Brilliant, Wily and Quietly Bold

The Vices, by Lawrence Douglas, the James J. Grosfeld Professor of Law, Jurisprudence and Social Thought (Other Press)

Reviewed by Lauren Groff ’01


[Fiction] Oliver Vice, the central character in Lawrence Douglas’ new novel The Vices, is a philosophy professor at a small liberal arts college, a serial philanderer, an ambivalent son of privilege and a writhing ball of discontent. He is also presumed dead by the end of the first paragraph, having disappeared from the deck of the Queen Mary 2 on a crossing from England to New York.

The narrator of the novel is his best buddy, an unnamed writer-in-residence at the same college where Oliver taught, and a man vastly overshadowed by his more flamboyant friend. At least on the surface, the purpose of the novel is to examine Oliver Vice from the moment the two men meet to the fateful last few days in his life. Given this setup, Douglas’ lucid and simple prose and his quietly wry humor, readers can be forgiven for being lulled into the belief that the novel they are reading is a straightforward character portrait, a comfortable investigation into the impossibility of knowing another person and a slightly hackneyed literary genre unto itself.

Fine, I’ll fess up: At first I undersold Douglas’ skill, believing I was knee-deep in a beach-read, a light and enjoyable book that asks little more of its reader than some good-humored attention. Douglas’ strengths are not in dialogue or characterization, and as fascinated as our narrator is by Oliver, both of the major leads in the novel remain enigmatic and fuzzily drawn at the end of the book. Roughly halfway into the narrative, however, I came upon an apparently throwaway line, when the narrator likens the metro line under Pest, Hungary, to a “bend sinister;” and that’s when the English major in me snapped awake. A bend sinister is a heraldic motif on a shield, slashing from the top right to the bottom left; it is also, famously, the title of Vladimir Nabokov’s brilliant 1947 dystopian novel. The Vices suddenly pivoted on those two small words, opening the family Vice to more intense scrutiny and slyly undermining the ostensibly simple project of the book itself. As soon as Nabokov insinuated himself into the text, he showed up everywhere, especially in the recurring motifs of chess, mirroring, moths and doubles (the narrator is doubled by Oliver; Oliver has a twin, Bartholomew; Oliver has a half-sister named Olivia). Even the structure of the novel, built around an unreliable narrator obsessed with a dead academic friend, is painted in shades of Pale Fire.

No writer is as gleefully tricksy as Nabokov, and by claiming Nabokov, Douglas signals that he is playing a high-stakes game. The pleasures of this book are manifold, but the most urgent among them becomes trying to identify what Douglas’ game is, exactly. There’s the Nabokov Butterfly Hunt, in which every reference to the master that one snags in one’s net elicits a whoop and jig of joy. There’s the Mirror of Authorial Self, where every mention of a slant-Lawrence Douglas (Harkness College for Amherst College; the Pilgrim Valley for the Pioneer Valley; Inverness Academy for Deerfield Academy; Oliver as philosophy professor, Douglas as professor of law, jurisprudence and social thought) sends one to the Internet to dig for clues about authorial-character conflation. Nabokov played this game diabolically and often; in Douglas’ case, however, disappointment will ensue, because there are few such clues to be found online. Finally, there’s the endgame, signaled early on by Oliver’s own book that lofted him to philosophical prominence, Paradoxes of Self, but which Douglas plays so slowly and beautifully that more questions about the nature of authenticity and identity are raised than could possibly be answered. The end is a zugzwang and a doozy, and one I still don’t know how I didn’t see coming. In The Vices, Lawrence Douglas shows exactly how brilliant, wily and quietly bold a novelist he is.

Lauren Groff’s short story “Eyewall” won a 2012 PEN/O. Henry Prize. Her second novel, Arcadia, will be published in March.