Review of Fiction shifts to young writers

BOOK REVIEW

July 15, 1993|By Joseph Coates | Joseph Coates,Chicago Tribune

With this issue, "The Review of Contemporary Fiction" embarks on a new course, being "the first not devoted to authors whose careers were either well advanced or brought to a close years earlier. The Review usually features novelists who, despite a lifetime of literary achievement, have received little critical attention."

Here it "begins treating a different class of critically neglected writers -- younger writers whose early works are promising enough to suggest they will eventually achieve historical importance." With its usual near-inerrancy, the Review has chosen three under-40 writers of wildly different levels of ambition and achievement, both in nature and quantity of content.

Susan Daitch, for example, has published only two novels ("L.C.," Virago, 1986, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich 1987; and "The Colorist," Vintage, 1990, Virago, 1990), and is working on a third, "Eye of the Moon," about the Dreyfus case. Likewise, David Foster Wallace has written one long novel, "The Broom of the System" (Viking Penguin, 1987), a book of short stories, "The Girl With Curious Hair" (Norton, 1990) and, with the veteran fictionist Mark Costello, "Signifying Rappers: Rap and Race in the Urban Present" (Ecco, 1990).

William T. Vollmann, on the other hand, began his career with a long, weirdly imaginative, obsessive and difficult first novel, "You Bright and Risen Angels" (Deutsch, 1987, Atheneum, 1988), whose characters "are part insect or vegetable at certain moments," in the words of Larry McCaffery, guest editor of this issue. He followed it with three books of stories, two unconnected novels, and two novels of a projected seven known as the Seven Dreams series on the history of the European encounter with the North American continent, the second of which, "Fathers and Crows," was published last summer by Viking.

It documents the French missionary effort in the 17th century and revolves around the Native American saint Catherine Tekakwitha, martyred by her own Mohawk tribesmen, and the alliance between the "Black Gowns" and the Iroquois that eventually conquered the Huron people.

"The Ice-Shirt," first in the series, published in 1990 by Viking and by Deutsch in 1991, describes (in the author's words) "how the first people that we know of to visit this continent (the Norse) came here around 1000 A.D. and encountered the Indians. . . . From Ovid I got the idea that there had been a series of different ages on our continent, with each age being a little bit inferior to the age that preceded it . . . until we end up at the present when everything is sort of concreted over."

Each author gets an interview, an excerpt from work in progress, and exegesis from one or more critics; while the works and probable stature of Mr. Vollmann and Mr. Wallace are compared by a slightly older peer, novelist Madison Smartt Bell. Also, for those worried about the baleful effects of TV, Mr. Wallace -- speaking as one reared on both the tube and on books -- attempts a "comprehensive diagnosis" of how TV affects us as a people in the essay "E. Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction."

In other words, this issue of the Review is a keeper, not to be missed by anyone who cares about contemporary culture, high and/or low.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "The Review of Contemporary Fiction"

Editor: John O'Brien

Publisher: Illinois State University

Length, price: 275 pages, $8

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