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Pursuit of lost ideas

THE phrase "a day and a night and a day" appears in John Steinbeck's novel "The Winter of Our Discontent." Steinbeck's protagonist, Ethan Hawley, a veteran of World War II, uses it to refer to a space of time that is "all one piece, one unit of which the parts were just about all the dirty dreadfulness that can happen in that sick business."

He can't get the horror of that "sick business" out of his head, so he takes the advice of a tough old sergeant, which is to start at the beginning and remember everything he can to the end, and then go back and repeat the process until the memory falls to pieces and disappears.

It's impossible to tell whether Glen Duncan is making a deliberate allusion to Steinbeck's book, but the echo would work nicely if he were. Augustus Rose, the biracial hero of Duncan's new novel, "A Day and a Night and a Day," is a journalist turned restaurateur turned terrorist who is tortured for precisely that period of time.

But Rose has another experience that lasts a day and a night and a day, one that's the opposite of the hell he suffers at the hands of his torturer, a jaded, perversely loquacious, cheerily nihilistic American agent named Harper.

In Barcelona, not long before Rose is abducted by the Americans, he reunites in a hotel room for that same fragile space of time with his long-lost great love, the white, wealthy and tragically incestuous Selina.

Duncan writes what used to be called "novels of ideas," though his argument here seems to be that there are no ideas worth living or dying for. There are only what Duncan movingly calls the "durable habits" of loving and caring for one another, which sustain us through all the barbarism wreaked by brutish impulses behind lofty concepts of how to live a good life.

Duncan himself, however, seems to have alpine cerebrations embedded in his very molecules. Just as Rose is torn between the absolutely bad memory and the absolutely good, his fate as a man has been determined by the fact that he is half black and half white.

And since life itself is hybrid, unfolding along the border of, to borrow a phrase, being and nothingness, Augustus Rose is something of a representative man. "A Day and a Night and a Day" seems meant to be a novel that captures the pulse of our age.

Holed up on an obscure island somewhere in Britain, physically broken from the torture, cared for by a young runaway in flight from her vicious, pimpish boyfriend, who also happens to be a British cop, Rose scours human existence for meaning.

"It astonished him that those around him went about their business as if the world, as if being alive, was uncomplicated and unmysterious." He remembers growing up in Harlem in the 1950s as the son of an Italian-American mother and an absent black father, falling in love with Selina against the wishes of her parents and experiencing the radical late '60s and early '70s with her before their breakup, an agonizing event caused by Selina's fatal passion for her brother.

After that denouement, Rose becomes disillusioned as a journalist covering Central America in the '80s, then flourishes back in New York, running several successful restaurants. Finally, he joins a group known by many names but most often called "the Sentinel," a shadowy terrorist operation that kills other terrorists, in other words, kills members of Al Qaeda, and schemes to assassinate current "members of the administration."

Duncan shifts rapidly between lyrical description, psychological insights, social perceptions and intellectual generalizations. At times, these are stunning tours de force - Duncan can be clairvoyant about how people live now. But this is also where the novel's own hybrid nature, divided between the poetic and the philosophical, occasionally runs aground on its own dizzying ambition.

Perhaps "hybrid" is too stable a word. "Schizoid" would be more like it. In one aspect, Duncan's book recalls "Crime and Punishment" and "Nineteen Eighty-Four," novels in which the intersection of politics and ideas is explored by means of acrobatic intellectual exchanges between interrogator and victim. Harper is Porfiry Petrovich and O'Brien rolled into one, with a dash of Goethe's Mephistopheles thrown in for good measure. Not to mention the compulsively commentating narrators in Saul Bellow's fiction. "We're suffering representational saturation," Harper says, as Rose hangs from the ceiling by his wrists, his feet momentarily resting on a chair.

"We've written too many books, made too many movies. By the time you're 18 you've already encountered representations of everything important, you already know the scripts." He concludes: "You don't need to describe or evoke, you just name it and put "the" in front of it. It's like compressed data files: The suburban nightmare. The dirty war. The mom who knew."

The novel's near-fatal flaw is that Rose's bizarre moral choices and his situation as a victim of torture appear to be taken for granted, so eager is Duncan to use such conceits to examine Rose's nature as your everyday Western man.

And yet "A Day and a Night and a Day" does leave you with a sense of having been brushed by something uncanny, so close does Duncan get to saying the unsayable.


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