What is Victoria? Whom does she love?

June 23, 1993|By Maude McDaniel | Maude McDaniel,Contributing Writer

Victoria's secret is a lulu, and I'll even share it with you: She may be her very own daughter!

Not that Victoria herself believes this, but there's some difference of opinion on the matter in this fey novel. The final score is 2-1 against her.

On the winning side is her husband, Dr. Archibald McCandless, whose memoir, "Episodes from the Early Life of a Scottish Public Health Officer," covers the curious events in Glasgow from 1881 to 1883, and reveals the soul of Thomas Boswell. The second winner is Alasdair Gray, who is McCandless' "editor."

Then there's grotesque, endearing Godwin Baxter, this novel's Frankenstein or Svengali or Pygmalion, or possibly Mad Hatter. (Literary allusions run amok in this book, both inside and on the dust jacket.) The emotionally deprived only son of "the first medical man to be knighted by Queen Victoria," Godwin is a surgeon ahead of his time. Despite an "ogreish body," which he treats with a bizarre diet, and social problems he solves by excessive privacy, Godwin amiably befriends the admiring McCandless, a medical student fresh off the farm.

When a young woman who turns out to be Victoria is brought to Baxter's attention, dead from suicide, he reconstructs her body, gives her new life, and sets himself to win her love. But where he fails, McCandless succeeds. Or so McCandless reports. Victoria's account is more ambivalent.

Whom to believe (farm boy McCandless' literary style is notably shaky on objective cases) is the pivotal point of the novel. McCandless' manuscript, discovered, we are told, in a trash heap outside a lawyer's office, tells a solemn but riveting tale of Victoria's speedy development from mental infant to one of the first female doctors in Britain -- and an active Fabian Socialist to boot. Her journey from innocence to sexual and political awareness, traced in letters from a trip to the Mediterranean -- which add a touch of travelogue to the proceedings -- establish a strange authenticity of human development. Under the circumstances.

If those are the circumstances. She fervently disagrees with her husband's version of her rebirth. In "Poor Things," his book is reproduced in full, front matter and all, followed by her letter of rebuttal. Author Alasdair Gray, our "editor," gets the last word with a fitfully fascinating annotation of "material evidence to prove the McCandless story a complete tissue of facts."

A Scottish novelist with a considerable oeuvre of short stories, novels, poems and other productions, Mr. Gray has a reputation as "a true original, a twentieth-century William Blake who designs and illustrates his own strange fictions." "Poor Things" won the British 1992 Whitbread Award and the Guardian Fiction Prize, and it is indeed one-of-a-kind.

Illustrated by stark, Blakeian etchings, old Victorian engravings, and illustrations from Gray's Anatomy, it is the very model of a 19th century novel, hard covers stamped with a silver design of thistles topped by an irrelevant "epigraph" from a Denis Leigh poem.

All that hard labor has brought forth a book well worth reading just for the fun of it. Still, it doesn't always deliver on the subtleties it implies. Godfrey Baxter is called God for short by his Creature, Victoria, and has the usual problems of the Creator, including the inability to attract her love, but nothing vibrates BTC from this religious resonance. Mr. Gray's "Notes Critical and Historical" blur the fiction, as intended, but slow the pace of the narrative, throwing the story back on itself rather than advancing it.

And it's a busy little book, perhaps too busy to leave any residual impression on the reader's mind but the overwhelming ingenuity of its author. (Imagination once "aided the survival of our species," muses McCandless, "but in modern scientific industrial nations it is mainly a source of disease.")

Nevertheless, to quote Victoria before she gets cynical, on the whole, "How beautifully the whole . . . clamjamfrie works." And finally, in this day and age, one must be eternally grateful to the author for not making Victoria her own son.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Poor Things"

Author: Alasdair Gray

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace & Co.

Length, price: 319 pages, $21.95

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