Academic journal article Antipodes

Silent Triumph of the Individual: Social Investigation through Empathy in Elliot Perlman's Three Dollars, Seven Types of Ambiguity, and the Street Sweeper

Academic journal article Antipodes

Silent Triumph of the Individual: Social Investigation through Empathy in Elliot Perlman's Three Dollars, Seven Types of Ambiguity, and the Street Sweeper

Article excerpt

Regarding the pain of others |. . .| our failure is one of imagination, of empathy: we have failed to hold this reality in mind.

-Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others

The novels of Elliot Perlman encompass a wide variety of social observations and criticisms in both contemporary and historical settings. Three Dollars (1999), as its title suggests, is concerned with economic hardship, both in middle-class suburbia and amongst the less visible vagrants and homeless people of contemporary Melbourne. Similarly, Seven Types of Ambiguity (2003) delves into the sordid underworld of prostitution, offering concurrent castigations of the treatment of the sick and the elderly. Perlman's social discourses culminate in The Street Sweeper (2011), first in his historical account of racial hatred in the United States and then in graphic descriptions of the horrors of Auschwitz. Each novel most definitely constitutes a recognition of suffering and a cry against inhumanity. Indeed, "tell everyone what happened here" is the refrain of The Street Sweeper. However, the principal purpose of these novels is not to wallow in awfulness, nor is it solely to educate readers as to the harder realities of life. Depictions of social inequities and crimes against humanity are relayed for the most part through their connections, both direct and indirect, to the highly intellectualized personal crises of more privileged, central characters. The wounded spirits of these protagonists leaves each open to an imaginative identification with and subsequent empathy for certain vulnerable and wronged individuals moving in spheres distinct from their own. Focusing much of the action through the mind of a single protagonist in this way allows Perlman's explorations of social issues and historical concerns to become personalized and emotionally resonant in a way that a more general and impartial narrative voice could not achieve to the same effect. It also allows greater latitude for certain imaginative liberties. Through these protagonists, Perlman strives to give a face to the faceless, even if that face is pure invention. He offers a counterpoint to the stereotype. He characterizes victims in evocative detail and gives a voice to a great many of them. In doing so, he awards a certain triumph and retributive justice to what he himself has called "the inalienable dignity of the individual" (Sullivan 26), even if posthumously and through the medium of fiction.

The hero of Three Dollars, Eddie Harnovey, is presented as an essentially decent, compassionate man struggling to maintain his principles amidst the myriad obstacles placed in his path by contemporary suburban life in Melbourne. These obstacles are most often embodied by two characters. The incredible coincidences surrounding both Gerard and Amanda and the sheer unlikeliness of Amanda crossing paths with Eddie once every nine and a half years precisely are such that neither character is ever quite real. It is as though they are Eddie's own constructs, personifications of the insidious but potent social and economic forces that habitually conspire to thwart the integrity of every typical suburban citizen. Gerard is the hidden enemy, seducer of both Amanda and Eddie's girlfriend Tanya, later becoming a malignant force of corporate greed and corruption in Eddie's professional life. Amanda is the sensual beauty, temptress towards a world of fast money and uncomplicated romance. The reader is not encouraged to empathize with either Gerard or Amanda and is allowed very little scope for doing so. Instead, the novel's sympathies are directed towards those characters with whom the formidable pair are in contact.

In many ways, Eddie is the epitome of ordinariness-a hardworking family man with a good upbringing. Perlman plucks bim from the throng and through him "gives a voice to perfectly welleducated people who are nevertheless bewildered by a government system which increasingly leaves its citizens to the tender mercies of the anonymous corporation" (Burke 23). …

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