(Permanent, 197 pages) Who is Alfred Buber? In starkest terms, he is a respected Boston lawyer who falls in love with a Thai sex worker named Nok. Not surprisingly, they do not live happily ever after. This is not a book of neat resolutions.
But it is a story full of interesting ruminations, which are often amusing, sometimes provocative, and consistently engrossing. Narrated in the first person, the novel moves deftly between past and present and provides a nuanced portrait of loneliness.
Alfred is not physically attractive and, though appearance is not destiny, in some cases appearance can be at least as powerful as class in shaping a person’s life, while the psychological impact can be greater, because it is so intensely personal. “Short, round, orotund,” Alfred is a “portly little Micawber,” an “aging and pudgy frustrato.” His problem is more complicated, too, than merely having sex (since of course even trolls can get laid); Alfred is a romantic, an aesthete with an “overly prudent, mannered, often squeamish persona” who speaks with a “flat, fruity, Englishy accent.”
Note the nuance of “Englishy.” Although Alfred Buber would probably be an odd duck anywhere, the author Schmahmann concocts a fascinating and utterly convincing background for his hero, who is an “accidental American.” The white son of an English Rhodesian Jewish Communist father and a catatonically undemonstrative mother (“she tended to treat me as a visitor in the house, someone who had changed her routine, uncomfortably but fortunately not permanently”), he came to the United States for higher education and eventually settled into a career. In many respects Alfred would be a positive example of a self-made man, if only he could figure out the “self” part.
In search of an identity in the company of baffled Americans, he plays up to the caricature of colonial life from Masterpiece Theatre, and allows himself to be “hemmed in by the tea and the tweed of it.” At the same time, he earnestly defends some of the old ways. What some see as stodginess, Alfred sees as necessary decorum; he can’t cook, hates computers, and for him to discard his necktie would border on “seditious.” It’s an attitude which later provides a convenient cover for his other life, in which he secretly travels to Bangkok to court Nok, who becomes his uncontrollable obsession.
Given the illicit nature of Alfred’s desires, and the witty, self-conscious narration which is peppered with literary allusions, the comparison to Nabokov is inevitable. In terms of humor and flair for language, this is all to the good. Alfred introduces his own version of Annabel Lee/Leigh, too, and there’s even a call-out to Clare Quilty. These latter choices are more risky, not least because playing with Nabokov is like inviting Haile Gebrselassie to a footrace. Who can keep up? But Schmahmann largely gets away with it and cannot be accused of being derivative, because Alfred Buber’s double life differs significantly from Humbert Humbert’s. Unlike Lolita, which spirals into tragedy, The Double Life of Alfred Buber is more a study in human loneliness, against the backdrop of globalization.
Sex tourism is nothing new, of course, but it redefines itself in keeping with current political and economic trends. Alfred observes, “I have come to see life as a series of exchanges only, a long list of trade-offs so that sex for money is just a corner of it and nothing remarkable at all.” The logic is sound, as far as it goes. But Alfred cannot shake off other considerations, from his other life:
It must look so odd, I think, so out of place in any normal scheme of things, for this beautiful girl to be walking down an alley followed, two steps behind, by a large foreigner with a pack strapped to his waist, with beads of perspiration coating the top of his head. She steps around the obstructions—a plank, a puddle, a mound of dirty rice—and he follows, soundlessly, still two steps behind. Nobody knows us but they are human beings, after all, must take it in, the incongruity, the obvious nature of the exchange. It is vulgar, it must be regardless of the idiom.
In spite of himself, Albert longs for a “normal” scheme of things where a sense of the “vulgar” still means something. He becomes hopelessly attached to Nok and, unlike other sex tourists, refuses to treat his bargirl as disposable. And this, naturally, brings us to the vital question: who is Nok?
Her characterization—as the narrator acknowledges—relies heavily on speculation, on fantasy. Nok speaks only the most rudimentary English, and Alfred does not speak Thai. Thus there is much he cannot know and at times he trots out references to “extreme exoticism” or to the “concealed heart” of Asia. He even uses the word “inscrutable.” Still, he doesn’t settle for a cliché, and goes much further. He has been touched deeply—and he wants to be touched more deeply. The scene in which he tracks down Nok to her home village and meets her family is very strong indeed, and full of a longing for connection.
Could it be that, separated though our lives are by oceans and whatever else, life itself is not so disparate that between her and me there cannot be coincidences? Her father is stubborn and eccentric, a luftmensch in his own way, though of course not a Jewish Communist. There is a compliant mother, a childhood spent mostly listening, unflattering images of oneself. The planet is, after all, a finite place.
Because of the first person narration, the reader knows Nok only through Alfred. This is sometimes a source of frustration, but this is as it should be. To Schmahmann’s credit, Alfred’s wishful projections remain only that, wishful projections, and he is denied the authority to speak for her. Only Nok can do that. Alfred must confront his own limits:
Intimacy must be earned. It does not simply descend. She is and she isn’t mine to do with as I please […] I possess her but it feels that I am in her debt, liable at any moment to feel her disengage, to lose something I never had in the first place.
Short of intimacy, Alfred embraces other formulas. He frets about Nok’s education, for instance, and takes measures to improve her situation. This is less a matter of being an enslaving Humbert than an example of old-fashioned paternalism. We have left Nabokov territory for the frustrations of Flory in Orwell’s Burmese Days. Schmahmann handles these colonial paradoxes well. Alfred is foolish but not always cynical, and on occasion shows real courage. The result is a fascinating depiction of self-deceiving do-gooding amidst exploitation. Hilariously, “Bwana Buber” imagines lecturing Nok’s father, while hatching plans for Nok’s self-improvement with appeals to “basic decency.”
The Double Life of Alfred Buber is an original and sophisticated novel which lingers in the mind. Alfred Buber is one of those characters who achieves such an artful palpability that it is easy to imagine meeting him in other contexts. In Brussels this week, I think I might have glimpsed him near the Schuman roundabout. Impossible, ridiculous, even, but this is precisely the reward of successful fiction, which is more than a trick of mind. It makes consciousness more open to possibilities.
—Charles Holdefer, author of The Contractor, 2007