by Stephen Dixon
(Coffee House Press) $15.95
At first the reader doesn't like the stories. No, the reader doesn't like the narrator. Well, both. The narrative doubles in and out, a Choose Your Own Adventure by schizophrenics, guided by an unreliable narrator. It's not even that this narrator might be a liar to the reader and to himself. Rather, he refuses to sign the contract between reader and writer, where the writer promises to make things clear and flashes back appropriately, and delivers the epiphany at the end, all the snow swirling around and such. Sleep works on a different logic. It gives the reader a headache. He or she suffers through "The Rehearsal," and then flips back to the copyright page: "First appeared... Harper's, Triquarterly, Best American Stories of 1996...." Sleep features the same types of monologues as Dixon's earlier 30 Pieces of a Novel -- improbably long monologues that stammer and repeat and contradict. Like a Hal Hartley movie, the characters deliver their lines unconvincingly, but in a somehow compelling way. Finally, the reader is hooked by the opening of the story "Comparing": "A man says something and the woman answers. He answers her and she says what she says she's always wanted to say to him but up till now... then she's alone in the apartment, he's somewhere outside it." Yeah! And then the woman goes on to think about how she's pregnant and he's gross -- so repulsive, she would rather lose half of her possessions in a fire than have sex with him, but she'd rather have sex with him than lose her eyesight. Sleep dreams up bank robbers, old men and streakers, dead bodies, cheap knives, broken elevators. All say something and then take it back. NOVELLA CARPENTER
by Gail Jones
(Braziller, 1998) $22
Gail Jones has plagiarized my unwritten works. She writes stories that occupy a space between history and fiction, between transmission and invention -- as would I, if I didn't find my own words doubled and deported by this impostor before I can even get them down on paper. She, like me, is fascinated by the copy, both mechanical (x-rays, drawings, wax dummies) and mystical (impersonators and reincarnations).
The stories in Fetish Lives concern such historical figures as Eleanor Marx, Mata Hari, and Walt Whitman. The stories do not so much bring these figures to life as mortify them, rendering them as uncanny and insubstantial as photographs. In turn, the inhuman or scarcely human fetishes of the book's title, the wax dummies and other images, grow strangely animate.
In fairness to Jones (a fairness I can only wish she had shown me before signing her name to the stories I have yet to write), it must be said that her thoughts on the relation of copy to original is not limited to the ironic primacy of the copy and the secondariness of the original. Rather, she uses the copy to interrogate that most mysterious power of reproduction: writing. In the story of Eleanor Marx, who translated Emma Bovary and then, like Emma, committed suicide by taking poison, the narrator asks, "What is this death of Eleanor Marx, made up wholly of alphabets?"
As I write this, I am surrounded by books on Julia Margaret Cameron, the current object of my research. I will take them back to the library, because in "Five Gifts, Told by Echo," Jones has already told the story of Julia, a Victorian-era photographer, who immortalized the beauty of her daughter (also named Julia). Her story, though it is only a copy of the one I would have written, is somehow subtler, truer, almost infinitely richer. DIANA GEORGE
HUMAN VOICES by Penelope Fitzgerald (Mariner Books) $12
One of the happier side effects of 20th-century literature's anarchic and surreal leanings is that it gives license to more classically minded authors to calmly, and in careful measure, blow the roof off. Plotless, with a subject matter that defies identification, Penelope Fitzgerald's Human Voices does just that. Written in 1980, it has only now been distributed in the States. Feel fortunate for this paperback release.
Sited in the wartime offices of the BBC, Fitzgerald's "story" is built of complex webs of bureaucratic loyalty and duty under duress. The twin paters -- patriarchy and patriotism -- mix, as radio broadcasters navigate competing currents: truthfully narrating the war while buoying countrymen's flagging spirits. Management brings in young women clerks whose primary duty is to soothe the anxieties of an overworked department head, while soundmen and house mothers endure tea rationing, staff shortages, and the odd pregnancy.
Posts are won and abandoned; awkward friendships bloom and are abused; service is given and taken for granted; love develops. Fitzgerald's engaging book trespasses lightly over the fragile and fine gradations in human relationships and the varieties of proud suffering. Her characters are sympathetic and unlovely. We watch them cope as best they can.
Eloquent and literate, Fitzgerald casts each moment in its simple, affective essence, without unduly forcing any coherence between mo-ments, as in a life lived in sporadic jolts and lulls.
A young clerk wonders about her French boyfriend, whereabouts unknown. "'How do you know he'll turn up at all?' asked Teddy. Lise replied that she was psychic, with the result that she had a certain sensation in the points of her breasts when Frédé was near at hand. 'Who'd be a woman?' Teddy thought." GREGG MILLER