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Daniel Kehlmann’s ‘F’ is Half Existential Puzzle, Half Family Farce

It’s not often you come across a novel like F. Written by German author Daniel Kehlmann and newly translated by Carol Brown Janeway for Pantheon, the book hits American shelves this week, and is likely to leave you scratching your head — but also deeply moved and existentially disturbed. The book even looks bizarre: so red, so squat, so spectacled. Its insides mostly live up to its outsides, although they are rather less cute and much less simple.

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Kehlmann’s novel begins when Arthur takes his three young sons to a hypnotist, swearing that he isn’t affected by such things. But the next day, he takes off to start a new life, completely changed, and his sons don’t see him again until they’re adults. The rest of the novel is separated into chapters from the perspectives of Arthur’s three sons, many years in the future — one is a corrupt artist and art dealer, his twin is a corrupt investment banker, the third is an obese priest without faith. Arthur himself is the author of a cult novel so existentially damning that it has caused a “wave” of suicides — plus one incredible section entitled “Family” which traces Arthur’s lineage, imperfectly, strangely, impossibly, back through the ages.

Then there are the events and philosophies of Arthur’s books, which meld, perhaps, with the reality that follows. Or is it multiple realities melding with one another? Who is the spectral man with the gap teeth that can’t tell one twin from another? All this adds up to: what? The interlocking lives make a family perhaps, and the events layer over one another to provide meaning, as well as meaninglessness. Martin, the priest, is obsessed with the Rubik’s cube, and this (as Jeffrey Eugenides points out in one of the book’s blurbs) is a good stand-in for the novel as a whole: each side influencing the others, yet needing to stand alone, no part can be assembled completely without blocking off the rest, half of it is logic, half of it is instinct, one small part is magic.

But despite all its philosophical qualities and puzzle-like structure, this is also at heart a novel about a few sad men, a family of failures who wish and want and hope but never really make it out of the muck. The book reads like something the love child of Tom McCarthy and the aforementioned Jeffrey Eugenides might have written — structurally esoteric, psychologically complex, with characters obsessed to the point of insanity, but also an exercise in near-absurd family relationships, an uneasy reflection on the kinds of things we can do to those we are supposed to love the most, a story of stymied affection.

This is a book trying to do a host of things at once, and for the most part succeeding — a testament to the fact that conceptual novels need not be devoid of people and that family novels need not be devoid of ideas and that some darkly funny, smart absurdity is always a good idea. Well worth a read.

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