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  • Published: 19 March 2018
  • ISBN: 9780143790921
  • Imprint: Penguin
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 624
  • RRP: $19.99

Seven Types of Ambiguity


It is quite well understood that a clinically depressed person will show little, if any, interest in constructive activity concerning future events or outcomes. In this respect, Simon has only flirted with depression in its definitive or clinical form. But if that is all that depression required, then I could say without much hesitation that Simon has always been, other than for short periods, too involved in things to be clinically depressed. William really knows very little about what’s on his son’s mind. What he and many people don’t understand is that there is more to depression than a sometimes overwhelming feeling of inadequacy and hopelessness and profound sadness. When people are depressed they are sometimes very, very angry. They are not just quietly miserable. They can be filled with great passion.

Simon was sitting on a chair under a sun umbrella in a large well-cared-for garden with an inground swimming pool in the centre and birches and firs along the perimeter. He got up and we shook hands and introduced ourselves. I was struck by his clean handsomeness and by his calm. One rarely meets anyone who makes a better first impression than Simon. Do you remember? He thanked me for coming, saying he realised such a meeting was probably unusual. I said something banal about having to expect the unexpected in my line of business and then he quoted someone, some verse about surprises or chance, in that soothing voice of his. I don’t know why, but I was a bit nervous. He asked me questions as though he was interviewing me and making mental notes: middle-aged, separated, lives inner city, et cetera. I must have passed because he seemed to take a bit of a liking to me, albeit with some reserve. Perhaps I didn’t fit his stereotype of a psychiatrist. I don’t know. He told me not to completely ignore whatever it was his father had told me about him, saying his father’s description of him no doubt contained what Simon called ‘that dangerous element of truth’, just enough to make me suspect that everything else his father had said, and would ever say, was true.

He was utterly charming, witty, and seemingly quite relaxed and intelligent. I was a little surprised he hadn’t offered me at least a drink, but I didn’t comment. We Europeans are instinctively better hosts, whether we have personality disorders or not. I didn’t know him and perhaps he would never again be so forthcoming. It’s not that I expect patients to entertain me but the circumstances here were quite unusually informal. And I didn’t want to interrupt him. Perhaps he felt a little uncomfortable offering me his parents’ alcohol. I figured a place of that size with the inground pool, the tennis court and the satellite dish had to belong to his parents. They must have agreed to go out for the evening as part of the deal.

‘I am a thirty-two-year-old out of work teacher living on my own in a flat in Elwood,’ he laughed, ‘but just because I don’t work doesn’t mean I’m broken.’

Then, after some small talk, he started telling me about you. At first I didn’t realise how long it had been since you had been together. It wasn’t clear, so I asked him.

‘It finished nine years ago,’ he said, ‘and you want to know why I’m still talking about it, right?’

‘No, I didn’t say that,’ I responded.

‘No. You didn’t, but only because my father is paying you not to tell me I’m mad, or at least to tell him first. I think it’s admirable what you guys do but, shit, it’s embarrassingly primitive, wouldn’t you say? What do you really know? And in any particular case, in my case, what do you really want to know? I’m afraid it won’t make sense to you. I really mean that. I am genuinely afraid it won’t make sense. I am not trying to sound casual or smug.

‘Listen—all that she was then, all that she is now, those gestures, everything I remember but won’t or can’t articulate anymore, the perfect words that are somehow made imperfect when used to describe her and all that should remain unsaid about her—it is all unsupported by reason. I know that. But that enigmatic calm that attaches itself to people in the presence of reason—it’s something from which I haven’t been able to take comfort, not reliably, not since her.

‘It’s like the smell of burnt toast. You made the toast. You looked forward to it. You even enjoyed making it, but it burned. What were you doing? Was it your fault? It doesn’t matter anymore. You open the window but only the very top layer of the smell goes away. The rest remains around you. It’s on the walls. You leave the room but it’s on your clothes. You change your clothes but it’s in your hair. It’s on the thin skin on the tops of your hands. And in the morning, it’s still there.’



