Brisk, utterly readable, yet with philosophical drifts drawing from Zeno to Kant to Baudrillard, F is a powerful, unassuming novel exploring the contours of absence and the hallucination of truth, while refreshing the family novel with wonderfully drawn characters and plots awash in humor and irony. It is an unusual novel with familiar faces. —Jason DeYoung
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway
$25.95, 256 pages
F is “for people who don’t trust family novels,” Daniel Kehlmann said recently in an interview. F is for fate and family and father and fake and fraud and forgery, too. Brisk, utterly readable, yet with philosophical drifts drawing from Zeno to Kant to Baudrillard, F is a powerful, unassuming novel exploring the contours of absence and the hallucination of truth, while refreshing the family novel with wonderfully drawn characters and plots awash in humor and irony. It is an unusual novel with familiar faces.
Daniel Kehlmann is famous in Germany, roughly a wünderkind, with something akin to the American readership of Donna Tart. His first novel was publish when he was twenty-two, while he was working on a doctoral thesis on the sublime in the works of Immanuel Kant. His novel Measuring the World (2005) became the best selling novel in Germany since Patrick Süskind’s Perfume (1985). Just thirty-nine, he’s written five other books, many of which have been translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway, including Me and Kaminski and Fame. But he doesn’t have the readership in America that he might deserve. The superb F might change that.
Broken into six sections, each part of F operates both as its own story and within the context of the novel. The opening scene sets up the family dynamics. Arthur Friedland is taking his twin son’s—Ivan and Eric—from a current marriage, and an older son, Martin, from a previous marriage, to see a traveling hypnotist show. Arthur is something of a stay-at-home dad who writes novels no publisher will take. He has a particular itch for quoting Nietzsche and a child-like disposition for arguing with his sons about animated movies and Yoda’s speech patterns.
The boys are set at odds by marriages and brotherhood. Martin is clearly intelligent but shy with his younger half-brothers whom he looks upon distrustfully because of their close bond. Eric, already at thirteen years old, is well-aware that his father is pitied by others for his failure and unemployment, and has resolved not to be like Arthur. Ivan is steeped in insecurities, worries about talent and intellectual gifts, and wonders how people without them “put up with their existence.” These opening pages subtly portray a fractured family, members who don’t know one another very well.
At the show, the hypnotist will call Arthur to the stage. Arthur will tell him that he cannot be hypnotized. But something happens, because after the show, Arthur will leave his family. In fact, he leaves them so swiftly, Martin is left stranded.
When we next meet the brothers, it’s some twenty-five years. Each brother gets his own section in F, and each section takes place on one day—8 August 2008. Martin is the first brother examined. Overweight and obsessed with the Rubik’s cube (an obsession he’s carried from youth), he has gone into the priesthood, yet his reason is too strong, and he’s not entirely certain he has faith in God. Eric has pursued money, but has committed fraud through a pyramid scheme, and he’s on the verge of being caught by his biggest investor. Lastly, Ivan has become a painter, who begins to paint pictures for a mediocre artist, yet Ivan adds innovative turns into the artist’s work, and this strange form of forgery grows the older painter’s reputation and makes him famous. With patient characterization and expansive narrative, Klehmann dramatizes each son’s fakery, each man’s simulation of their profession. The irony the brothers share is the belief that others—colleagues, family—can “see through them,” see their dishonesty and their small “wounded” selves. Of course, their sham is too convincing, their fake is too good.
Moving in and out of the novel’s story lines is Arthur who since leaving his family has gone on to write a number of successful, experimental novels, one so bleak and powerful as to cause a few of its readers to commit suicide. Whether it was the hypnotist’s doing or Arthur’s true character, we are never made privy to why it is he left his family. The hypnotist holds that a person under hypnosis will never do something he or she doesn’t want to do, but it’s a strange moment in the book, full of uncertainties and doublespeak, when the Great Linderman puts his hand on Arthur’s shoulder and says: “This is an order, and you’re going to follow it because you want to follow it, and you want to because I’m ordering you, and I’m ordering you because you want to me to give you the order. Starting today, you’re going to make an effort. No matter what it cost.” The “effort” referred to is Arthur’s ambition to be a novelist, the profession he tells the Great Linderman he’d failed at doing.
Perhaps he wanted the order, perhaps not? But unlike his sons, Arthur doesn’t have the same pretensions—he is not faking. Later in the book Martin will confront him about it. “Obligations,” Arthur says, “we invent them when required. Nobody has them unless they decide they have them.” Still, he will tell Martin that he had to learn to live with the guilt and regret of leaving.
Inspired by the work of Roberto Bolaño and magical realism, the novel acknowledges without examination a supernatural or otherworldly presence within our own. Martin is convinced that the devil attacks him on the subway; Eric sees cloven feet disappear around hedges; Ivan is met several times by different people trying to tell him his future. Ivan’s experience with the supernatural is particularly interesting and delves into the book’s more metaphysical issue. Is fate true or an illusion? F’s response in this instance is that it is true, as the universe is trying to tell one of the twins “not to get involved with the three,” which turns out to be the novel’s wicked subplot. As we are told in the beginning, the twins lose track of which one is which. The universe, however, doesn’t know the boys accidentally switched places (Eric and Ivan might not know it either) and thus the message goes to the wrong brother, and for one of the twins life ends tragically.
Although the central questions of the novel are the same ones we’ve been dealing with since our beginnings, F handles its material with originality and modern sensibilities, offering responses to the questions about fate and meaning, but not real answers. As Kehlmann himself has said: “Novels are all about ambivalence.” While F is built on traditional plot mechanics, it does have some experimental turns. For example in the third section of the novel, we have a short story written by Arthur about a linage of fathers. Working from his own generation back to the Middle Ages, it operates like the information dump found in traditional family novel. While Kehlmann might be satirizing the tradition, the actual story (which does disregard traditional plot structure) tells something far more horrifying about our lives—when they are all written out, they’re all unhappy in the end, that if our ancestors hadn’t survived there would be “others in our place, others who regarded their existence as inevitable.”
Yes, something of Tolstoy’s comes to mind here, but this is also integral to the novel’s overall ambiguity, and Kehlemann’s storytelling. Fate is part-and-partial with the sublime and ineffable. As Ivan asks late in the book: “What if you could read the universe? Perhaps that’s what is behind the terrifying beauty of things: we are aware that something is speaking to us. We know the language. And yet we understand not one word.” (By the way, the only ancestor in Arthur’s story who lived contentedly was a man who accepted that God had sent him on a “mysterious path” which he walked without complaint.)
Daniel Kehlmann said that with F he wanted to write a character-driven novel, a novel for which he had no clear destination for, just a general notion of wanting to write about three brothers and their various social milieus. The success of F lies partly in the fact that it is one of those rare philosophical novels that doesn’t shackle its story to a preconceived theory but sets its characters adrift with their own conflicts and demons, allowing them to have their own life-altering insights, even if those insights are contested, if not made fun of, by the other characters. Told slowly with gradual assemblage of deceptive details which are revealed in the end to be masterfully constructed, F is the best kind storytelling, filled with doubles and switchbacks, it constantly playing with what we know and what we think we know to bare witness to how many lives are built on that shakiest of foundations: faith.
Jason DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including REAL: Regarding Arts & Letters, Corium, The Austin Review (web), The Los Angeles Review, New Orleans Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.