William Boyd and the utter uncertainty of life

« However much we seem to have it under control, to have every eventuality covered, all risks taken into account, life will come up with something that, as the good book says, ‘disturbs all anticipations’.

Cover of the novel
Armadillo, published 1998

Set in London, Armadillo tells the story of Lorimer Black, a charming and successful loss adjuster – which means he works in the insurance business and investigates claims made to his company, and more often than not rejects them. His real name is Milomre Blocj (which is an anagram, especially since the “j” is silent) and he comes from a family of immigrant gypsies. He leads his life, almost perplexed by it, between his not-so-legal job, his sleepless nights and his collection of rare and precious antique helmets.

But Lorimer longs for more; soon, he realizes that his job is not as innocent as it could be: as his boss explains, “people turn to insurance to remove uncertainty from areas of their lives. Insurance companies turn to loss adjusters to put uncertainty into insurance, and thus reintroduce uncertainty to insured people”, and especially to make a lot of money by ripping them off. Moreover, on a chance encounter, Lorimer falls in love with Flavia Maliverno, a small-time TV-actress trapped in an unhappy marriage. She seems to be the only thing, along with his collection of antiques, to bring him peace.

In this novel, Boyd creates a complicated, lost thirty-something who is desperately grasping for answers. As usual, Boyd’s storytelling is compelling and draws the reader towards Lorimer, building a likable character in a disconcerting and comical story. We feel as he does, lost in a world that goes too fast to hold on to what we think we know for more than a handful of minutes. His insomnia creates a small out-of-the-world space at the Institute for Lucid Dreaming where he spends his nights, hoping for a cure.

The book superposes the stories of Lorimer: of how Milomre became someone else, someone fitting in, of his love story with Flavia, of his investigation inside his own firm, and of his yearning for a meaning to life. As a loss adjuster, Lorimer works to “disturb all anticipations” and to remind “all the others that nothing in this world is truly certain” – the irony being that behind his carefully-constructed façade, he is the one that is not sure of anything.

But as Boyd writes, “of course [humans] can be rational and sensible but often so much of what defines us is the opposite – irrational and nonsensical.”  In this novel, he depicts the dual nature of humanity, forever balancing between feeling lost and finding happiness:

Serendipity, the faculty of making happy and unexpected discoveries by accident. So what is the opposite of Serendip, a southern land of spice and warmth, lush greenery and hummingbirds, seawashed, sunbasted? Think of another world in the far north, barren, icebound, cold, a world of flint and stone. Call it Zembla. Ergo: zemblanity, the opposite of serendipity, the faculty of making unhappy, unlucky and expected discoveries by design. Serendipity and zemblanity: the twin poles of the axis around which we revolve.

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