Arthur Friedland is not a good father. He's an unsuccessful writer, spending his days peacefully sponging off his eye doctor wife's salary and mostly ignoring their twin boys, Ivan and Eric. One day he announces to his sons that he has another son, Martin, who is older than them and lives with his own mother somewhere else. Arthur decides he's going to be involved in Martin's life again, but it's not clear why he wants to, as their interactions are brief and cryptic, none more so than the day Arthur takes his three boys to see a hypnotist show.
Arthur claims hypnotism doesn't work on him, but something happens at that show when Arthur is called up onstage. The scene is a strange catalyst for everything that comes after, in Arthur's life and in the lives of his sons. Later that day, he packs a bag and leaves, apparently determined to become a writer of note. And he does, publishing several books, the most notable a bizarre philosophical text in which he claims no one truly exists. The rest of the book shows his sons trying, in varying ways, to come to terms with their own lives and their father's enigmatic legacy.
Kehlmann's novel is definitely on the literary end of the spectrum. It felt a bit experimental to me; the narrative reads like a single story splintered into shards. We are just reading the pieces that, if it were possible to reconstruct them, might constitute a whole. After the first section which takes place at the hypnotist show, Kehlmann includes a section centering on each of the three brothers over roughly the same time period, so we see the same scene repeatedly, but with different insight each time. One conversation over lunch that from Martin's perspective is virtually nonsensical is illuminated once we understand it the way Eric does. Similarly, an incident reported by a teenager in a confessional seems an arbitrary detail until pages and pages later, when it suddenly isn't, and the foreboding of oncoming disaster is crushing.
The book is translated from the German, so I'm not particularly confident in speculating what the letter F of the title might stand for, though the publisher's blurb mentions everything from fraud to fortune to the obvious Friedland. What I can say is that this book challenged me with its unusual structure and lofty philosophical questioning. Martin, Eric, and Ivan are all looking for meaning, although their methods are equally ironic: Martin is a priest who doesn't believe in God, Eric is a crooked investor who is saved, not ruined, by an economic collapse, and Ivan is a painter who can only create if he pretends his work is by someone else. Hanging over all of them is the ominous shadow of their father and his suggestion that maybe everything is meaningless. As it turns out, it's a difficult way to live.
With regards to NetGalley and Knopf Doubleday for the advance copy. On sale August 26.