The Thing Unraveled

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Alex Garland has conjured up another thriller with a message. Like his best-selling first novel, The Beach, his newest, The Tesseract (Viking; 225 pages), is a scrupulously plotted action story about people whose blinkered fantasy lives trigger their demise. In The Beach, several young travelers, raised on Vietnam movies and Nintendo games, isolate themselves on an island off the coast of Thailand. The venality of the pop-culture-fed characters is revealed in their ironic attempt to escape the evils of commercial tourism. In The Tesseract, an English sailor in the Philippines creates a tragedy out of his paranoia. But that's where the similarities end. After the first book's overwhelming success (it's being made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio), one might expect Garland to repeat his lucrative formula. Instead, The Tesseract is a far more complex tale. The opening is familiar to any reader of crime fiction: a naive character (Sean) is waiting for a crime boss (Don Pepe) in a dilapidated hotel room in a sometimes dangerous city (Manila). But its theme is quickly established as Sean notes with heart-thumping anxiety that several things in his room are awry. He finds faded bloodstains on the bedsheets, discovers the phone is disconnected and notices that the spy hole in the door is blocked. The three things came out of nowhere, he reasons. But nothing comes out of nowhere and non sequiturs don't exist. As Sean decides that Don Pepe wants him dead, non sequiturs become the guiding principle of The Tesseract.

Before long, we meet the aging Don Pepe (who, it turns out, has no intention of harming Sean) and his hapless driver Jojo, who wistfully recalls his life on a distant plantation as he navigates Manila's streets. Then comes Rosa, a wealthy urban émigré from a coastal Philippine town, and the novel recounts her family's disturbing history. Finally, a pair of homeless street kids appear along with a psychologist, Alfredo, who is researching their dreams. Sean's belief that nothing is random brings these people together, propelling the tale to a gruesome climax.

Telling the story through the eyes of several characters is an ambitious break from the first-person account that guided The Beach. But The Tesseract's structure highlights the writer's struggle to create convincing fictional personalities. Garland's laconic style suits the story's violent content, but its simplicity isn't up to the task of conveying his characters' innermost thoughts. The shock had been very great, he writes of a fishing accident that blinded Rosa's father. Dynamite exploding a meter in front of him--a very great shock indeed. Indeed. Garland's eye for detail enlivens many of the passages about the city and Rosa's childhood home but fails to ignite his characters, who seem like part of the Philippines' scenery rather than its complex, sentient inhabitants.

Worse, the author often interrupts the story's action to philosophize about the events taking place, using the psychologist Alfredo as a vehicle for spelling out the book's obvious message: conspiracy theories sometimes cause the horrifying events they are supposed to explain. Musing on the inexplicable nature of a tesseract (an unfolded four-dimensional cube), Alfredo thinks, A hypercube is a thing you are not equipped to understand... This means something... We can see the thing unraveled but not the thing itself.

Despite these clumsy intrusions, the novel's pace never really loses steam. Its flawlessly woven plot is engaging even while the sermonizing about its characters' futile attempts to understand what happens to them is repellent. Indeed, it marks a great improvement over The Beach, which fell apart in its artificial dénouement. It is hard not to wonder how much better Garland's books would be if he were not so concerned that his readers get the point.