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Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Chance by Kem Nunn

Scribner, 336 pages, $26 (release date 2/18/14)

Read up on Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, and the Banach-Tarski paradox before you begin this book. It won’t help but then you can nod knowledgeably when Kem Nunn periodically brings one or the other up in the story.

Chance is a strange story, part metaphysical, part parable, part noir existential thriller. There are sentences such as, “We might well bleed upon Nietzsche’s secret sacrificial altars, but are we not also impaled upon the axiom of choice?” cozying up schizophrenically to sentences such as, “…the money shot, a single fatal strike delivered to the chest at a point roughly even with the second button of a shirt…a psycho strike in and down….”

Eldon Chance is a 49-year-old forensic psychiatrist in San Francisco. Although he is successful in a niche market, i.e., professionally evaluating people for legal cases, he is on the verge of divorce, alienated from his teenage daughter, strapped for cash, and living in a soulless shoebox. He also has inappropriate but undisclosed feelings for a former patient, which are replaced by inappropriate and dangerously public feelings for a new patient. 

Jaclyn Blackstone claims to be abused by her husband, a homicide detective in Oakland. She says he is corrupt and has criminal connections and interests. She is beautiful and messed up. Her prior psychiatrist has noted another personality, Jackie Black, a more extroverted, sexual personality.

Chance thinks he shouldn’t think past interacting with her on a professional basis, shouldn’t act on his attraction, shouldn’t give in to the “white knight” syndrome. He already knows that he is prone to “imagine any and all worst-case scenarios.” Methinks he doth protest too much, because in the end Chance doesn’t try very hard to avoid a relationship with Jaclyn Blackstone/Jackie Black.

Chance’s personal hole gets a little bigger when, in order to help himself out of a financial pickle, Chance allows Carl Allen, an antiques dealer, and his assistant, Big D (300 pounds big, five-nine), to tamper with some furniture he has in order to sell it as an unblemished authentic antique.

Then Chance is menaced by Raymond Blackstone, you-know-who’s husband. The menacing seems to escalate, and Chance enlists the aid of Carl and Big D, people he pretty much just met. In for one criminal enterprise, in for another, he must conclude. Soon it is Big D who proves to have some knowledge of the dark arts of combat, and before you can say “ethics violation,” Chance is in over his head.

Chance’s confidantes are an odd bunch. Aside from Big D and Carl, there’s Jean-Baptiste Marceau, his business building’s chief parking attendant. He proves to be a pocket philosopher and master of bizarre and revealing photographs of people in distress. Doesn’t Chance know anyone normal? Even his ex-wife left him for not just any old personal trainer, but a dyslexic one. Stumbling constantly over such eccentricities might be an artifact of his job or of his own predilections. Perhaps what they all have in common is “They had all spent a good deal of time prowling among the ruins.”

So this is what I think the Banach-Tarski paradox has to do with the price of tea. Contrary to what we in the physical world experience, in mathematicsland you can disintegrate and reconfigure a 3D object in such a way as to make two replicas of the original object, as long as you have the axiom of choice. (When I understand the axiom, I’ll let you know. Don’t hold your breath.) Perhaps Jaclyn is the disintegrated and reconfigured figure, only the copies are not perfectly alike. She probably needs to exercise the axiom of choice more. Let’s not even talk about the frozen lake risk theory.

I would rather have had more stylish noir thriller and not so much metaphysics.

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