Since the days of Greek tragedy, endings have acquired a hallowed status. The payoff, the gratification, the reaction that follows the action, the gun introduced in Act I that goes off in Act III. The persistence of this part of narrative has built up a cultural dependence. Endings — in books, movies, TV series — that aren’t as sharp as expected may spark dissatisfaction. So what of the book whose lack of a clear conclusion or gratification becomes clearer throughout, which becomes, in a sense, the message? Daniel Kehlmann’s “F” is such a book, and while a story that begins with a father’s desertion of his family and then moves on to examine the lives of the deserted children might be expected to be dolorous, possibly even hollow, Kehlmann offers a rich, absorbing and well-orchestrated narrative.
The novel begins with a magic act, of sorts. Arthur, a writer who’s stalled in his career, takes his children from different unsuccessful marriages to a world-famous hypnotist’s show. The hypnotist, as it turns out, is a truth-teller; he brings the reluctant, cynical Arthur up on stage and proceeds to confront him with his mediocrity, challenging him to do something about it. Arthur, moved by the experience, makes a quick decision: He leaves his children with only the scantest of farewells and moves to another continent, where he writes several widely well-received novels. We never find out too much about these books; they aren’t the point.
What is the point is what happens to his children: Eric, Ivan, and Martin, who grow into radically different lives for which they are ill-suited. Eric is an investment banker, handling others’ fortunes as his own home life collapses, in part due to an affair with a former therapist. Ivan leaves a career as an art historian to become a forger of a famous artist’s works, living off the proceeds from the forgeries’ sales after the artist dies. Martin, a priest, disenchantedly listens to confessions, unhappy with his body and his life; he seems more interested in Rubik’s cube competitions (thanks to a childhood gift from his absent father) than religion.
Kehlmann doesn’t so much tell the story from each character’s point of view as take us on several tours of their bruised lives. So completely does he inhabit the characters that the book becomes a bit like a hybrid of “Rashomon” and “Being John Malkovich”; the intensity of
Kehlmann’s own curiosity about his characters fuels the narrative, even as the book focuses on the same events, retold. What is a minor, disappointing lunch for one brother is a frantic, text-message-laden missed connection with a mistress for the other. The brothers cross paths as they move through the day or two that defines the bulk of the book — none of the days depicted end happily, and one even ends with a pointless act of violence.
Kehlmann engraves the scar of Arthur’s desertion on each of his now-grown sons, pushing readers toward an understanding of their predicament. Why, for instance, would Ivan consider it acceptable to forge artworks? Why is Martin so disenchanted with the priesthood? As we get to know these individuals, we also come to know the extent of their damage. The father’s appearances in the book after its opening are pointedly brief, as if to demonstrate the lack of foundation in the characters’ lives. Despite the great sadness here, and the book’s determination to stay unsettled, to withhold revenge, to contain the anger at its heart, “F” is as rapacious as it is ruminative. The book’s nervous, energetic tone, combined with a lack of formal payoff or retribution as we move toward its downbeat conclusion, brings the arc of the novel in line with Kafka’s narratives, as if each actor in the drama unfolded here were a small, frantic animal, trying to scratch its way out of its glass cage but coming up, time and time again, only against its own reflection.