Oliver Vice, forty-one, prominent philosopher, scholar, and art collector, is missing and presumed dead, over the side of Queen Mary 2.Troubled by his friend’s possible suicide, the unnamed narrator of Lawrence Douglas’ new novel launches an all-consuming investigation into Vice’s life history. Douglas, moving backward through time, tells a mordantly humorous story of fascination turned obsession, as his narrator peels back the layers of the Vice family’s rich and bizarre history. At the heart of the family are Francizka, Oliver’s handsome, overbearing, vaguely anti-Semitic Hungarian mother, and his fraternal twin brother, Bartholomew, a gigantic and troubled young man with a morbid interest in Europe’s great tyrants. As the narrator finds himself drawn into a battle over the family’s money and art, he comes to sense that someone—or perhaps the entire family—is hiding an unsavory past. Pursuing the truth from New York to London, from Budapest to Portugal, he remains oblivious to the irony of the search: that in his need to understand Vice’s life, he is really grappling with ambivalence about his own.
Douglas (The Catastrophist) delivers a probing and skillful examination of the conundrums of identity, with philosopher Oliver Vice providing the subject, and the unnamed narrator, Oliver's colleague and best friend, serving as the examiner. After opening with an account of 41-year-old Oliver's death by drowning on a transatlantic voyage aboard the Queen Mary 2 (accident or suicide?), the narrator describes Oliver's meteoric rise fueled by his book, Paradoxes of Self; his tenured appointment at Harkness College in western Massachusetts, where the two meet; his unusual family and unorthodox relationships with women. Almost all the "facts" the narrator knows of Oliver's life are either wrong or subject to various interpretations so that his identity always remains elusive and in flux. The repeated irony of Oliver and the narrator being mistaken for one another despite their dissimilar appearances is prelude to a masterfully kaleidoscopic shift that presents the reader with a stunning new vista.