on 31 December 2002
I wasn't sure whether I was going to like Guide to the Perplexed. It was jokingly billed by its author as a story about blow up dolls - and I couldn't imagine that being particularly entertaining or inspiring. But it's not all about blow up dolls - though it has to be admitted that the short section about them is screamingly funny.
The story is about a man Gunther Wunker and his views and experiences of those great perplexing issues of life - violence, war, heroism, sex, politics, identity, relationships, status and professional recognition. It's a breathtakingly revealing account of a man's preoccupations contexualised within a troubled political history. These preoccupations are described in a wry, well-observed and extremely humorous style.
The book comes with a bit of a content warning. Lets say you wouldn't describe it as subtle or reverential in terms of relationships and sexuality. The sexual content would probably be described as pretty explicit and slightly obsessive! Personally, I liked the way it reveals the ridiculous nature of sex. There is something rather raw, real and unromanticised about it. But erotic it is not.
Two key themes run through the book - a fairly merciless parody of academia (Gunther becomes an esteemed expert in "peepology" - the study of voyeurism) and Gunther's political identity as an anti-Zionist. This is the part of the story that left me most uneasy. Gunther seems cynical and isolated in relation to his Jewish history. I couldn't locate any vision for the future or any strategy to realise that vision. The future posed in the book in political terms seems fantastical. What it communicates most readily is despair. Though addressed with the same satirical, intelligent, self mocking commentary, Gunther seems to ultimately scorn all political positions and those that hold them.
This is a fast entertaining read, its irony and humour leavening some extremely big ideas. It communicates some astute observations of life. A male character who allows his mantle of "hero" to slip to this extent is an interesting subject to observe.