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Sunday, Dec. 7, 2008

A bend in time, disengagement and the life of the mind


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
BIRNBAUM: A Novel of Inner Space, by Michael Hoffman. Printed Matter Press, 2008, 321 pp., ¥2,000 (paper)

In writing about the process involved in the creation of this novel, Michael Hoffman observed that "Often as I wrote, I had no idea where this was going." This sounds a little like the literary process known in Japanese as zuihitsu (follow the brush), where inspiration and instinct lead, with the writer tagging on to see what happens next. The book, however, gives the impression of being remarkably well structured. Time itself, the "inner space" of the title, may be random, but Hoffman bends it to his purpose.

Besides the main character, Mort, inside whose cranium we sit for much of the novel, the author has assembled an interesting cast of characters: a Japanese daughter-in-law with a disturbing past, a disgraced private investigator, a fussy aunt who turns out to be a doctor, a prize-winning, fiction-writing granddaughter who works in a convenience store. And there is an interesting twist, or recoil, when we learn the truth about Mort's deceased wife. In examining his cast of characters, Hoffman reveals how difficult it is for these people to coexist, how people's outer radiance masks their inner torment.

Admirable as his previous works of fiction have been, I found myself picking them up in an agitated mental state, cognitive engines primed for some heady tractates. Though some of the chapters of "Birnbaum" have portentous titles like "God's Dream" and "The Great Matter of Life and Death," this work, Hoffman's most accessible to date, is more narrative- based and character-propelled than his other works of fiction.

The assumption that the older you get the closer you draw toward truth and contentment is blown apart. The symptoms of old age are not a neat ordering of life, a gentle incontinence, but a growing anxiety and indecision. Seventy-three-year-old Mort, a Canadian living in the fastnesses of Hokkaido, is a member of a family but also disengaged from it, a man who, on his own admission, grew up with an inner life rather than a social one. Orbiting around his own confinement, Mort finally breaks out, vanishing without a trace.

There is a long accounting of characters, both real and fictitious, who have turned their backs on their families and means of sustenance in search of new realities, or simply to buck inevitability. The Nepalese prince who later became the Buddha was one such person. A character in a Dashiell Hammett's novel "The Maltese Falcon" decides to counter the logic of inevitability by walking out on his family unannounced, after realizing that life is ruled by chance not reason.

Laura Brown, in Michael Cunningham's "The Hours," does the same. Disengagement becomes the theme of a substory in Paul Auster's "Oracle Night," where a character steps out of his life and marriage without so much as a farewell note. Seeking the "realm of roundness and wholeness," cherished by the wandering Japanese poet Santoka, Mort casts himself adrift but, like Mrs. Brown does in "The Hours," he rematerializes in the last pages of Hoffman's work.

Somewhere along the line, during his experiments with disengagement, Mort finds himself unable to account for 10 consecutive days of his life. Is the blank his amnesia, or other people's? The novel illustrates the short distance it takes for human beings, with all those strange chemicals sloshing around inside them, to cross over from bewilderment to disorientation, then to derangement.

Mort avoids that fate. Like Santoka, who "took ideas seriously and sought a place for them in his daily life," his wanderings, far from being aimless, celebrate the gift of freedom, and the cultivation of a life of the mind.



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