'Undue Influence': life under the skin

January 02, 2000|By Chris Kridler | Chris Kridler,Special to the Sun

"Undue Influence," by Anita Brookner. Random House. 240 pages. $24.

Ah, to be one of Anita Brook- ner's characters -- tightly wrapped, analytical and completely incognizant of their own misery.

Reading about such rigid souls can be annoying, even infuriating. But the quiet delight in this Booker-Prize-winning author's latest novel, "Undue Influence," is the way she turns this theme inside-out.

Her protagonist, Claire, is full of judgments when it comes to other people. She's quick to pinpoint why they're inferior or unhappy, even if the reason is of her own invention. She spins out fantasies about her lonely, desperate acquaintances, whether she shares her work or her bed with them.

Her internal monologue sounds reasonable, but she seems unaware that her specious biographies are a substitute for real intimacy. It takes her some time to realize how little she knows about her colleagues and friends, who may be much happier than she is. In fact, she has almost no friends, and after the death of her mother, her sense of security begins to slip.

Convinced that her parents had a loveless marriage, she uses lovelessness as a shield that separates her from dangerous feelings. Even when those feelings are stirred, when she meets a handsome man with a dying wife, her instinct is to explain him away. She tells herself that he's weak and unsuitable, or boyish and indifferent.

She's exerting "undue influence" on him by seducing him, she feels sure. But is she really the one with the power?

The undercurrent in her ruminations is a grim accounting of women's status in love and society. She may see herself as a rebel, but she hasn't won her freedom.

Brookner's unraveling of Claire's reasoning is fascinating. At first, the character seems to be a wise and sympathetic heroine, full of sharp observations. But at the first touch of genuine emotion, her first recognition of need, her fragile rationales begin to crack.

"I looked around in despair. The plain furnishings of the living-room mocked me with their very plainness. A sort of life was possible within these confines, but it was a life that could hardly attract others. It had a certain appeal, but that appeal was modest. It was a room in which everything had fallen short of expectation, still imprinted with the presence of my disappointed father, my disappointed mother."

Brookner's delicately built narrative peels back the layers of skin until we see blood, Claire's potential for life. The process is surgical, painful but necessary, and yet it's unclear if the patient will come through. Brookner wields words like a scalpel to reveal an utterly convincing, if distressing, character.

Chris Kridler is the technology editor for Florida Today and before that was assistant arts and entertainment editor for The Sun. Her work has appeared in Newsweek, Premiere, The Sun, The Maryland Poetry Review and other publications.

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