In a note at the end of The Tesseract, Alex Garland writes: “Some definitions of a tesseract describe it as a hypercube unraveled, and others as the hypercube itself. I chose the version used here only because I happen to prefer it.” This is not only a definition of the title of this novel; it is something of a description of its structure. Unfortunately, the meaning of the term is clear only to those with a prior knowledge of esoteric terms in mathematics. A title should clarify for the reader, not obfuscate. In this novel, it is clear only that several disparate elements meet in violent collision at a point where they intersect for no apparent reason.
At the beginning, a British merchant seaman named Sean is alone in a room in a shabby hotel in Manila, waiting for the arrival of Don Pepe, a mestizo gangster who extracts a fee from every ship that enters or leaves the port. The first mate of Sean’s ship has sent him to plead with Don Pepe for free passage, since the ship cannot afford to pay the usual fee; Sean is to promise that in the future the ship’s passage will be paid.
The sailor grows increasingly nervous as the time for the meeting comes closer. He is especially disturbed by the fact that the peephole in the door to his room has been covered, so the room’s occupant cannot see anyone who might be outside. As he grows more nervous, he becomes more and more fixated on the pistol he carries. Don Pepe, in his limousine with three bodyguards, is on time for his appointment with Sean, despite a delay caused by a collision with a stray cat. Jojo the chauffeur has been ordered to kill the injured animal, and his shirt is splattered with blood as he does so. He thinks that Don Pepe has not noticed the incident, but in fact the Don has seen it all. The cat will assume greater significance later in the novel.
The Don and his three henchmen enter the hotel and knock on the door to Sean’s room. By this time the sailor is in a state of panic. When the Don’s aide knocks a second and then a third time, Sean appears in the doorway, firing his pistol. Don Pepe and Bubot are killed at once, and Sean makes his escape through the rotten wall of his room and down a corridor parallel to the one where Teroy and Jojo are firing shot after shot into Sean’s room. Once they realize that he is no longer there, they set out on a mission of revenge, as if Don Pepe were still giving orders.
The second section of the novel concerns Rosa, a physician, her two children, her husband Sonny, and her mother Corazón. It is a domestic scene in which Rosa bathes the children, Raphael and Lita, while Sonny, driving home from work, is delayed by a flat tire, inflicted by two mischievous street boys. They will later appear as major characters, Vincente and Totoy.
Much of the section centering around Rosa is devoted to flashbacks (the book contains many of these) concerned with her earlier life on a small island in the Philippine archipelago. Her parents were poor but she was determined to get an education. Her parents sent her to stay with relations in Manila when she became infatuated with a young fisherman. Like other characters in the novel, including her son Raphael, the object of her love carries a disfiguring scar on his chest. In contrast with the passionate feelings Rosa bears for the scarred fisherman, those she has for her husband are not. Nevertheless, Rosa is one of the most sympathetic and admirable characters in the novel, nurturing her children and caring for her annoying mother, Corazón, while carrying on a career devoted to healing the sick.
The third set of characters in The Tesseract is a trio consisting of the psychologist Alfredo and two street urchins, Vincente and Totoy. Alfredo is a lonely man who pays the two boys to tell him their dreams, the most interesting of which are...
(The entire section is 1572 words.)