A burned manuscript occasions these tales from three distinct characters.
“You’ve never seen anyone,” Max’s ex-wife tells him. “You’ve only seen yourself, and the women you’ve had have only been mirrors in which you saw your own reflection.” This insight arrives near the end of Swedish author Wolff’s (Bret Easton Ellis and the Other Dogs, 2016) second novel. It’s a strange, disjointed book. After Max completes a manuscript (which bears the same title as Wolff’s), he entrusts the only copy to literary critic Ruben, who has devoted his life to the study of Max’s work. But that turns out to be a risky place; Ellinor, a woman who met Ruben online and then moved into his house, finds the manuscript and lights it on fire. Lest this all sound too straightforward, keep in mind that the plot is told backward and, as it were, from the side: The novel is split into three sections, narrated by three different characters in reverse chronological order. It begins with Ellinor’s description of her own sexual history and continues in the second section with Max—a hateful character straight out of a Michel Houellebecq novel. In fact, Wolff seems to be parodying Houellebecq, or at least hanging him out to dry. But in an abrupt shift of mood and tone, the novel’s third section leaves Stockholm for Italy, and this is where the novel is at its most vivid. Lucrezia narrates here: Granddaughter of Rome’s very last marchesa, Lucrezia is responsible for her family’s crumbling estate—the place, as it happens, where Max wrote his ill-fated manuscript. Lucrezia describes the circumstances in which he wrote it. Whether any of this comes together in the end is anyone’s guess. Wolff’s prose is whip-smart and deliciously cynical about Max, Michel Houellebecq, and men like them—but you still have to spend a lot of time in their company.
Wolff’s book is smart, funny, and sad in turns, but the point it’s making—and it seems to be trying very hard to make a point—isn’t always in view.