Thursday, August 14, 2014

Book Review: "F" by Daniel Kehlmann

Full disclosure: I received an advance readers copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review.

In 1984, Arthur Friedland takes his young sons, Martin, Eric, and Ivan to see a famous hypnotist, The Great Lindemann. Arthur doesn't believe in hypnosis and declares himself immune, but he goes to the show to humor his boys. Yet Lindemann calls Arthur up onstage and influences him to reveal his darkest secrets—many of which revolved around Arthur's desire to become a published author and free himself of the yoke of family—and then encourages Arthur to turn his ambitions into reality.

Within a few days, Arthur has emptied out his and his wife's joint bank account and disappears, only to re-emerge as an infamous author years later, with his most famous book leading people worldwide to question their own existence, and some even commit suicide after reading it.

Each of the boys are influenced in some way by their encounter with The Great Lindemann and their father's subsequent escape. Martin becomes a priest, although he struggles with his own devotion, as well as his addiction to food. Eric, a banker, is slowly losing his grip on reality as his career is tanking, while Ivan, once a talented artist, instead uses his talents to become a forger. Each of the boys has a cataclysmic encounter on the same day, which throws each of them further into chaos.

I am a voracious reader, but I tend to like books that are relatively straightforward. F is not one of those books. It tries too hard to be clever and mysterious, and it never gave you enough background to truly understand the characters or the issues they were dealing with. One of the greatest conceits of the book is that each of the sons has a mysterious encounter (on 8/8/08) with several people all named Ron—I just didn't understand the point.

This book was translated from German, so it's entirely possible that the narrative resonates more in its native language. But because Daniel Kehlmann was so deliberately obtuse and mystical in the way he unfolded the plot and developed his characters, I was never able to get immersed in the book, and truly don't understand the point of it at all.

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