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Oliver Vice, forty-one, prominent philosopher, scholar, and art collector, is missing and presumed dead, over the side of Queen Mary 2.Troubled by his friend’s possible suicide, the unnamed narrator of Lawrence Douglas’ new novel launches an all-consuming investigation into Vice’s life history. Douglas, moving backward through time, tells a mordantly humorous story of fascination turned obsession, as his narrator peels back the layers of the Vice family’s rich and bizarre history. At the heart of the family are ...
Oliver Vice, forty-one, prominent philosopher, scholar, and art collector, is missing and presumed dead, over the side of Queen Mary 2.Troubled by his friend’s possible suicide, the unnamed narrator of Lawrence Douglas’ new novel launches an all-consuming investigation into Vice’s life history. Douglas, moving backward through time, tells a mordantly humorous story of fascination turned obsession, as his narrator peels back the layers of the Vice family’s rich and bizarre history. At the heart of the family are Francizka, Oliver’s handsome, overbearing, vaguely anti-Semitic Hungarian mother, and his fraternal twin brother, Bartholomew, a gigantic and troubled young man with a morbid interest in Europe’s great tyrants. As the narrator finds himself drawn into a battle over the family’s money and art, he comes to sense that someone—or perhaps the entire family—is hiding an unsavory past. Pursuing the truth from New York to London, from Budapest to Portugal, he remains oblivious to the irony of the search: that in his need to understand Vice’s life, he is really grappling with ambivalence about his own.
By the time we made it to the parking lot, we’d taken tentative strides toward sobriety. Winter in the past day had snuck up on us. I squinted into the sunlight, dagger sharp and empty of heat. A wicked wind made swirls and eddies of dust and cigarette butts. Oliver thrust his hands deeper into his pockets and bunched his shoulders, but his coat remained unzipped. He looked at me; his eyes, behind the formidable newscaster’s glasses, were tearing from the cold. A blast of wind made him nearly swallow his words. “Did I tell you that I was recently dumped by my therapist?”
I shook my head, suppressing a shiver.
“I started seeing him about two years ago, when Sophia and I got involved. He’s really an excellent therapist, smart and insightful, a dead ringer for Gene Wilder. But gradually he became so fed up with my endless frantic rehashing of the same problems, so dispirited by my compulsive tendency to seek advice which I then ignore or declare myself incapable of implementing, so perplexed by my penchant for self-examination without profitable end, and so alarmed by my inability or refusal to restrain my thoughts, which overheat and go nowhere, like bats flapping around a closed attic, that he recently began a session with the simple declaration, ‘I don’t think I’m helping you. I don’t think I’m capable of helping you.’ He apologized and we shook hands; I even tried to cheer him up—he did as good as job as anybody could have…”
Oliver smiled wanly and pointed a single finger toward his temple, not pistol-like, but as one might to a curious artifact in a museum: “Sick.”
1. In the opening chapter, the narrator confesses his initial aversion to Oliver Vice; “I’d met Oliver a dozen years earlier, and took an immediate dislike to him.” (p 17) Does this original opinion ever make you doubt his reliability as a narrator? As the story progresses, how would you characterize the narrator’s complicated relationship with Oliver?
2. The circumstances of both Sophia Baum’s death and Oliver’s disappearance from the Queen Mary 2 are ambiguous. How does the narrator’s inability to pinpoint the precise circumstances of these two losses affect his assessment of their lives? What conjectures does he make?
3. A common theme in The Vices is the act of appropriating true stories for literary creation. The narrator admits that his first novel is modeled on an acquaintance who, upon reading it, declared the book “an act of theft.” (p 165) The narrator concludes in retrospect that “writing about someone dear…is always part homage, part predation.” (p 165) Discuss this connection between art and reality, and the narrator’s decision to continue to use Oliver Vice’s story for his next book.
4. Authenticity is another motif in the novel. Why does the narrator initially suspect the Vice family’s art collection to be counterfeit? See Oliver’s letter to the narrator detailing the Pascin forgery—why does he decide to keep the painting, knowing it’s a fake? (p 217)
5. Look at specific passages in the book that describe Francizka. What kind of mother is she? What are her reasons for hiding the past from her children? Do these motivations make her a redeemable character?
6. The narrator hints from the beginning that he and Mel will eventually separate. What did you think of the scene when Oliver was staying at their house after Sophia’s death? (p 240) Were you surprised by Oliver’s behavior? Is Oliver the direct reason for their separation? What other factors play a part in the breakup?
7. The narrator can’t believe that Oliver is ambivalent about his biological father, and calls him “The philosopher of identity who has no idea who he is!” (p 181) When Olivia shares the story of Oliver’s father’s Holocaust survival and reveals their Jewish ancestry, a part of Oliver’s identity is revealed. (p 298) Examine this relationship between history and identity. Do you think Oliver knew that Francizka was hiding the past from him?
8. Mel says to the narrator, referring to Oliver: “You don’t want to write about him, you want to be him.” (p 245) Is there truth to Mel’s statement? Find passages that confirm or refute this observation.
9. After losing his mother and brother, Bartholomew seems to thrive, losing weight and even finding a girlfriend. The narrator observes, “I assumed her death would leave him undone, but Bart had undergone a remarkable change since I’d last seen him. At the funeral he carried himself with strength.” (p 329) What is the cause of this unexpected personality change? Was Bartholomew jealous of Oliver? Was his outward devotion to Francizka merely an act?
10. When the narrator travels to London, he observes Oliver and Jean’s unconventional arrangement firsthand, finally understanding the Oliver’s cryptic remark at their first outing: “Have you ever fallen in love with someone you’re not attracted to?” (p 27) Does Jean seem to accept the limits of their relationship? What do you think makes Oliver so desperate to stay with her, despite sabotaging his other relationships?
Posted August 17, 2011
I happen to know of Douglas' scholarly work - he's kind of a big deal among American historians of Holocaust trials - and so I picked this up out of casual interest in seeing what happens when an academic scholar tries his hand at imaginative literature. Usually, what happens isn't very good, since analytical gifts and narrative gifts are quite different and rarely cohabit the same mind. Well, this is the book that confounds the rule of thumb. To be sure, there is a scholarly flavor, or even armature, to this novel, since the protagonist, Oliver Vice, is a noted philosopher and tends to speak and write in a gnomic, even cryptic manner. But the narrator/observer is shrewdly presented as more or less a "regular guy," and his fascination with Vice, and his ambivalence as well, stand in for the reader's own, and allow for easy access to what might become in less able hands an all too esoteric world. Suffice it to say that there is more than a touch of Nabokov to The Vices - the Nabokov especially of Pale Fire, with its scholarly/obsessive narrator and its (typically Nabokovian) themes of doubling and mirroring. (btw, it is also very Nabokovian to have an unnamed narrator, the kind of thing that cleverly undermines a narrator's reliability and provides an interesting shock to the reader when he realizes it, say, 150 pages in.) But The Vices is less daunting than Nabokov can be. In a way, it reads like Pale Fire turned inside-out.. and leavened perhaps with a touch of modern British-style comedy of manners. I might have a few quibbles with this or that aspect of The Vices. But there really isn't anyone I've read lately who is doing what Douglas does in this novel.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.