British novelist Alex Garland's 1997 debut, followed a group of disaffected young vagabonds to a mysterious island community that seemed like an Eden until they started going after one another with kitchen knives. The book was an expertly crafted, sometimes gripping load of hooey; it was as if Garland had once had an English lit teacher who'd scrawled "Man vs. man, man vs. nature, man vs. himself" on the blackboard.
His new novel, "The Tesseract," is a less flashy but much better book. This time the author zeroes in on individual characters and succeeds in putting some flesh on their bones. The action is set in Manila in the course of one evening, and it consists of three interlocking stories. A young English merchant seaman waits in a crummy hotel room for a meeting with a bigwig racketeer, his paranoia mounting until he finally cracks. A prosperous young doctor, happily married and with two children, finds herself overtaken with memories of her first love, a young fisherman in her small village. A bright, sensitive street kid engages in his usual shenanigans with one of his buddies, sticking nails under people's tires and hanging around the local McDonald's, while his perceptiveness (not to mention his circumstances) makes him seem like anything but a child.
Garland has a gift for moving the action along. Just when he's gotten you to care about one set of characters, he'll drop them for another and begin the whole process again. In the end, all three stories tuck into one another, culminating in a tense, bloody climax. Yet "The Tesseract" throws off some actual human warmth. In the first section, to take one example, Garland reveals that two of his tough-guy characters are afraid of using guns, uncertain about how to actually fire them. While the idea of men's men who dislike guns is a device -- a neat deflation of macho expectations -- it also gives the reader a special window into both the action that's about to unfold and a link between two characters who are destined to face off.
But if "The Tesseract" is a more sophisticated piece of writing than "The Beach," Garland still isn't quite the voice of maturity. A tesseract, as the book explains, is "a four-dimensional object -- a hypercube -- unraveled." In other words, a deeply significant thingamabob incomprehensible to most mere mortals. "We can see the thing unraveled, but not the thing itself," one of the characters muses, and at this point it's easy to picture thousands of introspective 20-year-olds crouched over "The Tesseract" in cafes in London, New York, Paris and Rome, all furrowing their brows simultaneously in the same expression of intense concentration.
For Garland, it's not enough to have produced a well written novel in which a handful of characters' lives intersect on one fateful night -- a good read about people we come to care for. It also has to be a book pregnant with symbolism, a potent tale presented as a complex puzzle, a parable that will teach us that no matter how hard we try we can never understand fate. How many English lit teachers have started a lecture by writing the word "Fate" on the blackboard, underlining it three times for emphasis? Garland must have been in one of those classes.