Read an excerpt on truthdig.
Listen to a review of The Double Life of Alfred Buber by Jim McKeown on KWBU, NPR
Author David Schmahmann could have easily written a story about a powerful man who, led by his libido, risks his reputation for some quick-and-dirty sex. In the era of Spitzer, Weiner and Schwarzenegger, it would have seemed to be ripped from the headlines .... But unlike the tales of Spitzer et al., “The Double Life of Alfred Buber” is a love story, and a sweet, often uncomfortable one at that...
At times, Schmahmann’s book feels like a mystery novel .... Buber’s double life isn’t just the difference between what he does and what others think he does. There’s also a difference between what he does and what he only fantasizes about doing. It’s a neat trick of language, and Schmahmann deftly pulls it off. He uses verb tenses like a well-oiled time machine, moving seamlessly through Buber’s past, present and future... Through Buber’s deceptions, he reveals the truth about human need and frailty, and this truth ... precious....Schmahmann has created an unforgettable character whose double life is as outrageous, and as familiar, as one’s own.
It's not about the Third World sex trade. It’s not about occidental exploitation. It’s not about buying a Thai wife. It’s not an Asian Lolita. It’s not about generational divides. It’s not about age-defiant sex. It’s not about shame. It’s not about the blight of social stigma. It’s not about convention and bienséance. It’s not even about love really.
The Double Life of Alfred Buber has more to do with loneliness and the very human search for contact and proximity, what is asked of the skin, of the body’s senses … David Schmahmann delivers a touching everyman story with erudite chic and understanding. “Oh it is not love, I know that. It is much more compelling. I do not know where it will lead and yet, and yet, it will lead where it leads. I am a man. She is a woman. Someday we will both be dead.”
All is said.
Exquisitely written, detailed, fierily emotional and yet completely cold and callous, The Double Life of Alfred Buber is a unique read that will settle around a reader like a cloying dust and linger, even after a long, hot shower, in the pores. It’s a confusing, delicious, is he or isn’t he, can he or can’t he, will he or won’t he, story of love, lust, power, money and lack of. Of two worlds and a crash course collision that may or may not bring them together in the end for a happy ever after. Or not.
Not a subtle or easy read, The Double Life of Alfred Buber won’t please everyone. It’s intelligent, debauched and detached all at once. The taste it leaves in the mouth varies. Each confession, each moment meted out with a precise slice of madness that hovers on the edge of normal and not, and personal perception. A calamitous kaleidoscope of a book. Take a bite, you might just like it
I’ve enjoyed two of Schmahmann’s earlier books (and reviewed Empire Settings and Nibble & Kuhn), and have a 3rd on my to-read list. Nothing prepared me for The Double Life of Alfred Buber. This book is literary fiction at it’s best — taut, well crafted, lovely prose, thoroughly engaging, which draws you into the character’s strange new world and leaves your reading landscape forever altered.
"[Y]ou may suddenly pause and let out a joyous shriek of recognition if you’re familiar with T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” If this is the case, you may think you’ve been teased into an expanded version of “Prufrock’s” themes of longing and loneliness in a sordid world.... But the novel is also, unlike “Prufrock,” witty and absurdly tragi-comic…
[A] splendid, original tale … Schmahmann outdoes himself with descriptions of Nok, the Asian sex trade and the squalid Asian countryside. No Lolita, Nok impassively, pathetically, plies her trade because there is nothing else. When Buber comes upon her she is off in a corner trying to learn English from a tattered book. Sympathy for her, seen only through Buber’s eyes in his exquisitely ambiguous notes from the underground, ensure that The Double Life of Alfred Buber will—and should—be seen as a major literary achievement."
…a truly remarkable literary creation… There’s a balance, a way of seeing and then expressing on the page, that sets Mr. Schmahmann’s work apart from what so many others have attempted and failed to accomplish—and what he manages to do with paper and ink. He rubs words together like sticks, as if to set things ablaze.
David Schmahmann has created a character with the vividness of J. Alfred Prufrock or Humbert Humbert. Buber’s obsessions and the carefully-guarded secret life he leads not only make for a compelling novel, they tell us much about a very widespread and hauntingly ordinary form of deceit.
[A] florid, loquacious portrait of a man whose vices threaten to get the better of him. Our nominal hero, 40-year-old attorney Alfie Buber, introduces himself with flair. "These are the chronicles of the starship Buber, noted bibliophile, late night television addict, keeper of sordid little secrets so appalling he dares not breathe a word of them to a soul," he confesses. Buber relates the facts of his life as they are visible to the community in which he is thought to be a fine, upstanding citizen ... but mostly he submits to living his own lie. "The irony is rich. I am so much less than I project myself to be, bear no resemblance to the man I have insisted people see me as," he says.
An unusual morality play whose artful style veils the depravity of its protagonist.
[A fascinating depiction of self-deceiving do-gooding amidst exploitation...The Double Life of Alfred Buber is an original and sophisticated novel which lingers in the mind. Alfred Buber is one of those characters who achieves such an artful palpability that it is easy to imagine meeting him in other contexts. In Brussels this week, I think I might have glimpsed him near the Schuman roundabout. Impossible, ridiculous, even, but this is precisely the reward of successful fiction, which is more than a trick of mind. It makes consciousness more open to possibilities.
