September novels: Rhinos, cyberspace

September 22, 1996|By Michael Shelden | Michael Shelden,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

In September we put aside all those unread beach books and look for something more substantial. It's the time of year when, beyond all reason, we are tempted to buy thick novels with tiny print and pretentious titles. As the faint hint of a chill enters the air, we seem to feel a sudden urge to suffer under the weight of really "serious" prose.

How else can one explain this month's publication of Lawrence Norfolk's impenetrable 608-page novel "The Pope's Rhinoceros" (Harmony Books. $25)? A British author who received high praise for his first novel - "Lempriere's Dictionary" - Norfolk is, undoubtedly, a talented young writer with a sharp eye, but his new book buries a good story under a massive pile of detail. It is set in the 16th century and is chiefly concerned with some brave adventurers who undertake an arduous expedition to obtain a rhinoceros for the "pleasure-loving" Pope Leo X. The late Bruce Chatwin might have handled this curious tale with economy and grace in a slim volume, but Norfolk takes at least 300 pages to build up the background before launching his crew on their ill-fated pursuit of the exotic beast.

He cannot mention a bay or a forest or a ruin without giving us an extensive guided tour, even to the point of describing the view from non-human eyes. In a typical digression he writes of the Baltic coast, "The herring knew the coastal cities as compacted secrets." If you are the sort of reader who likes to forego the pleasures of a tight narrative in the interests of knowing what the herrings know, then Norfolk's novel will keep you reading well into the chilly days of October.

***

For a more compelling approach to historical fiction, with all the pleasures traditionally found in strong narratives, Kate Lehrer's "Out of Eden" (Harmony Books. 336 pages. $25) is the best choice of the month. The story of two independent women struggling to make a different kind of life for themselves in 19th-century Kansas, "Out of Eden" has the feel of a classic novel written by some neglected writer of the Willa Cather or Edith Wharton variety. In a quiet, elegant manner, Kate Lehrer casts a potent spell over her readers, drawing us into a lost world and making every part of it seem real.

***

The not-too-distant future is the subject of William Gibson's spooky novel "Idoru" (Putnam. 320 pages. $24.95). An inventive stylist, Gibson has demonstrated an uncanny talent for anticipating trends in cyberculture. As early as 1984 he coined the word "cyberspace," and for many readers he is the philosopher king of the computer generation. "Idoru" will not disappoint his admirers and should attract new fans. It is a sharp satire on the uses and abuses of technology and has much to tell us about the dangerous paths science has laid out for us.

***

For a contemporary story with dark but fascinating twists, readers can look to Siri Hustvedt's "The Enchantment of Lily Dahl" (Henry Holt. 275 pages. $23). The novel slowly invades your imagination and leaves a lasting mark. Lily is an immensely seductive young woman who lives on the borderline between risky eroticism and old-fashioned romance. She casts a spell over everyone she meets, and she, in turn, seems to live within a mysterious circle that is both thrilling and frightening. In her sophisticated handling of a powerful sexual drama, Siri Hustvedt proves that the praise lavished on her first novel "The Blindfold" was not exaggerated.

***

A novel to be read for the sheer joy of it is Kinky Friedman's latest detective thriller "The Love Song of J. Edgar Hoover" (Simon and Schuster, 238 pages $23). Lovably eccentric, Friedman is a cult figure to many readers, a legendary free spirit who writes mystery fiction with a wickedly funny edge. The former leader of a country-western band called the Texas Jewboys, Friedman delights in his ability to shock innocent audiences. One marvelously unexpected sentence in "Love Song" will give some idea of Friedman's style: "I sat back in the chair and puffed peacefully on the cigar, blowing a thin blue stream of smoke toward the momentarily silent lesbian dance class in the loft above me."

***

Finally, as a leading candidate for worst novel of the month, it would be difficult to beat "Murder at San Simeon," by Patricia Hearst and Cordelia Frances Biddle (Scribner. 283 pages. $23). In a cynical attempt to exploit the fame of both her grandfather and the famous movie based on his life - "Citizen Kane" - Patricia Hearst has put together an unintentionally comic story about a modern woman's attempt to solve a mysterious murder involving William Randolph Hearst's circle of friends. It is not "Rosebud" that sets this story in motion, but something ridiculously close to it. On her deathbed an old woman whispers to Patricia Hearst's heroine the unimaginative clue, "San Simeon." Sprinkled with such phrases as "the hooch definitely needed ice," this novel leaves you wondering whether you should laugh or cry.

Michael Shelden is the author of three biographies and writes for the Daily Telegraph in London, the Times of London, the Washington Post and the New Yorker.

Pub Date: 9/22/96

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