The Tesseract by Alex Garland

I guess I should quit reading the blurbs and especially the review quotes written on the front and back covers and the first or last couple of pages of English language novels. Although my naivety is almost unlimited and I always readily believe that the novel I’m about to read is a shattering, heartrending, exceedingly well-written (etc.) work of fiction which digs deep into the human soul, it seems that the blurb-writers and reviewers writing in the English language have a very different idea about the meaning of these adjectives than I do. The cover of my copy of The Tesseract says, for instance, that this is a breathtaking novel and that the fates of the protagonists collide in a shattering finale. But even though The Tesseract is quite a good novel, it definitely didn’t take my breath away and I didn’t exactly consider the finale shattering – therefore, because I was naive enough to build my expectations on what I read on the cover, the novel proved to be a bit of a disappointment.

The novel is set in Manila and it tells three interconnected stories. The protagonists of the first story are the prominent members of the Manila underworld. Don Pepe, renown for his cruel and unflinching character, and his men are preparing to meet an Englishman, Sean. Perhaps a payoff is about to be staged, perhaps not – even though Sean notices a couple of ominous signs, this was not clear for me. Anyway, Sean makes a decision the consequences of which he foresees, still, he considers action preferable to inaction.

In the second story we meet Rosa, a doctor waiting for her husband to arrive home. But her husband is late: first he is delayed in a traffic jam, then two street kids puncture his tire so he has to stop to change it. In the meantime, Rosa tries to put her children to bed, then watches TV with her mother. The quiet evening is then disrupted by the sound of gunshots, and Rosa’s nice and safe suburb suddenly becomes the scene of an underworld payoff.

The third story is about two street kids, Vincente and Totoy who spend the evening together. First they puncture the tire of the car of a man stuck in a traffic jam, then they follow two gangsters who are themselves chasing a man first through the Manila ghetto and then through a nice suburb.

I guess it’s easy to see where these three stories interconnect and where the lives of all the characters who would have never met under normal circumstances collide. And I happen to like stories about seemingly unexpected meetings and about the role chance plays in the ways a life changes, but I wasn’t convinced by The Tesseract. To me it seems that the chance meetings in this novel are just those: chance meetings, and I don’t see any hidden meaning behind them; and the fact that the three stories in this novel finally connect, doesn’t make this book better or more special – despite the connections, I might as well have read three separate short stories.

Still, The Tesseract is not a bad novel. Just like in The Beach, Alex Garland again does a wonderful job depicting ominous deeds, dark emotions and a typical (at least for me, though I haven’t been there) Far Eastern atmosphere and way of life. And I liked two stories out of the three. Even though I couldn’t be bothered with the story of Don Pepe and all his gangster friends and I felt that I got to know to little about them to care about or feel for them, I didn’t have this problem with the other two stories. They also contain only sketches about the characters’ lives and a couple of memories from their past, but in these stories these were enough for me to be able to picture the minds and hearts of the characters and to be able to feel for them. And I found the story of the teenager Rosa and her lover, Lito, and the only gently hinted-at tragedy of the scholar who records the dreams of street kids truly heart-wrenching.

Because of details like these, I’m glad I read this novel (it’s not too long, anyway), but I wouldn’t say that The Tesseract left me speechless. And this novel won’t become one of my constantly re-read books, unlike The Beach.

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