by Katherine Preusser

Evidence of Things Unseen

by Marianne Wiggins

(Simon & Schuster) $25a

It is fair to say that Marianne Wiggins is a Dickhead. Each chapter of her new book, Evidence of Things Unseen, opens with a quote from Herman Melville's Moby-Dick; although, as it will be with those possessed by Ishmael's narrative, for Wiggins this is not enough. As the lover sees the face of his beloved in the most unlikely places, Wiggins maniacally encodes Moby-Dick's presence in her novel, often with complete disregard for the common sensibilities of plot. Moby-Dick crops up every so often, whether by characters reading it or whittling tiny whales from wood (!), or in prose eerily allusive to Melville's novel, such as this from the prologue: "Like a magnet, this glass desert calls our irons the way the whale's heart used to beckon a harpoon." Here I should mention that the novel is actually set not in storm-wracked seas of the 19th century but in post-World War I rural Tennessee, and features a character obsessed not with tracking the great white whale but with radiance--discovering the great white light, in other words.

The character's name is, of course, Fos, and his wife, whom he meets at the book's outset, is Opal--get it? In case you don't, Wiggins is ready with an explanation: As Fos watches his new bride bathe, he notes, "A lacy tracery of froth above her upper lip complemented the bubbles all around her. Opal-essence, Fos reflected." Such verbal pyrotechnics recur throughout the book and yet never provide any satisfaction to the reader; instead they feel like in-jokes between the author and her beloved book, Moby-Dick. And if this is not enough--for to the obsessive mind, it is never enough--the couple's child is christened Lightfoot.

There is a reason I haven't yet finished Moby-Dick, the same writerly perversity that caused me to skim over the last hundred or so pages of Wiggins' novel: This degree of focus, of intense scrutiny on a single subject, makes me profoundly uncomfortable. I can only read Moby-Dick a little at a time--too much would be like being injected with a lethal amount of morphine, as opposed to the small dose that gently assuages the strain of everyday life. However, while Melville's masterwork will hold up against such a meting out, I very much doubt Evidence of Things Unseen would fare as well.