Out of the Line of Fire is a book about a brilliant young philosophy scholar named Wolfgang Shönborn and his father, mother, and sister Elena. The book is structured as a sort of sandwich – the opening and closing sections are told by the unnamed narrator who meets Wolfi when they are both students in Heidelberg. The long middle section is compiled from a package of miscellaneous documents and photographs that Wolfi mailed to the narrator from Berlin, over a year after Wolfi disappeared from Heidelberg. This parting of the friends was an anxious one as the narrator did not get a chance to say goodbye before his own return home to Australia.
This is a novel that has everything: interesting characters along with their individual development and entanglements; a compelling plot with occasional jaw-dropping revelations; and a style that combines lyrical descriptive writing, crisp believable dialogue, and experimental episodes (such as an attempt to philosophically analyze a porn clip, and the consideration of the text that appears on a piece of newspaper Wolfi had used to wrap a photograph he’d sent in the package).
Henshaw had me in the early pages when the topic of Wolfi’s Ph.D. is revealed to be “the metonymic perception of reality.” There are quite a few philosophical tidbits in the book, including lucid passages regarding Kant as he grappled with phenomena, our sensory understanding of the world, and his notion of the noumena. And we hear how Husserl and his followers turned the phenomenology of Kant and Hume on its head. Wolfi mentions that when his father was young, Wittgenstein would come to the house to visit with Wolfi’s grandfather, and one senses that he was an important influence on his overbearing father (a father who pushes Wolfi at a young age to question how he knows anything about what he thinks he knows, and spurs in his son such a manic, sustained bout of studying that it results in a nervous breakdown). Beyond this, the direct mentions of philosophy are fairly rare. Surely the most unexpected is when Wolfi gives a very attentive and beautiful account of his first sexual experience (with a prostitute – an arrangement initiated by his grandmother) and, remarkably, describes how it seemed to him to physically embody Hegel’s dialectic.
The references aren’t only philosophical. The narrator is studying literature, and there are allusions to writers such as Kafka, Handke, Hölderlin, Pirandello, Simenon, and Camus. Indeed, the book, opens – audaciously enough – with the same words Calvino uses at the start of his book, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler. The scenes beginning with the one in which Wolfi becomes aware of his sister’s blossoming nubility and her existence as an individual being, brought strongly to my mind the intimate scenes involving Ulrich and his sister in Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, a book mentioned in passing earlier in the narrative. (Incidentally, looking downstream from the original 1988 publication date of Henshaw’s book, the episodic emphasis on cinema, Citizen Kane, and the inclusion of an interview in the text made me think a little of Dana Spiotta’s novels – particularly her latest, Innocents and Others).
Even as Henshaw weaves in these references to other thinkers and writers, he never forgets that his main purpose is to tell a story, and he does so marvelously. He’s clearly interested in how fiction and philosophy both struggle to present a world free of misunderstanding and ambiguity. And it may be for both philosophy and fiction, or at least for the book under consideration here, that so much of the reader’s pleasure comes from dawning realizations, where earlier conceptions are redefined and attain clarity – even if only to be upended again by subsequent revelations.
It’s difficult to say much more about what happens in the book without giving too much away. It features a strong plot, mostly interesting subplots, quite a bit of mystery and some surprising twists, but the striking developments within the Shönborn family are at its center. If you like stories that are amazingly well-told, that have flawed, intelligent characters, and that veer toward the mythologically tragic, Out of the Line of Fire will not let you down.