Explosive tale of separate lives colliding

THE TESSERACT By Alex Garland Riverhead Books 273 pp., $24.95

As every horror-movie survivor knows, it's not the attack that's so frightening. It's the moment before the attack.

In Alex Garland's new novel, "The Tesseract," the monsters are entirely human, but the tension is out of this world.

Garland is a wizard of time manipulation. His entire novel transpires while some Filipino thugs burst into a hotel room, chase a man down the street, and shoot him. It's the closest you'll ever come to riding a bullet.

But there's nothing linear about this shocking, complex story, told in three parts. What's remarkable about "The Tesseract" is the way it traces the people and events that converge in the center of this deadly web.

The novel opens as a ship captain awaits the arrival of his assassins in a deserted part of Manila. He has a terrifyingly clear vision of what's about to happen; the same gangsters murdered his predecessor several years earlier.

In the dead silence he endures, even the cockroaches make too much noise. There's nothing to do but watch the light fade, speculate about a stain on the floor, and prepare a futile defense.

As the narration fractures and rotates, the murderers driving toward him come into focus. Their boss, Don Pepe, comes from a line of hideously cruel plantation masters, but one of his young henchman struggles to develop the requisite brutality in the face of his own inexplicable tenderness.

The novel shifts abruptly to a wealthy suburb outside the city, where a doctor puts her young children to bed. The contrast suggests that the difference between a quiet peaceful evening and the chilly sweat of dread is only a matter of perspective.

In so many ways, this woman's comfortable suburban life couldn't be further from the chaos raining down in town, but as the past seeps into her thoughts, we see the burn marks of violence in her own life, too.

The third section of the novel traces the erratic paths of two street kids, baffled by their predicament and struggling to survive. Reeling from his wife's suicide, an idealistic psychologist has dedicated his life to helping these children by analyzing their dreams, but the night visions and the day realities are hard to disentangle.

On three different axes, these characters race toward a violent collision that we can't help anticipating with a wince.

"Some things are too complicated to be easily expressed," the narrator notes, but fortunately, the complexity here is fascinating rather than baffling.

In our everyday, three-dimensional world, these characters are like the sides of a tesseract. They should never be able to meet; it's an unimaginable violation of our perspective.

This is a novel based on the physics of disaster. Garland follows a bullet through a door as effectively as he traces a neutrino through a block of lead. With so much empty space between the basic elements of matter, Garland suggests that it's remarkable we ever make contact, but not surprising that the results are violent when we do.

As Garland moves back and forth through the places and times that created this tragic convergence, he knows how to convey a character's background with a precise detail in the foreground. "The Tesseract" confirms all the praise poured on this English writer's first novel, "The Beach" (1996).

Garland is a master at capturing that elastic moment before tragedy rips through the surface of ordinary life. Even in moments of explosion, he catches every contradictory thought of terror and compassion. This is a dangerously hot novel.

* Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csps.com

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