THE NAMELESS NARRATOR of Lawrence Douglas’ new novel seems cut out to be the butt of an academic satire. Like so many fictional professors before him—in books by David Lodge, Michael Chabon, Philip Roth, and others—he is a middling writer turned reluctant professor at a small college, with a failing marriage that leaves him restless for adventure, sexual and otherwise. In Douglas’ previous novel, The Catastrophist, a similar hero embarked on a career of comically unsuccessful adultery.
But in The Vices, Douglas has something more intriguing and unexpected in store for his narrator. The void in his life is filled by his friendship with Oliver Vice, a brilliant, wealthy, well-connected young philosopher on the faculty of Harkness College (a thinly veiled version of Amherst, where Douglas teaches). Vice is descended from English nobility on his father’s side—he displays coasters with his family crest, which dates “all the way back to some prince born in Sussex in 1327”—and from Hungarian nobility on his mother’s. Through his stepfather, a lighting designer for rock concerts, he knows a whole other kind of royalty—the Rolling Stones are family friends, and he loves to brag about beating “Keith” in ping-pong when he was eight years old. And Vice takes full advantage of the aristocrat’s license to misbehave. He is rude, distracted, imperious, eccentric, in ways that only make him more fascinatingly elusive: “He never greeted me when our paths crossed,” the narrator notes, “he would stare intently, his eyes wide in an expression of detached superciliousness.”
Death only makes Oliver Vice more fascinating. The first thing we learn about him, on the first page of the novel, is that Vice apparently committed suicide by leaping from the deck of the Queen Mary 2 during an Atlantic crossing. Such a dramatic, mysterious end seals Oliver’s legend in the narrator’s mind and drives him to write a book about his friend—the book that is The Vices. “Oliver’s suffering had volume and depth,” the narrator thinks, “it was large, relevant, and ramifying.”
This makes it supremely different from his own suffering, which he sees as “merely suburban, Jewish, and neurotic. I knew the latter world intimately, I came from it, had written a novel about it, and would never fully escape its orbit.” In a nicely satiric touch, the narrator’s autobiographical novel is titled Exit 33, after his hometown’s exit on the Long Island Expressway. No wonder that on his first day at Harkness, a “colleague made it abundantly clear that she considered my suburban Jewish novel … a contribution to an exhausted and clichéd form.”
By falling in love with Oliver Vice, with a passion that is less erotic than imaginative, the novelist gives himself access to a new world and a new subject. “I didn’t turn to Oliver because I needed fresh material,” he writes, but “I’d come to think of Oliver’s as a family whose story had to be told.” Yet by becoming Oliver’s chronicler, he implicitly accepts the role of wide-eyed arriviste in the Vices’ gilded world—a role with humiliations that are sure to breed resentment. This dynamic makes the friendship at the center of The Vices reminiscent of thrillers like Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, in which the tensions of such cross-class friendships finally erupt in obsession, betrayal, and violence.
That kind of uncanny atmosphere is present in one of Douglas best scenes, when the narrator and his new wife, Melissa, visit Oliver’s family home for Christmas. They have already been told that Oliver’s mother, the regal Francizka, is a “latent anti-Semite. The family surrounds themselves with Jews and secretly hates them all,” Oliver’s Jewish girlfriend Sophia warns. (When Oliver calls Sophia by the nickname “Soap,” it is impossible to dismiss the suspicion that the abbreviation is some sort of obscene Holocaust reference.) The magnificence of the Vice apartment puts the narrator on the defensive: “Paintings hung on the walls one atop the other, salon style. … There was a tasseled dinner bell of bronze enameled in lapis with a design of dragons, and another with a pattern of warriors riding costumed elephants. Manhattan must have had hundreds, maybe thousands, of such apartments, but for me, the son of Long Island, it was something new, intimidating in its casual opulence and suggestive of self-sustaining and inexhaustible wealth.”
But the family turns out to be as uncanny as it is rich. Bartholomew, Oliver’s twin brother, is physically massive, clearly disturbed—he sports a Hitler mustache, seemingly unaware of how people will react—and incestuously close to his mother. Francizka herself is a horror, reacting icily when Melissa sets aside the pork in her dinner—“it’s like listening to an orchestra without the violins, a waste”—and hurling a present she dislikes in the trash. Later that night, the narrator finds his own gift, a copy of his novel, has also been thrown away by Oliver, who explains: “The scene where the protagonist gags on a pubic hair during oral sex—I can’t have my mother read that. It would completely disgust her.”
This fastidiousness is odd, and the more the narrator learns about Oliver’s sex life, the more suspicious it becomes. He is a regular visitor to S&M clubs and surprises the narrator by taking him to an establishment called The Leash, where Oliver ends up demonstratively masturbating in front of him. It is a moment of seduction and a ritual humiliation: “I rebelled against my assigned role, the chronicler, the witness,” the narrator says. By the time he finds Oliver in an ambiguous embrace with Melissa, the betrayal seems foreordained, just another exercise of Oliver’s droit de seigneur.
The reader may suspect that all these dark mysteries suit someone named Oliver Vice a little too well: isn’t there something too perfect about that portentous Nabokovian name? And doesn’t Vice seem too obviously modeled on Ludwig Wittgenstein, another rich, eccentric philosopher? Vice always eats lunch at the same bad Chinese restaurant, he explains, because Wittgenstein always ate at the same bad coffee shop: “He told the waiter, ‘I don’t care what you serve me, as long as it’s always the same thing.’ ” Even Vice’s philosophical work, an aphoristic treatise called Paradoxes of Self, takes the form of variations on Wittgenstein’s later themes: the unknowability of the inner self, the impossibility of getting behind language to reach a truer reality.
Soon enough, however, the reader begins to understand that these are not blunders on Douglas’ part, but deliberate clues. Could it be that the reason Vice seems clumsily invented is that he has, in fact, invented himself, and that in fundamental ways he has more in common with the narrator than he imagines? The first hint comes at the ill-starred Christmas party, where Melissa compounds her social disgrace by breaking a dinner spoon that is a priceless antique. To atone, she takes the spoon home and sends it to a fine-art restorer—only to be told that it is actually a cheap imitation.
Soon the narrator begins to wonder about the famous paintings on the Vices’ walls. Victor Vice, Francizka’s first husband and Oliver’s biological father, was an art dealer in postwar Europe: did he make his fortune by dealing in paintings stolen from murdered Jews? Is that why Francizka seems to be fudging the truth about her own past, claiming to have lost her family in a World War II bombing raid when—as the narrator discovers on a trip to Budapest—the building they lived in was never bombed at all? And is the latter-day fall of the Vices—Oliver’s suicide, Bartholomew’s madness, the scandal that eventually envelops Francizka—a kind of karmic retribution for their making a fortune from the Holocaust? (“I can see no difference between a belief in poetic justice and a belief in God,” Oliver complains. “If anything, the belief in poetic justice is more insupportable.”)
Without giving away Douglas’ surprises, it is fair to say that the Vices’ history turns out to be rather less exotic than the narrator believes—and for that very reason, all the more fascinating. In one of Douglas’ many purposeful allusions, Oliver muses at one point about Nabokov’s novel The Real Life of Sebastian Knight: “Certainly the main character might be no more than an invention of the narrator. But imagine a book that does the reverse, in which the narrator turns out to be the invention of the main character. … Now that would be truly remarkable.” In its deft exploration of the way identity, especially Jewish identity, is constructed and performed, The Vices does justice to its elegant Nabokovian inspiration.
This piece was originally published in Tablet.
Adam Kirsch is a senior editor at The New Republic.