F By Daniel Kehlmann Bibliography

One thing nearly certain about a novel whose title is merely a letter of the alphabet is that any review will probably contain what grammarians call “modals,” words that imply possibility: “This enigmatic title may refer to . . . ” or “Given the author’s many winks at the reader, such a title might. . . . ”

As with Thomas Pynchon’s “V.” or Tom McCarthy’s “C,” in Daniel Kehlmann’s subtly yet masterly constructed puzzle cube of a new novel, readers and characters alike exist for a time in that hazy, uncertain land, where there is not only the desire but the need to solve for x — or, in Kehlmann’s case, “F” — a need to assign value, to accord meaning, to map connections, to know the mind of the creator.

Not such an easy task, either in fiction or in life, as the three Friedland brothers — Ivan, Eric and Martin — and their father, Arthur, discover in Kehlmann’s novel, translated deftly from the German by Carol Brown Janeway. As 13-year-old Ivan, an aspiring artist, notes while brooding on the mystery of art: “There was nothing about it in any book. No one to help you. No book, no teacher. You had to figure out everything important for yourself, and if you didn’t, you had failed your life’s purpose.” Eventually, after years of practice, Ivan confronts this failure head-on: “I was never going to rank as a painter. This much I now knew. I worked the same way I had before, but there was no longer any point. . . . What does it mean to be average — suddenly the question became a constant one. How do you live with that, why do you keep on going?”

Again, a philosophical query that’s not so easy to answer, either for Ivan the would-be painter or for his feckless father, Arthur the would-be writer, unemployed, unambitious and unpublished outside of a few literary journals he doesn’t count, whose wife, a wealthy eye doctor, supports him and the family financially.

When the novel opens in 1984, Arthur is taking his three teenage sons to see a sideshow hypnotist who, despite Arthur’s skepticism, coaxes him into making an effort to rise above his own mediocrity: “No matter what it costs.” That night, Arthur takes “his passport and all the money in their joint account” and sends his wife a telegram saying “they shouldn’t wait for him, he wouldn’t be coming back for a long time.” His sons will not see him again until they are adults, by which time Arthur will have become a wildly successful albeit reclusive writer. His novel “My Name Is No One,” featuring a hero called “F,” is so popular that its hopeless message — human consciousness is meaningless and none of us actually exist — inspires a spate of suicides.

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“Elegant. . . . A subtly yet masterly constructed puzzle cube. . . . With its sly Möbius-strip-like connectedness, [it] doesn’t just hint at the possibility of a plan behind the scenes; it enacts that plan in the very telling.” —The New York Times Book Review 

“A lollapalooza of a family comedy, diabolically intricate in its layering of concurrent narratives and dryly hilarious at every mazelike turn. . . . F is splashed with vivacious, hilarious characters and incidents that, with distance and time, transmogrify into something quite sinister indeed.” —San Francisco Chronicle

“Kehlmann’s strange and endlessly provoking novel . . .  [is] not merely clever but suggestive and powerful. . . . But the deepest delights—delights that offer consolation in a faithless or fake world—are to be found in the novel’s beautiful and cunning construction, and in its brilliantly self-interrogating form.” —The New Yorker

“Kehlmann’s . . . musings on religion, art and life are intellectually rigorous, and his plotting masterful in the linking of the story’s separate narratives with overlaps that, when revealed, surprise and shock. . . . [His] rendering of life’s mysteries . . . allows the reader a window to another world.” —NPR, All Things Considered
 
“Each son’s tale reads like a satisfying novella, and the three eventually dovetail in a way that surprises without feeling overdetermined. . . . [Kehlmann] shows off many talents in F. He’s adept at aphorism, brainy humor and dreamlike sequences. And he keeps the pages lightly turning while musing deeply.” —The New York Times
 
“A rich, absorbing and well-orchestrated narrative.” —Boston Globe
 
“A comic tour de force, a biting satire on the hypnotised world of artificial wants and needs that Huxley predicted, a moving study of brotherhood and family failure, F is an astonishing book, a work of deeply satisfying (and never merely clever) complexity. . . . Yet F is also much more than an intricate puzzle: it is a novel of astonishing beauty, psychological insight and, finally, compassion, a book that, in a world of fakes and manufactured objects of desire, is the real article, a bona-fide, inimitable masterpiece.” —The Times Literary Supplement (London)
 
“The hallmarks of [Kehlmann’s] style are speed, wit and a nuanced appreciation of the absurd. . . . He’s a specialist in the kind of irony that tells us more about a character, and ourselves, than sincerity ever could.” —Guernicamag.com
 
“A testament to the fact that conceptual novels need not be devoid of people and that family novels need not be devoid of ideas and that some darkly funny, smart absurdity is always a good idea.” —Flavorwire
 
“A tightly constructed exploration of filial tension and adult struggle. . . . As Kehlmann’s characters lay bare their troubled souls, we get a view that is comic and affecting.” —Minneapolis Star-Tribune
 
“What a strange and beautiful novel, hovering on the misty borders of the abstract and the real. Three brilliant character studies in the brothers—religion, money and art—what else is there? The answer, Kehlmann suggests, without ever saying so, is love, and its lack is the essence of the failures of all three. But while these fates unroll in the idiom of psychological realism, there is a cooler geometry working on the reader, a painterly sense of the symmetry in human fates. It’s a deeply writerly novel with a stout backbone of wonderful characterization. High achievement.” —Ian McEwan
 
“With the wizardry of a puzzle master Daniel Kehlmann permutes the narrative pieces of this Rubik’s Cube of a story—involving a lost father and his three sons—into a solution that clicks into position with a deep thrill of narrative and emotional satisfaction. Kehlmann is one of the brightest, most pleasure-giving writers at work today, and he manages all this while exploring matters of deep philosophical and intellectual import.  He deserves to have more readers in the United States.” —Jeffrey Eugenides
 
“An intricate, beautiful novel in multiple disguises: a family saga, a fable, and a high-speed farce. But then, what else would you expect? Daniel Kehlmann is one of the great novelists for making giant themes seem light.” —Adam Thirlwell

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