Early in Mischa Berlinski’s gripping and entertaining first novel there is a piece of postmodern skittishness which points to a truth that novelists shy away from: their trade embarrasses them. When you first start making things up, you expect that someone is going to tell you to stop. Perhaps you want them to, so that you can get back to behaving like an adult, and make a living in the real world. You have to invent a character, a main character too—readers expect it, though the notion of setting up this giant “as if” device and lugging it around with you is inherently shaming. You know your main character barely emerges from layers of solipsism, and for the longest time it—it is an “it” before becoming a he or a she—dangles from some part of yourself, an ugly little parasite, an unviable conjoined twin.
Eventually you give it a name, in a squeamish separation ceremony, a combined amputation and baptism. Somehow this rite of passage convinces readers to accept your squirming offcut as a real person, although one who lives in an alternative universe. But you, the writer, remain ashamed of your ploy. You can hide the shame, or bypass it altogether, by doing what Mischa Berlinski does—give the main character your own name, and pretend you or your alter ego are in the business of jotting down a few facts. You fit out your book with the apparatus of nonfiction—footnotes and a reading list. Then your publisher writes “A Novel” on the cover, and the complicity comes full circle; writer and reader sit winking at each other, and the story begins.
The game could be tiresome. In this case it doesn’t matter, for two reasons. One is that Berlinski is a gifted storyteller delivering a simple story; it comes to us through an intricate plot mechanism, but if its framing devices were stripped out, the central mystery would still hold the attention. The second reason is that in this book the narrator is the least important person on the page. Rather than being an ego bobbing beneath the surface of the text, he is the investigating medium, the agent of truth, and like a good anthropologist he is aiming to efface himself into the background. The anthropologist’s difficulty is that even if, by some clever disguise, he could observe behavior unmediated by his presence, he can never observe behavior unmediated by his expectations. But Berlinski has come as close as you can to creating a character with no expectations; it’s clever to make the narrator what he is, a refugee from a failed San Francisco Internet start-up, rather than a young man with theories he wants to intrude into the text. He just likes to sleep a lot, and where he’s sleeping currently is a city in northern Thailand.
He has followed his girlfriend Rachel to Chiang Mai, to her volunteer post as a first-grade teacher. They are a …