Character, scars, physics, porn

Late summer novels

August 27, 2000|By Laura Demanski

In a July issue of the New Republic, critic James Wood charged a celebrated species of contemporary novel with misplaced ambition. Writers such as Salman Rushdie, Don DeLillo and new voice Zadie Smith came under critique for their sacrifice of character at the altar of formal elaboration and big ideas. What these novelists skirt, Wood suggested, is the depth of the human.

"Nearer Than the Sky" (St. Martin's, 320 pages, $23.95) is a particularly impressive example of a ubiquitous type of novel that takes the opposite tack and bets everything on depth of character. T. Greenwood's first novel, "Breathing Water," won the 1999 Sherwood Anderson Award for best first novel. As in that debut, Greenwood stocks her prose here with sensations -- images, tastes, smells, textures -- that are unusually evocative. The world of her protagonist Indie Brown is meticulously rendered -- but stubbornly small.

The emotional issues tackled in the book are serious, but narrow. The novel exercises great delicacy in exploring the psychological background and fallout of Munchausen syndrome, the mental illness that drives young mothers to foster chronic illness in their children.Greenwood's sensitivity is alone enough to recommend the book to anyone with a personal interest in the syndrome. But what about the general reader?

The novel makes little attempt to build a bridge to more universal insights. Its most striking stylistic virtue, its descriptive density, comes to feel empty as details proliferate to the point of superfluity: "The Tums felt chalky on my tongue," for instance, does make the narrator's experience more immediate. But such details don't reveal character nor further an idea; the immediacy achieved serves no larger artistic project. "Nearer Than the Sky" feels as tiny and enclosed as a fine diorama. For all of its sharp, writerly details, it sits a world apart from the larger tumult of life.

Novels conceived on the scale of the individual life are far from doomed to seem trivial. Catherine Bush, in "The Rules of Engagement" (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 320 pages,$24), gracefully sidesteps that danger. Her protagonist, Arcadia Hearne, harbors an uncommon secret. But the secret and its revelation are interwoven with the more far-reaching themes of this meditative, but never uneventful, book: war and other forms of organized violence; leaving home; the imperfection of the moral choices life offers.

As an intervention specialist at a war research center in London, Arcadia knows about imperfect choices. Deftly Bush dramatizes how her grave professional concerns at once feed and feed off of her most deeply submerged inner life. Thinking about her work, Arcadia can't avoid linking the broadly political to the intimately personal: "That's what we grapple with in intervention studies. You have to choose where you're going to take your risks, set limits. As you travel from zones of safety into zones of danger. That's what makes risk meaningful."

Bush's novel delves searchingly into one scarred psyche. But "Rules of Engagement" is always stretching to also generate ideas about the wider world in which suggestible psyches must reside.

Another new novel that develops character within a broader worldview is Joanna Catherine Scott's "The Lucky Gourd Shop" (MacMurray & Beck, 220 pages, $25). A heartbreaking prehistory of three Korean children's adoption by an American family, Scott's novel delivers a whole vision of Korean culture, from the student scene at a Seoul coffeehouse to the working-class characters' one-room house.

The most affecting of several memorable character studies in "The Lucky Gourd Shop" is that of the orphans' birth mother Mi Sook. Herself abandoned as an infant, Mi Sook has been brought up in the coffeehouse by a succession of foster parents: "Each time the shop changed hands, Mi Sook changed hands too. None loved her well enough to take her home." This founding event in the orphans' history conjures a sense of disconnected, precarious existence that haunts the book, dogging every character.

"The Lucky Gourd Shop" performs the considerable feat of making an alien culture accessible to Western readers, without assimilating its strangeness away.

A refresher course in physics is not a strict prerequisite to reading "The Collapsium" (Del Rey, 336 pages, $24.95), but Wil McCarthy's second novel holds more pleasures for the scientifically inclined than the indifferent. The inhabitants of McCarthy's futuristic universe have found a loophole in every law of physics. Thus mortality is an outmoded concept; houses change their appearance on demand; and the hero Bruno de Towaji "could, of course, hop into the fax machine and duplicate himself," setting aside the minor annoyance that "the duplicate would believe itself to be him."

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