Some novels of December: delight, blight and hilarity

December 14, 1997|By Joan Mellen | Joan Mellen,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Publish in December - not! So abides the received wisdom. The pickings of new December novels remain lean. Yet some brave practitioners of the literary grift have seized the advantage of sparse competition.

Gordon Lish's new collection, "Self-Imitation of Myself" (Four Walls Eight Windows, 320 pages, $22) is simply marvelous. Lish warns the reader that old habits will no longer suffice, as realism goes south in favor of meditations on voice and story.

Intertextuality flourishes as Dante's Beatrice lives on as narrator "Gordon's" dog Beatrice, the great love of his life. Beatrice the dog talks. A fictional character can, after all, do anything, even as Beatrice, love object or canine, can also bite. Lish even indulges in a hilarious riff on Joyce's pretentious "Trieste, Zurich, Paris, 1914-1921" which closes "Ulysses." "Squeak in the Sycamore" catalogues every life-threatening ailment, including "even just doing nothing."

These 44 pieces eschew plot in favor of language. Words themselves are Lish's great theme. He reveals how we weep through words, deceive ourselves through words, and are perplexed as words disguise themselves to meet varying situations. Words evade, even as a recipe, seemingly a paean to realism, turns out to be a mess, bearing no rational relationship to edible food.

"Wouldn't A Title Just Make It Worse" demands that language be treated with respect since it is all we have to define ourselves. Not yet done, Lish goes on to expose the irony of authorial intimacy as he invites his readers to send their name and address to his publisher with the goal of joining him in his bed - provided they can remember him in his past.

My favoriite piece is "Eats With Ozick and Lentricchia." The narrator's beautiful wife, Barbara, is succumbing to Lou Gehrig's disease. In despair, he grabs the pince-nez he once bought her and races off to an Italian restaurant in Greenwich Village, to meet the two unsavories of the story's title.

What should he talk about? he ponders. His one topic is "Barbara dying." The contrast between his devotion to the dying beloved and dinner with these two literary politicians creates both pathos and irony. The narrator, "Gordon Lish" or not, doesn't know how lucky he is: Ozick and Lentricchia don't show up.

"May God keep this language safe!" Lish cries, for words are his other beloved. This is a joyous collection, daring, witty, smart, sardonic, profound. That "Gordon" - whatever resemblance he bears to the notorious writing teacher - he'll win you over.

***

Marita Golden's fourth novel, "The Edge Of Heaven" (Doubleday, 242 pages, $22.95) offers mixed pleasures. After reading Gordon Lish, realism palls. Who cares about the color of a character's bedspread?

Yet Golden chronicles uncharted waters in the story of a black family in which Lena, the mother, is just being released from prison for killing one daughter while the surviving Teresa, a college junior, must discover the confluence between understanding and forgiveness.

Moving between the two points of view, Golden attempts to thread her narrative with suspense, hoping the reader will remain interested in what actually happened to little Kenya. Despite some engaging situations, Golden falls too often into earnestness to make her project entirely successful.

***

For riotous humor, originality and sheer verve, "Prozac Highway" by Persimmon Blackbridge (Press Gang Publishers, 266 pages, $14.95) is a knockout. The first-person narrator, Jam, originally Janice, is a performance artist, self-described "queer" and 42-year-old depressed cleaning lady. This book shines most in the first person, but is also charming when Blackbridge reveals Jam's history in the third.

Contained within the sparkle is a persuasive narrative on why mental disarray is exacerbated by the psychopharmacology practiced by professionals as the treatment of choice. Prozac leads Jam to the brink of suicide; thorazine destroys several of her e-mail friends. Blackbridge's plot is about survival, even as the computer has become the cartilage of life. On the 'Net, "we shed our identities and become whatever we want."

The competing protagonist of this mesmerizing book is the computer itself even as "divisions like race, gender and nationality have no meaning in a global electronic reality." Cyber-cadet Jam finds solace (sex) on the Internet. For those wondering how it's done, Blackbridge, frank even as she's hilarious, offers a detailed description.

Bravo to Persimmon Blackbridge for puncturing the chemical imbalance/pharmacological Band-Aid approach to psychological distress - without didacticism. You'll enjoy Jam as a fictional character, and, along with the ghost contained in the ashes and bones of a dead AIDS victim, root for her not to take that lithium. If there ever were a romp, this is it.

The most recent of Joan Mellen's 13 books is the dual biography "Hellman and Hammett." Currently at work on a memoir, titled "An Enemy in the House," she teaches in the Creative Writing Program at Temple University.

Pub Date: 12/14/97

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