Plot takes back seat to relationships

November 10, 1994|By Diane Scharper | Diane Scharper,Special to The Sun

The title of Lorrie Moore's latest novel refers to a picture painted by one of the characters, Silsby Chaussee, when she was a child. The picture's background, colored in deep blues and greens, holds "two little girls dressed up as nurses or boys or princesses." In the foreground, next to rocks and lily pads, sit two wounded frogs, one in a splint, one with a bandage tied around his eye. "They looked like frogs who'd been kissed and kissed roughly yet stayed frogs." Silsby framed the picture, hung it in her bedroom, and named it "Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?"

The picture becomes a metaphor for the story. The two little girls are Silsby and her best friend, Berie. Berie is the narrator of this novel, which is about the summer she was 15, when she and Silsby worked at an amusement park called Storyland. The frogs, too, are symbols of the girls, standing for the lives they will lead. They will be battered and kissed and will not find princes. But they will find a life, and they will find each other again.

Readers of Ms. Moore's previous books are familiar with her themes showing the bonds between women. Her work, though poetically moving, has been criticized because of its ambiguity, irresolution and lack of plot. Her first novel, "Anagrams," and her two story collections, "Self-Help" and "Life Life," seem to have multiple meanings. Reading Ms. Moore is like looking into mirrors placed at an angle to reflect infinity. There are different perspectives, all of them shimmering, none of them ever quite adding up.

This amorphous, poetic quality is probably better tolerated in a short story than in a novel. A novel almost insists on being about something, whereas a short story can be a kind of word machine.

"Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?" is an episodic novel that

seems like an overly long story or several short stories. It begins in Paris, in the present, then moves back to Horsehearts, N.Y., to the past. As it moves back and forth, it becomes a place to show off language. It's a dreamlike place that Berie creates out of a daydream. Half-thoughts, words, puns, and jokes float by.

The metaphors aren't always clear. Yet they sound good: "You can wake from one dream only to find yourself plunged into yet another," Berie says, "like some endless rosary of the mind. When that happens, it is hard to glimpse what is not dream; the waking, undreamed world flies by you, in rushing flashes of light and air, in loud, quick, dangerous spaces like those between the cars of a train. There is nothing you can do. You walk in the sleep of yourself and wait. You wait for the train to pass."

The novel begins as Berie Carr, visiting Paris with her husband, remembers the summer of 1972, when she was 15: "But my hair was in a cloud," Berie reminisces: "bushy in the heat, wild and wavy, and it alone caused me to feel I was starting to bloom, that I was a blossom bursting out of the top of myself, through the skull, like an anemone the very heat of whose thoughts caused appendages to sprout searchingly in water."

Her friend Silsby, who was sexually precocious, became pregnant. Berie, out of devotion, stole $500 from the Storyland cash box to pay for an abortion. It wasn't stealing, she believed. It was a game. She considered it a high-minded thing to do; taking the money showed that friendship was worth the risk.

Berie eventually was caught and sent away to boarding school, separating her from Silsby. In later years, Berie met and married Daniel. She describes her marriage this way: "like living with a wolf in the cellar as a pet -- except he's not a pet, in fact, he's not even a wolf, he's a nuclear power plant."

She needs intimacy, but Daniel doesn't provide it. He spends too much time either literally away from her or in some corner of his life that she cannot enter. "We are too without each other," she says, not happy ever after. Daniel isn't her prince. Finding a prince isn't the story's point.

The point is the bond between women and how that bond transcends everything else. That point is emphasized throughout the story, becoming especially powerful as Berie remembers a reunion that occurred several years ago. She spent the night with Silsby. "All evening I'd been full of reminiscences . . . she was full of kindnesses -- draping her own sweater around my shoulders, bringing my tea. How could I know or hope that she contained within her all our shared life. . . . "

For Berie, one reality telescopes into another. When she was little, she would concentrate on the frog painting and feel as though she were "entering it with her eye, as if it were perhaps a dreamy illustration from a real-life fairy tale, or a secret passageway into another passageway. A joke into a secret joke, into a secret." In a sense, it is.

Ms. Scharper teaches writing at Towson State University.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?"

Author: Lorrie Moore

Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf

Length, price: 147 pages, $20

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