In a kind of literary Hall of Mirrors set in post-communist Berlin, second-novelist Bailey (Idioglossia, not reviewed) portrays two brothers who have come together reluctantly and without enthusiasm to make peace after a near-lifetime of deception and jealousy.
Erich Brandt is no newcomer to Berlin, but he enjoyed the isolation of the city before The Wall came down and can’t quite acclimate himself to the go-go atmosphere of the new order. A painter of some note but no success, Erich makes his living as the proprietor of an art gallery/café and has more or less washed his hands of any cultural pretensions. Divorced, successful, and middle-aged, he is not prepared for the shock of his brother Max’s attempt at suicide. A photographer and womanizer, Max has lived in London for many years and has always served as something of a reproach to Erich, who secretly envies Max simultaneously for his success and for his lack of care over it. After Max tries to kill himself, Erich brings him back to Berlin to stay with him and sets about the awkward task of learning to talk to a brother he’d abandoned many years before. There are old wounds and new: Max slept with Erich’s then-wife, Ursula, many years ago, and Erich is now embarrassed by the trashy success of his and Ursula’s daughter Nina (a kind of German Karen Finley who strips and copulates in public). Max wanders through his old hometown (now unrecognizable to him) like a drunken ghost and manages to uncover the fundamental deceptions that surround nearly every member and friend of his family. This proves a nice diversion—until Max discovers that some deceptions of his own are up for examination as well.
A heavy dose of schadenfreude: This very slick black comedy traces the gnarled roots of a family tree with an equal measure of affection and disgust.