I discovered Elliot Perlman’s ‘Three Dollars’ through Lisa (from ANZ Lit Lovers) who recommended it and other books by Perlman highly. I hadn’t heard of Perlman before and so was quite excited to discover a new-to-me author. I read the book over the last week and finished it yesterday. Here is what I think.
The story told in ‘Three Dollars’ is narrated by Eddie. Eddie meets Amanda every nine and a half years. She was his childhood friend and they studied in the same school together. After Amanda and her family leave the neighbourhood to live elsewhere, Eddie meets her again after nine and a half years under different circumstances, in a different stage of his life. This continues for a few times and looks like a predictable accident (Eddie says this – “Somewhere in Princeton, or maybe Cambridge, there are some very dedicated people on the verge of discovering what Amanda Claremont was doing in my life, orbiting me every nine and a half years…comforted only by the knowledge that any physical system that exhibits periodic behaviour should be predictable”). The present time when he bumps into Amanda, Eddie is married to the beautiful and feisty Tanya, has a beautiful daughter Abby, but has just lost his job, might lose his house and has only three dollars left with him. How did things get to this state? The story attempts to answer that.
Though the book starts with these accidental meetings between Eddie and Amanda, this really acts as the frame to the real story (like in Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, how the story of the captain who takes a ship and crew and goes to explore the Arctic is only the frame within which Victor Frankenstein’s story is told). The main story is about Eddie and his wife Tanya – how Eddie meets her at university, how they fall in love, how after the usual trials and tribulations and distractions caused by other potential lovers they get together and get married and have a beautiful daughter Abby and how they all love each other inspite of everyday niggles and problems. The story is also about the ‘80s and the ‘90s, about Thatcherism and Reaganomics, how because of de-regulation and globalization many people lost their jobs and the world became a more uncertain place to live in and how individuals who worked hard still lost everything because of forces beyond their control. How the general and the particular interact in the life of Eddie, Tanya and their family and how it ends up with them being unemployed with a net worth of three dollars and whether they are able to rise from that abyss form the rest of the story.
Though the main part of the story of ‘Three Dollars’ is set in the ‘90s, it feels eerily like the present day world and the issues it explores are very current and contemporary. We might have got used to hearing frequently about some of the things described in the book that they don’t feel like surprises anymore – like the de-regulation of many of the sectors of the economy, privatization of public sector companies, management consultants being hired to reduce costs, restructuring of organizations making a significant proportion of the employees redundant, job security and long-term (permanent) jobs having disappeared permanently, hardworking (and meticulously saving) people getting their net worth wiped out overnight – but it doesn’t make things any less scary. We have heard of history repeating itself but who would have known that what Elliot Perlman wrote about in 1998, when the book was first published, would get repeated more than once in a big way in the past fifteen years?
I love books with beautiful sentences, and ‘Three Dollars’ has an abundance of them. There were beautiful sentences like this :
She cried until the tears were no longer able to meet the demands of her sadness…
And this :
If she was not with him she was attached to the telephone in an approximation of the alternative.
Humorous sentences like this :
Engineering in all its guises was difficult enough but even more difficult was to be interested in it.
And this :
If something were not a cliché it had every chance of escaping my attention.
And this :
Being judgmental must surely be one of the most joyful activities known to the species and it is cruel that other animals are denied this pleasure.
And this :
The distance between what you say in a daydream and what you actually say to a superior at your place of work is proportional to the number of adults unsuccessfully seeking full-time employment.
And this :
On hot days the car begged to be put out of its misery and on cold days it behaved as if it had been.
And Dickensian sentences like this :
…watching the clock impart the neutrality of time as only a clock can, it occurred to me that it was not ridiculous to contemplate the predication of courage, or of its absence, with respect to somebody in the circumstances in which I found myself.
And this :
It had displayed to Tanya every minute the day had on offer but not one of them had recommended itself to her as a fine moment for rising.
And this :
I had thought that I knew her affliction and not merely the fact of it. It was no stranger to me. I understood it emotionally, empathetically. But I had only ever touched down at its airport. She was a citizen of its vast interior.
In many places, I felt that that author was struggling to decide whether to write in contemporary English or in Dickensian English. The final result is a beautiful combination of both which brings a lot of delight to readers.
I also loved the literary references in the book – Auden (who is fast becoming one of my favourite poets), Wordsworth, Sophocles, Arthur Miller (is he the favourite playwright of Australian readers?) – some of which are used to make important observations in the story.
I enjoyed reading Elliot Perlman’s ‘Three Dollars’. It is many things at the same time – a love story, a commentary on the contemporary world, a philosophical look at the current economic system and the story of one normal family which tries to survive in difficult circumstances. I would love to read more books by Perlman. I am also reading a book by an Aussie author after a long time. I hope that I don’t wait, like Eddie does for his next meeting with Amanda, but that I make my acquaintance with another Aussie writer soon.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.
Somehow your perception of the number of people ahead of you in a queue is inversely proportional to the number of people behind you. If there are six people ahead of you in the queue and nobody behind you, you might consider leaving. If there are six people ahead of you and six people behind you, you will not leave the queue. You cannot. It would seem like a tragic waste of a precious resource even though, as you stood there in the queue, you would not be able to name the resource.
There are moments when you see something happening so slowly it still has not really happened before you have finished seeing it and yet you are completely unable to alter it, or are unable to intervene.
‘If you stay in bed for long enough the sheets and blankets take on your own smell…but not all of it, not the whole of your smell, just the saltiest part. From inside the bed it seems that the air around the bed takes on your saltiness too. After a while it’s hard to know whether the sheets and surrounding air are making you smell that way even more than you’re making them smell that way. I’d never thought you could smell salt but you can when it’s a person’s salt. It’s a strong and intoxicating saltiness.’
If you have ever loved your parents, if you have ever been able to talk with them, then all you really want from life is someone you can talk to when your parents die. That is the unarticulated goal at the back of your mind when you choose a partner, at least for your first marriage. You might think that you are looking for all those other things, shared interests, values, goals, shared folk memories, sexual compatibility, the same taste in taste. But all of this, if you are lucky enough to have been loved as a child, is just a smokescreen that you put up as you crawl between the trenches of your life, a smokescreen to hide the need to find just one person you can always talk to after your parents have died, one person whom you can tell your employment contract has not been renewed.
Have you read ‘Three Dollars’ or other books by Elliot Perlman? What do you think about them?