by Garland, Alex
In The Tesseract, set in muggy, scary Manila, Alex Garland again proves himself the past master of the youth paranoia novel. His first novel, The Beach--a tale of Western tourists on a druggy Thai isle--was dubbed a Gen-X Lord of the Flies. It made him Britain's richest 28-year-old writer even before Leonardo DiCaprio starred in the movie version. Now Garland ups the literary ante with an intricate three-part crime-story structure that several critics have compared to Pulp Fiction (only without the jokes). It's hard-boiled yet lyrical, subtle yet simple. Garland has three sets of characters collide, as if in a devilishly devised model-train wreck involving real trains, and his Manila is more grittily realistic than his Thailand. The first protagonist is Sean, an English seafaring lad who's about to meet the gangster Don Pepe, who's upset because Sean's boss recently missed a protection payment. It's not just the tarmac-melting heat that accounts for Sean's sweaty state of mind. As Don Pepe's posse's footsteps get louder outside his room, Sean glimpses his face in the mirror "in a state of flux. Unable to resolve itself, like a cheap hologram or a bucket of snakes, the lips curled while the jaw relaxed.... Fear, Sean thought distantly. Rare that one got to see what it actually looked like." Garland's great gift is conveying such mental states with the economy and grace of a Muhammad Ali punch. One feels that Don Pepe is about to reach up from the book and do violence to the reader.
Next comes the entire, tensely compressed life story of Rosa, a rural beach beauty turned big-city physician. Rosa is tormented by memories of her first love at 16, a man who comes crashing back into her life. In the last section, Sean and Don Pepe's thugs literally crash into her life, along with the book's third star duo, tough street kids Cente and Totoy. The Tesseract's vivid images and breakneck chases make it unsurprising to learn that Garland started out as a comic-book author, though his second novel really bears comparison with Robert Stone's Dog Soldiers. --Tim Appelo
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