Noticing everything, but going nowhere

January 04, 1994|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Contributing Writer

Describing her short story "Prowler," Elizabeth Tallent writes: "I began with no very clear idea of where this would go, only a picture of a divorced husband and wife having to sit down . . . to renegotiate custody of a son. I saw that . . . he was going to seize his ex-wife's unhappiness as a kind of reason for denying her time with their son. I was interested in that. . . ."

"Prowler," originally published in the New Yorker and included in "The Best American Short Stories: 1990," is one of nine stories in Ms. Tallent's latest collection of stories. The stories in "Honey" are about disconnected people seeking connectedness. They're told in a sophisticated, poetic prose, with the author studying every nuance of her characters' lives. Her diction is immaculately polished and details lovingly lingered over, yet her book ultimately is disappointing.

Three of the stories in this collection, including the title story, are interlocking. All of them, though, seem to blur together, with the exception of the final one, "James Was Here," which looks at a man ready to have a nervous breakdown. Otherwise, nothing much happens on these pages.

What does happen happens to people I didn't especially care about. More important, I wasn't given reasons to care. In "Earth to Molly," the protagonist, Molly, wanted to have a love affair with David, her host on a book tour. "She didn't want her life back yet, but wanted him, wanted this briefest of brief lives with him." Like Molly, most of the characters tend to spill over into each other's lives or want to, as if their own lives weren't enough for them. The author never explains why.

Ms. Tallent doesn't tell her stories. She presents them, writing a fast-paced, elliptical prose -- usually in present tense -- without introductions. Getting quickly into the action, she notices everything from how a mother's hair is stuck to the milk on her baby's lip to the pressure of fingertips against the wall. The description is flawless, so flawless that I felt I was entering the stories, not reading them.

The stories show the ability to find the exact word or metaphor: ". . . a moth in its scalded dance around the 'I do love you' of the night light" a mother has placed in the baby's room. As engaging as the room is, the story itself ironically does not engage.

Neither do the characters. They are self-absorbed, alienated individuals caught between relationships and preoccupied with sex -- the kind that notices "the mare's tail of fine dark hair [that] clung to her baby-oiled back." Despite details like those, the characters' inner lives are never sharply defined.

Having divorced and remarried, they're trying to make babies or raise babies. They are also trying to make peace with their former spouses and make friends with the children from their former marriages.

But the central characters are like people you're aware of when you're almost asleep. You never really see them. They don't make you care. Yet the fringe characters -- Lindsay, the doctor's wife; Mercedes, the mother-in-law; Andrea, the spitfire girlfriend -- seem more substantial.

The stories generally are set in a suburb of New Mexico, which, aside from a mention of the desert, could be anyplace. Tract houses encroach on farmland. The environment has no effect on the people who live there.

The plot isn't so much what happens to these people or what they do about what happens. It's what they notice -- and under the author's careful eye, these characters notice everything.

Ms. Tallent is a miniaturist who specializes in the smallest detail. She doesn't take those details and make them part of a large canvas so much as look at the details for their own sake. Her stories are, therefore, less like stories and more like overly long prose poems.

What results is neither a story nor a poem, but something in between. Without the tension of story or the soul of poetry, this fiction becomes much ado about nothing.

In "Kid Gentle," for example, Jenny, the protagonist, notices "The dish towel hanging from the oven door, a shadow replicating each fold, further, infinitesimally scaled shadows cast by each pane in the waffled cloth, like the tranquil iteration of cells across a honeycomb, the compounding of facets in a butterfly's eye, cratering of rain in a stream, the transcendent perfectionism of the world, which Jenny had trusted, which had, in her body, miscarried."

Such exquisite writing -- but it, too, miscarries.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University. She is the author of "The Laughing Ladies," a collection of poetry.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Honey"

Author: Elizabeth Tallent

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 207 pages, $29

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