A strong debut despite its shortcomings

Will Chancellor’s first novel, A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, is not always quite as clever as the author intends, but it has plenty of energy to atone for its predictable satiric targets and some real emotional heft to counter the whiffs of pretentiousness.

When Owen Burr loses his left eye in the final water polo match of his Stanford University career, he loses his berth on the 2004 U.S. Olympics team. The accident also deprives Owen of his personal religion, an idiosyncratic pairing of four ancient Greek gods with the colors peridot, gamboge, carmine and ultramarine. Now, “this nameless world was colorless, collapsed,” and if he can’t go to Athens to play Olympic polo, he’ll go to Berlin and become an artist.

Owen can still see colors, actually; what he’s lost is his place in a coherent universe. In Berlin, he enters the amoral, publicity-driven world of Kurt Wagener, an artist in a wheelchair whose wild success is built on a canny combination of cliched conceptual exhibits (a museum filled with 12 million orange ping-pong balls) and mocking remarks lapped up by the media: “It’s not really art at all. … It’s a tax write-off.”

This is familiar stuff, and Owen agreeing to a collaboration with Kurt that he knows is exploitative seems a bit far fetched. Chancellor finesses the probability issue with a foray into decadent Berlin nightlife that ends with Owen, drugged and semi-conscious, being used as the subject of photos mimicking the recently exposed images of torture at Abu Ghraib.

Those scenes are genuinely shocking, as is his father’s discovery that Owen has been dumped in a Berlin hospital, hallucinating and suffering from bacterial meningitis. Joseph Burr, a classics professor at California’s Mission University, has promoted an obscure theory he calls liminality into an international speaking tour he hopes will put him on the trail of his vanished son. This gives Chancellor the opportunity to take standard potshots at trendy public intellectuals, complete with a guest appearance by Jean Baudrillard, “the theorist whose ideas had spawned a billion-dollar film franchise.”

That’s The Matrix, in case you were wondering. This brand of wit largely depends on readers patting themselves on the back for getting the references. If they don’t get it, or don’t care, then meant-to-be-hilarious set pieces — like Professor Burr’s incoherent speech at a Greek theater on the slopes of the Acropolis — fall flat. The speech comes to a dramatic climax, however, when an audience member dashes onstage and hands Burr a lit molotov cocktail. He tries to throw it through an opening in the back wall but instead hits the facade. Fire and riot ensue; Burr finds himself accused of terrorism and on the run.

Owen, too, is a fugitive, after attacking a famous figure at Art Basel. It comes awfully late in the novel, but Professor Burr’s painful concern for his son finally provides a ballast of recognizable feeling to anchor the airy intellectualizing. A lot of plot is required to get father and son separately to Iceland, but it’s worth it for their moving reunion in the land of sagas “about the brave men seven storeys tall,” and the afterglow lingers through a final round of academic satire back in California.

Wonderful passages of vivid prose and pungent dialogue occur throughout A Brave Man Seven Storeys Tall, although they too often make overly obvious points. Chancellor’s knowing catalogue of the market-driven imperatives of the art world and the academy isn’t as fresh as his way with words. He still has some thematic growing-up to do. The marvelous Iceland chapters — earthy and ruefully funny, warm yet coolly aware of absurdity — suggest that he’s already on his way.

Wendy Smith reviewed this book for The Washington Post.