The Vices

The Vices

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by Lawrence Douglas

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Douglas (The Catastrophist) delivers a probing and skillful examination of the conundrums of identity, with philosopher Oliver Vice providing the subject, and the unnamed narrator, Oliver's colleague and best friend, serving as the examiner. After opening with an account of 41-year-old Oliver's death by drowning on a transatlantic voyage aboard the Queen Mary 2 (accident or suicide?), the narrator describes Oliver's meteoric rise fueled by his book, Paradoxes of Self; his tenured appointment at Harkness College in western Massachusetts, where the two meet; his unusual family and unorthodox relationships with women. Almost all the "facts" the narrator knows of Oliver's life are either wrong or subject to various interpretations so that his identity always remains elusive and in flux. The repeated irony of Oliver and the narrator being mistaken for one another despite their dissimilar appearances is prelude to a masterfully kaleidoscopic shift that presents the reader with a stunning new vista. (Aug.)
From the Publisher
“The second novel by Lawrence Douglas gave me delight on every page. I’m always careful about calling something Nabokovian, mostly because I’ll see that in a review and read the book in question and it’s fine but not as good as Nabokov, you know? But this one is Nabokovian—there is no other word.” —Ed Park, New York Magazine, “The Year in Books”

The Vices…is the sharp, stylish, suspenseful tale of Oliver Vice, a charismatic philosopher and art collector, and the provincial academic who falls under his spell. More than a campus novel, it is an elegant parable about the allure of self-invention.” —Adam Kirsch, The New Statesman, “Books of the year 2011”

“Playful and profound…As dazzlingly constructed as it is limpidly told, The Vices is a duplicitous delight that feels at home in this age of YouTube, e-mail, and the myriad other ways we consume and connect in this world…Lawrence Douglas gives conclusive evidence that he’s the real thing.” —Ed Park, Bookforum

“Smart...always fascinating...The novel’s biggest concern is how we construct personal narratives that accommodate slippery and unsteady acts of memory.” — A.P.D. Lawrie, Times Literary Supplement

“In its deft exploration of the way identity, especially Jewish identity, is constructed and performed, The Vices does justice to its elegant Nabokovian inspiration.” —Adam Kirsch, Tablet Magazine
“A good summer read…Making literal the phrase ‘literary sleuthing,’ [The Vices] combines the genres of academic and mystery novel.” —The Buffalo News

“Douglas delivers a probing and skillful examination of the conundrums of identity…masterfully kaleidoscopic…[The Vices] presents the reader with a stunning new vista.” —Publishers Weekly
“An intriguing, thought-provoking exploration of a man desperately unhappy to be living his own life.” —Booklist
“Darkly comic…[Douglas] masterly crafts a family portrait, where the paint has cracked to reveal human truths.” —Royal Young,

“Douglas elaborates on the inherent tensions that make up the contested borders of identity…This mystery is deceptively philosophical and introspective.” —Library Journal

“This brilliant, funny book will appeal to lovers of Jewish fiction and those who hunger to unravel mysteries.” —ForeWord Reviews

“At its core a mystery, The Vices is a witty, provocative, and devilishly entertaining book. Sometimes philosophical, sometimes wildly comic, Lawrence Douglas’s latest novel plays yearning against satisfaction, prestige against authenticity, and, ultimately, the desire to be someone else against the difficulty of inhabiting self.” —Sabina Murray, author of The Caprices and Forgery

“Though The Vices unfolds the complexity of its whodunit with an appealing urbanity and wryness, its central virtue is the compassionate intelligence of its depiction of pain: the anguish and secret costs of self-reinvention, and in the face of history’s miseries and deceits, the unexpected consolations of uncertainty.” —Jim Shepard, author of Like You’d Understand, Anyway
“Crisply told and vigorously compelling. Douglas’s bright sense of humor camouflages but does not ultimately conceal his haunting story’s menacing undertow.” —Brad Leithauser, author of The Art Student’s War

“Charming and exquisite, The Vices is an urbane comedy imbued with the eccentric verve of a Wes Anderson film and the piquant nostalgia of Brideshead Revisted.  It’s also a gripping tale of fraud, compromise, and the inventive ways we survive the nightmare of history.” —Zachary Lazar, author of Sway

“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.” –Commonwealth Magazine

Product Details

Other Press, LLC
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Penguin Random House Publisher Services
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2 MB

Read an Excerpt

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.”

Meet the Author

Lawrence Douglas teaches at Amherst College. He is the author of the novel The Catastrophist (Other Press, 2006), a Kirkus Best Book of the Year, The Memory of Judgment (Yale University Press, 2001), a widely acclaimed study of war crimes trials; and coauthor of a book of humor, Sense and Nonsensibility (Simon & Schuster, 2004). His writing has appeared in the Washington Post, The New York Times Book Review, The Hudson Review, McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, and Harper’s. A regular contributor to the Times Literary Supplement, Douglas lives in Sunderland, Massachusetts.

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The Vices 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.