Tuck's 'Walked on Water': puzzles of emptiness

March 03, 1996|By CHRIS KRIDLER | CHRIS KRIDLER,SUN STAFF

"The Woman Who Walked on Water" by Lily Tuck. Riverhead Books. 241 pages. $21 "The Woman Who Walked on Water," Lily Tuck's second novel (after "Interviewing Matisse or the Woman Who Died Standing Up"), is a puzzle. It takes ambiguity as far as it can, then cheats its readers with weakness: not its intriguing lack of definitive answers, but its own utter apathy.

Please, it seems to be saying, ask me if I care.

The novel tells the story of Adele, who one day runs into "Him" - the man who seems to hold the secrets of existence - and soon decides that she must leave her family, go to him in India and learn whatever he has to teach. The puzzle is: Why?

Adele is lucky, an excellent swimmer, a lover of animals (she has three dogs, we are told over and over, as well as a horse named Sylvia Plath), universally admired and wealthy. But, obviously, she is needy in soul, as implied by the narration of a friend who is telling the story in retrospect:

"Adele said she was not religious, she was superstitious. She believed in signs, in rituals. Already, she told me, she had tried acupuncture, homeopathy, visualization, various diets and regimens which included wheat grass juice, Chinese roots and vegetables."

The story, a tangle of disorderly flashbacks, subtly raises questions: Was the philosopher using Adele as much as she fed off him? Was her search for meaning useless? Was her quest imbued with wild intensity not because of some pure impulse, but because of guilt over her sins or her need for a substitute for her alcoholic father?

At least Ms. Tuck's novel makes you figure things out; these questions are interesting. If only they were, indeed, soul-stirring. The philosophical and religious epigraphs at the beginning of each, slight chapter are more provocative than the story of Adele. Why not just pick up a copy of the Upanishads? Vacuity may be the point here, but it's not a very compelling one.

Ms. Tuck's crisp and lovely writing is the book's finest quality; there's a particularly enchanting description of Adele swimming in which she imagines herself circling the globe as she strokes through all the seas of the world. But the vivid, detailed prose, repetitious like a mantra, isn't enough to carry what feels like a literary exercise.

The detached narrator doesn't satirize or even sympathize; she simply tells the tale. She seems to know everything about Adele, but did she care for her? All we see is that she ends up with one of Adele's Irish setters and finds a curious comfort in the dog, named Lily (the author's name; hmm!).

Ultimately, nature replenishes the battered beach at Adele's favorite resort, where she courts danger by swimming with storms and sharks, but her own fulfillment, and the reader's, are in doubt.

Chris Kridler is assistant arts and entertainment editor at The Sun. Her work has appeared in The Sun, the Miami Herald, Premiere, bOING bOING, Indie File, the Charlotte Observer and the Charlotte Poetry Review.

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