David Schmahmann’s The Double Life of Alfred Buber reads like a lost Nabokov novel…the prose is meticulously wrought, the plot deeply complex and psychologically layered….Where some novels radiate outward, this one spirals in on itself, turn by fascinating turn, exploring the inner life of a man distanced from both himself and reality by his own lies and a soul full of secret, shameful desires.
…Buber moves back and forth in time and place, to Boston, to Europe, to Bangkok, trying to figure out his life, wedded to both his personas, and as both his lives slowly unravel, he faces the consequence of his waffling. Schmahmann has captured desperation and love between unequals.
Q: The Double Life of Alfred Buber is unlike anything else you've written. What led you to write it?
A: When I worked in Burma I saw a great deal of sexual misadventure and I knew I would one day write about it. I didn't know until I started writing this book though that in the end I would write not so much about sexual adventure as about the loneliness that fuels it. This is a novel about loneliness more than anything else, and the loneliness of men in particular. It's something I've thought about often, how men experience loneliness differently than women do, and how loneliness in men tends to acquire a sexual overtone. From what I've seen lonely men seek out women in a kind of obsessive quest, and sex, and companionship, and illusion, all get mixed into a soup that's hard to parse out. My guess is - Buber is testament to it - that the desperate hunt for sex and women only compounds loneliness in unhappy men, and that it isn't sex at all they seek but rather affirmation and connection and redemption.
Alfred Buber is, more than anything else, alone. I've tried to show him to be the sensitive and cultured man I think he is - he certainly knows literature and has a rollicking time making fun of himself - and yet even as there are suggestions that people like and respect him, it's not how he sees himself: he consistently misses dimensions of his life that I hope a reader will come to appreciate. (It’s also part of his double life, of course: not only the secret exploits, but how things turn out to be different than what he’s described.) He pines for a woman to fill in the pieces he sees as missing, but he confuses his unhappiness with other things, and in the end he crosses the world seeking a woman to meet a need that no woman could possibly fill.
Q: How autobiographical is the novel.
A: People ask this about all my books, and I suppose I should be complimented. I'm not Danny Divin, the white boy who falls in love with the daughter of an African domestic servant in Empire Settings, though I was a white boy in South Africa under apartheid. And my old law firm wasn't Nibble & Kuhn, which I parody in another novel. (Well, not exactly.) And I never had an affair with, or fell in love with, a Bangkok bargirl. But I have worked in Burma, and I've sat in the American Club in Rangoon and wondered about the middle aged men with sylphy Burmese girls on their arms, envied them their recklessness even as a silent censor acted just as Buber imagines his uncle Nigel would if he knew about his exploits in Asia. I've also spent time in Bangkok and explored the parts of the city where some of my novel take place, and I've struck up conversations, even friendships of a sort, in those places. I've seen a longing for safety and recognition by women like Nok, and witnessed the odd disconnect between their debauched behavior and the decency and good humor in men who in many ways are their predators. I used to think of myself as the observer in a white linen suit, a modern day Somerset Maugham character - but that's not quite it either. There's nothing in the novel that's true, in short, or true of me. But every strain of the novel comes from somewhere deep in my imagination.
Q: Buber is a Rhodesian. Surely that choice on your part, to have him come from so close to where you come from, suggests autobiography?
A: That's an interesting question, and it's a quirk I inserted in my novel deliberately. Like me, Buber is an immigrant to America. He sees it much as I do: a foreign place, impenetrable, not because it is in any sense inhospitable but rather the opposite. It's all there, and endlessly available from the moment you step from an airplane, but if you're not a native you're also always somehow pretending to belong rather than belonging. It's the sheer openness of the country and the array of possibilities that make the pretense so robust, but in Alfred Buber's case the pretense is intrusive. It leads in large measure to his isolation,his retreat into an English stuffiness that caricatures his colonial origins, and ultimately adds to his isolation. It's what I wanted him to be: entirely civilized, apart, desperately lonely. I hope I'm civilized, but for me loneliness is a sporadic thing and very internal. Unlike Alfred Buber I have a family and children, several very close friends, and deep relationships with my siblings.
That said, his Rhodesian background is not simply a silent detail to the story.
Q: Do you think of Nok as somehow trafficked, or exploited?
A: No. Prostitution in Thailand is a complex matter and western notions don't superimpose as cleanly as Buber fears the young women in his office, if they knew of his secret life, would insist they do. Rural Thailand has pockets of deep poverty, and as is true in much of Asia opportunities for poor and rural women can be limited. There are some really good books I've relied on - Cleo Odzer's Patpong Sisters is one - in which western authors try to get into the heads of Thai sex workers and it becomes clear that the issues can be much more subtle than you might think. Of course there is trafficking and exploitation, but in Nok’s case she’s free to come and go in Bangkok but is her family's slave in the countryside, undervalued and isolated. In Bangkok, perhaps misguidedly, she seeks to broaden her horizons and it's unclear that she feels exploited, which surely is one determinant of whether she is. She seeks love too, oddly enough, and in some upside down way is Alfred Buber's mirror.