Now can you imagine it? I am sitting in a large manicured garden at the back of someone’s renovated turn-of-the-century symbol of success. The sun is getting ready to call it a day but it is still quite warm. I think I can see mosquitoes hovering over the edge of the pool. The outdoor furniture is comfortable even if it is some of the ugliest I have seen. The air is still, so it’s easy for me not to dwell too much on the prospect of the umbrella dislodging from the table and impaling someone.

This charming young man is eloquently expressing his quite legitimate doubts about the science or discipline that has brought me to him. He seems to have a fairly common and not necessarily unhealthy antagonism towards his petit-bourgeois father, who it appears has a somewhat authoritarian personality. They don’t understand each other. They value different things but not different enough for the father’s alarm bells to ring hollow with the unemployed aesthete in front of me. It gets to him. But not as much as you do. He’s a romantic, focusing on some idealisation of the past. He could have offered me at least an iced tea but I was getting paid and he was, after all, the kind we dream of: one of the incurably worried-well. He was a little melancholic but not completely without some justification. There was no reason this could not go on for years. I thought he was normal, a bit unhappy—pretty much like everyone.

We heard someone walking up the side of the house towards us. Maybe it was more than one person. Suddenly Simon grabbed me, putting his hand over my mouth. He was quite surprisingly strong. There was a hysterical efficiency about him. I thought he was going to kill me. I didn’t say a word. He dragged me behind some bushes near the edge of the garden where we both hid. He seemed to know where to hide, as though he had done it before. I was ready to jettison my first impressions of him. I was now convinced he was psychotic. We looked through the bushes at a man, your husband, entering the house with your son through the back door. It was your house.

Simon had meant to show me he was serious about you. He had been to your house many times without anyone ever knowing he was there. Bringing me there was his way of demonstrating that he was willing to take me seriously, or at least try. When your husband and Sam were inside, Simon and I crept out. He took me to the Esplanade Hotel in St Kilda, opposite the beach. We went in his car. I had never been there before. We have since been there many times. That first evening was my initiation into Simon’s life, the one he has kept hidden from his family. Within an hour I had witnessed a fight, heard a frenetic country singer (‘rockabilly grunge’ he said it was) and someone had tried to sell him what they promised were amphetamines. I had also been introduced to his friend Angelique.

When you left Simon he was angry with you. There was a tremendous sense of betrayal with the shock of your leaving. He could not understand you not wanting to share a common future in which, together, you would observe the world in all its sad and beautiful guises. The way he describes it, you could have been in different rooms and been able to predict the other’s response to something because it would have been your own response. You respected the same things—aesthetically, politically, morally. He felt the two of you were co-conspirators. You wanted the same things and laughed at the same things. But you ultimately needed different things. Simon was a phase. You began to find his optimism, opinions and his touch too predictable and tiresome, stifling. You stopped wearing his t-shirts. You put them back. You pretended to be obtuse. Some nights no one could find you. Where were you? When his father, who never noticed anything, noticed your absence he blamed Simon and then, after a while, so did Simon himself. William was never so warm as he was to you when you had gone, while May would look out on to the street through the venetian blinds as though she was waiting for you. The other sons had gone, all good men too, now with their own silent wives and good jobs, velour-clad children and brand new axes to grind.

Simon tried to find comfort in his reading but one can only turn so many pages before the anaesthetic wears off. He had hoped the two of you could survive and maybe even correct a few of the world’s imperfections. Perhaps his romanticism was always his biggest problem. Your inexplicable leaving was literally breathtaking.

William came home from work one night and found Simon speaking out loud to himself in his bedroom. It was nine years ago. At his desk, he was talking to himself. William stood at the door and listened:

And would it have been worth it, after all . . .

To say: ‘I am Lazarus, come from the dead,

come back to tell you all’—

If one, settling a pillow by her head,

Should say: ‘This is not what I meant at all.

That is not it, at all?’

For a man so obsessed with words and language, it is interesting that Simon remembers perfectly what it was he was memorising that night but not what was said between him and his father which so quickly led William to strike him. He remembers clearly the seconds before the force of his father’s hand became a very personal heat in his lip and jaw. They said nothing more about it. He also remembers the breeze of his father’s moving hand and the cold of his wedding ring. Not long after, Simon left home. You met your husband at about this time.

Seven Types of Ambiguity Elliot Perlman

'One of the best novels of recent years, a complete success'—Le Monde (France)

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