Arthur Friedland, the novelist inside Daniel Kehlmann’s F, wants to “write a book that would be a message to a single human being . . . so that nobody aside from this one person could decode it, and this very fact paradoxically would make the book a high literary achievement.” A game for a single reader! Even game master Nabokov wrote for two, his wife and son. F is a fictional game from its multi-meaning title to its competition among three first-person narrators to its enigmatic final word, but the game can be played by just about anyone — and it’s a game that critiques the ugly penetration of game playing into areas of contemporary life that should be sacrosanct. One of Friedland’s three sons, who are the novel’s main characters, is a Catholic priest who competes in tournaments timing contestants’ solutions of the Rubik’s Cube. But it is not the kind of game Kehlmann has in mind, because working the Cube is purely functional. The permutations of the Cube do not elicit belief, which is a central theme of F, whose title may stand for “faith” among other words that begin with f. And a Rubik’s Cube can be solved, its chaos of colors reduced to a simple order. Kehlmann’s novel can’t be solved, though you can apprehend the moves in his game and mull the questions it poses.
Martin Friedland becomes a priest and dispenses sacraments to the faithful but only pretends to believe in God. One of his twin brothers, Ivan, wants to be an original painter but becomes an art forger, passing off his work as that of an older painter. The other twin, Eric, is a money manager who plunders and then fakes his clients’ accounts. All are self-conscious game players, soliciting belief from others in what the brothers suspect or know is fraudulent — another f-word.
When the boys were adolescents, their father took them to a performance by “The Great Lindemann,” a hypnotist who assures Arthur “It’s all a game” but gets Arthur to believe he wants to leave his family. That night he does, and the sons don’t see him for many years. But they all discuss his first novel, My Name Is No One, either a “merry experiment and thus the pure product of a playful spirit or . . . a malevolent attack on the soul of every person who reads it,” which could also be extreme descriptions of F. My Name Is No One, the title of which recalls Odysseus’ punning game with the Cyclops, has three parts: a conventional but discrepancy-riddled bildungsroman about “F”; a physics- and neurology-based argument against the notion of stable selfhood; and the return of “F” as a man “good for nothing except empty mind games.” Under the novel’s influence, four readers commit suicide, and Friedland becomes famous.
Two questions recur as Arthur’s sons reach their late thirties in a country that’s not identified but has a lot of citizens with Germanic names. Did Arthur’s abandonment cause his sons’ attraction to and repulsion from authority? Did his writings strip them of belief in morality? In the first-person narrations of each son, Kehlmann provides personal details that can be read psychologically and philosophical arguments that can be mused upon abstractly. Martin is physically unattractive and sexually awkward, spends a lot of time with his mother, and finds social refuge in the priesthood. Ivan is gay and worries about the effect of his orientation on his twin. Eric spent some time as a youth in a sanitarium and appears to be bipolar and manic in the present of the novel, which is 2008. Kehlmann supplies enough specifics to create a modicum of belief in these characters as people. At the same time, he presents his characters as figures in an allegory of nihilistic Civilization — the Nietzsche-influenced Arthur Friedland — and its Discontents, the sons who would like to displace or replace him but cannot. The characters think about trompe l’oeil paintings that look different according to the viewer’s perspective. In the game of F, now you see the Friedlands, now you don’t.
Kehlmann adds a historical dimension to his psychological and philosophical ambiguities with an Arthur Friedland short story, entitled “Family,” that is included in the novel. The story traces back in half-page vignettes the lives of a family’s fathers, most of whom die in wars or accidents or from diseases that seem to prove Hobbes correct that human life is “nasty, brutish, and short.” But with this story Kehlmann may show novelist Friedland overreaching in his pessimism, for it is difficult to believe one family could suffer every sling and arrow of the outrageous fortune that besets them. In addition, although one of Arthur’s sons dies young in an almost accidental act of violence, the other two brothers manage to muddle through their failures. And near the novel’s end, even Arthur earns some empathy when he takes an interest in his only grandchild and saves her from the funhouse. Despite all of the characters’ disavowals of conventional morality and the novel’s resistance to traditional narrative, F has something like a humane and happy ending. Its last word is “Faith”; it’s not a Rubik’s Cube solution, but it is a resolution.
Or maybe not. Characters seem to think that ending is due to Fate, another f-word emphasized late in the novel with a capital F. What there is of plot moves by misplaced phone calls, confused identities (Eric and Ivan are identical in appearance, several minor characters are named Ron), and coincidences, some occurring on the same August day in 2008, so chance is more likely (unless chance is another name for fate). But Martin believes the Church is a godlike Fate for him, and Eric believes the worldwide economic meltdown exists to save him from criminal prosecution, so they are comforted and optimistic about the future. But readers of F know more than the Friedland sons. They, as well as their kinder, gentler father at the end, are “fated” to do what they do and believe what they believe by Kehlmann, the First and Final Cause in this book that frequently delves into theology and ontology for conundrums about human freedom. Readers of realistic fiction may want to believe that character is fate and that characters take over a story and dictate their own plots, but game master Kehlmann suggests those beliefs are wishful thinking.
All fiction is like the ancient Lying Cretan paradox attributed to Epimenides, the Cretan who said, “All Cretans are liars.” Novels that pretend not to be lies try to mesmerize readers. Ivan says that all art “was trying to be hypnotic.” F and Kehlmann’s three other novels that have been translated into English admit they are lies and yet still manage to elicit varying degrees of belief and affect. Oddly, the books seem honest for admitting they are games. But are the novels “high literary achievements” or novelty acts like “The Great Lindemann”? Born in 1975, Kehlmann was widely published and acclaimed at a very early age in Germany. All of his novels in English are about — one more f-word — fame. His most accomplished, Measuring the World, features two ample historical characters who give ballast and balance to Kehlmann’s narrative play. By comparison, the characters of F, while realistic enough, are truncated. The scientists of Measuring the World are intellectually advanced, highly achieved, and complex figures. In F Kehlmann appears to be cherry-picking the surface of contemporary fraudulence, especially in his Ponzi man, Eric, who receives the most detailed attention. The priest and artist seem to be included to fill out a triptych of guilty game players. F feels somewhat overdetermined and underdeveloped, abstractly true and formally intriguing but not passionately felt.
Measuring the World made Kehlmann world famous: it was a huge bestseller in Germany and was translated into numerous languages. I hope that in the future — these f-words keep recurring — Kehlmann, not yet forty and the author of other books not yet translated, will slow down and bear down as he did in Measuring. I know he’s not writing for me, and I’m not asking him to compose another historical novel, but I want his next work to be like the teeter-totter of Measuring the World. Some of the time readers of that novel are in thoughtful equipoise, other times up in the air with the author’s ingenious inventions and then down on the ground with the novel’s weighty factuality, up and down, balanced, up and down, whee and whoa. It’s a childish game, of course, but not such a bad model for a Lying Cretan.