Lawrence Douglas’s new novel The Vices starts off with a crackerjack first paragraph:

On July 18, 200—, at 18:00 GMT, the Queen Mary 2 left Southampton with 2,912 passengers and roughly half as many crew. She arrived at the Brooklyn dockyards on the morning of July 24 with 2,911 passengers. In a brief wire service piece, the New York Times identified the missing passenger as “Oliver Vice, 41, a professor of philosophy at Harkness College in western Massachusetts.” He was also my closest friend, and remained so, even after he ruined my marriage.

 Douglas, a professor of jurisprudence at Amherst College and the author of one previous novel, redeems the promise of this first paragraph: for most of this book, he delivers a genuine old-fashioned highbrow entertainment—a witty, urbane, intercontinental, Wittgenstein-quoting mystery that is at its heart not so much a whodunit as a whowuzthat or maybe (at its most Wittgensteinian) a what-is-knowing-anyway.

This is a book in which the wrinkles on one character’s face are described as “Audenesque,” an aspect of another’s personality is said to be “Kantian,” and a third character is said to look “like Nabokov.” Samuel Beckett is quoted at length and references are made to Spinoza, and along with the discourses on Wittgenstein we are treated to the life history of the painter Jules Pascin. Yet for all its highfalutin airs, The Vices is most successful when Douglas carries his learnedness lightly. This is at heart a comic novel, and it’s at its best when it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

The book is full of game-playing: there are matches of chess and Ping-Pong, some magic tricks and sexual jousting, and one altogether too real faculty party in which colleagues compete to see who has a better command of trivia about the early-1970s Rolling Stones (as if the one true measure of manliness were the ability to name all the studio players on Goats Head Soup). But the central struggle in this novel is between its unnamed narrator, a novelist, and his hero, Oliver Vice, the philosopher in that first paragraph who jumped (or fell? or was pushed?) overboard. They compete over not just women and chess, but the construal of reality. Oliver Vice is the mystifier and lover of mystery; he is uncertain what a human self truly is, while the novelist narrator is more of a straight storyteller and solver of mysteries.

In the aftermath of Oliver’s death, the narrator examines the puzzle of his friend, and in order to solve this puzzle, sorts through the history of their friendship and the history of the Vice family. We meet Oliver’s enormous, slightly imbecilic brother, Bartholomew, who wears a Hitler mustache (“Bart says he’s not trying to imitate anyone, he just likes the way it looks”) and lives with his mother, and has a bedroom full of statues of Churchill and toy Wehrmacht tanks. We also meet Oliver’s septuagenarian mother. (“‘I always adored the cashmeres from Chanel,’ said Francizka. A lit cigarette dangled from the corner of her mouth.”) She wears short dresses that reveal her garters, and while she acts the haughty Hungarian aristocrat, she has two stepsons who are bearded, black-wearing Hassidim.

Francizka claims that Oliver’s father, Victor Vice, was an English aristocrat. The Vices’ East Side apartment is full of Kokoschkas and antiques. Looking around it, the narrator suspects something nefarious in the family’s past—perhaps a trade in art Nazis stole from Jews. And this strange and complex family is all part of the seductiveness of the brilliant, handsome, womanizing Oliver, a man as exemplary in his suffering as he is in his choice of cuff-links. Oliver’s most famous book is called Paradoxes of the Self, in which he writes: 

Past experience—traumatic or not—cannot be understood as a cause of changes to one’s identity, but rather, as an occasion for such changes. Experience is no more than the post hoc explanation we offer to make sense of what a person has become. It is not a trigger that sends a bullet on a clear path. It is a lit match whose smoke unfurls and twists and obscures.

 Vice chides the narrator for his earnestness and sexual conservatism, not to mention his quaint belief in poetic justice.

As long as Oliver is on the scene, the book speeds along merrily from Massachusetts to Manhattan to London and back, from an auction house to a sex club to a luxe mental hospital, all of it very glamorous and somewhat twisted and wickedly smart. But when Oliver is gone—once the narrative time of the novel catches up to the first paragraph, and the novelist narrator is left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of his hero’s death—the book loses steam.

In the last several chapters, the novel’s central argument, between Oliver’s indeterminacy and the narrator’s need for closure, tilts toward the narrator, who is something of a cipher. Postmortem discoveries fall heavily upon him. We learn that the name Vice is an Anglicism of German-Jewish Weiss, that Oliver’s parents were both Holocaust survivors, and that Oliver’s father (a suicide) made his fortune after the war as a desperate, depressed art forger. The book ends with the novelist-narrator placing stones on his friend’s grave in acknowledgement of the truth of his sad and suffering ancestry.

Some readers may well enjoy this intrusion of solemnity. Not I. And I object to it not on Wittgensteinian but on Seinfeldian grounds—I’m not demanding that this novel stick to postmodern indeterminacy, I just liked the book for its comedy. So let me here refer to that great philosopher of aesthetics: Jerry Seinfeld famously banished from his sitcom what used to be called “the turn,” the moment when the quick back-and-forth zing of one-liners gave way to sentimentality. By banishing the emotional reveal, he injected into the ticky-tack form a little bit of the sangfroid of a 1920s drawing-room comedy—the very kind of comedy in which a character like Oliver Vice would fit most comfortably.

Douglas the novelist seems split between Oliver’s sangfroid and his narrator’s earnest yearning, and 280-odd pages into the book, he calls the fight for the loser—as if in the construction of a brilliant helium balloon, he decided that what he really needed was a little bit of lead. I liked The Vices best as a sparkling, witty, smart-set comedy, the kind where human tragedy is best faced with sexy repartee, fine cuff links, and a game of Ping-Pong.

Published in the 2012-02-24 issue: 

Gabriel Brownstein, associate professor of English at St. John’s University, is the author of two works of fiction. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Apt. 3W (W. W. Norton & Co.) won the PEN/Hemingway Award in 2002. His novel The Man from Beyond (W. W. Norton & Co.) was a New York Times Book Review Editor’s Choice, and one of Booklist’s Top 10 Historical Novels in 2005.

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