you, too. The transparency of Mr. Garland’s writing looked dangerously like thinness in The Beach , given that novel’s simple, linear form; here it serves extremely well, allowing you to keep your focus amid all the sudden jumps in time frame and point of view. (It allows Mr. Garland to focus more, too. This book is filled with characters more textured than anyone in The Beach . Even the mobster’s four henchmen, briefly encountered, are vivid, present; they have histories.)
The Tesseract ‘s Philippine setting is crucial. Here, Mr. Garland can make certain of his larger points-about people’s susceptibility to certain kinds of control (social, familial) and to obvious kinds of class oppression-in a way that would be difficult, if not impossible, if the novel were set in London or New York. The arbitrary cruelty of a powerful plantation owner, for instance, would be hard to translate to a Western setting.
What connects the book’s three discrete episodes is, in fact, the sense that there are powers controlling our lives which we feel but can’t quite see; that human motivation and action, irrational as they may be, somehow conform to vast unseen symmetries-of psychology, destiny, coincidence, whatever. Hence, a petty criminal who spends the entire novel fleeing death suddenly, almost on a whim, offers his life to save an innocent woman; the child of a woman forced to break off her engagement to a deformed boyfriend is deformed in precisely the same way as the abandoned lover; a rich man who seeks to impose meaning on the (possibly made-up) dreams of tragic children is unable to grasp the (possibly very obvious) reasons for his own life’s greatest tragedy. Only when you can see the whole pattern-when, as it were, all three parts are placed side by side-can you see the irony, get the joke. This is the “fourth dimension.”
In novels, this sense of the underlying coherence of things is reflected in what, back in high school English, we used to call “plot.” I wondered, as I got to the end of Mr. Garland’s novel, whether some kind of embarrassment about anything so old-fashioned led him to invoke, unnecessarily, a symbol as abstruse as the “tesseract.” All he’s really talking about is plot, Fate, the way things just are and always have to be-things that he seems already to know a lot about. The tesseract stuff sticks out as being fussy and inauthentic, “writerly.”
Mr. Garland’s shiny prose can be so pleasurable in itself that I’ve wondered whether those of us who are enthusiastic about him (J.G. Ballard, in blurb mode, declares him the new Graham Greene) aren’t perhaps reading too much into him. I worry that Mr. Garland’s technical proficiency, the way he has of smoothing out his sentences and story lines and tying them into glossy bows, makes it just look as if it all adds up to something significant about fate and human nature-makes it just look like he’s in control, when in fact he’s just lucky. But after two novels that left me haunted, I’m willing to give this original and ambitious writer the benefit of the doubt. “We can see the thing unraveled, but not the thing itself,” one character says to another at the end of The Tesseract . I’m fairly sure that this book, like its author, is the thing itself.