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Prose MicroReviews

Last Orders
Graham Swift
Alfred A. Knopf, $23

Friends and an adopted son drive to the sea to carry out Jack Dodds' wish to have his ashes cast upon the waves. Along the way, in alternating first-person narratives, the living disclose predictable surprises and ponder the big questions -- what's it all about, anyway?

While Swift deserves credit for trying to capture the day-to-day life of his lower-middle-class characters, the result is banal. The first-person voices are unconvincing, the competing narratives cumulatively unrevealing, and the pearls of wisdom paste. In this demotic novel, Swift grants his narrators the depth and complexity of characters in a television mini-series.

-- Joseph Shea

Peter Ackroyd
Alfred A. Knopf, $35

For all his inner fire and drama, William Blake lived a relatively uneventful life, and this turns out to be rather a blessing at a time when so many biographies (including Ackroyd's previous Dickens) stifle the reader with superfluous facts. Ackroyd skillfully traces the larger outlines of Blake's life and underscores the consistency of his character: a more anxiety-ridden and self-destructive Blake than one expects, whose persistence in the face of adversity and misunderstanding comes to seem quietly heroic. Ackroyd treats Blake's visions and commerce with the spirit realm respectfully -- though he occasionally transposes them into a simpler, more psychological frame -- without shedding a great deal of light. Nor are his comments on the poetry especially helpful (he fares somewhat better with the art). His triumph, however, is his vivid evocation of working-class London -- "Human awful wonder of God," Blake's Jerusalem -- in all its chaotic, violent vitality. Against this background we see Blake as his contemporaries did: independent and puzzling and brilliant. A worthwhile book.

-- Erik Rieselbach

Piano Pieces
Russell Sherman
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $22

The pianist Russell Sherman has written a series of brief musings in fluid, sometimes florid prose without a trace of jargon, their casual surfaces belying their aphoristic density. "A tone is beautiful only in context. . . .Things have meaning only in relation to other things," he says rightly, and his book casts a wide net of relationships on micro- and macroscopic scales, ranging from the pressure of a finger on a key to the pressures of contemporary culture and sliding effortlessly among more facets of the creative process than one might have dreamed existed. Sherman insists on the necessity of reconciling the endless profusion of irreconcilable oppositions that constitute "the discourse of thesis and contradiction intrinsic to profound and eventful works" -- not just musical or artistic ones. The enemy is the quick fix, the wish for simple truths; the constant goal is greater awareness, "which is passive fire." This is a fine, thought-provoking book for musicians and nonmusicians alike.

-- Erik Rieselbach

On Grief and Reason
Joseph Brodsky
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $24

Joseph Brodsky was a great contrarian and believed, against the received wisdom of our day, that good writing could survive translation. He was right, I think, though you had to wonder when you saw how badly his own work fared in English. But then perhaps the Russians hadn't expelled a great poet so much as exposed us to one of their virulent personality cults.

Yet Brodsky's essays are interesting. Composed in a rather heroically determined English, clumsily phrased and idiomatically challenged, they are still inventive and alive. There are suggestive analyses of favorite poems by Hardy, Rilke, and Frost in this book, and a moving meditation on the figure of Marcus Aurelius. Though too often Brodsky goes on at self- indulgent length, he usually recaptures our attention with a characteristic aside: "The fact that we are living does not mean we are not sick."

-- Edwin Frank

The Object Stares Back: On the Nature of Seeing
James Elkins
Simon and Schuster, $24

Eyes aren't windows, opening indifferently upon anything at all; eyes are in the world, and they want something out of it. Elkins takes off from this familiar phenomenological point, and goes on to explore some of the ways in which vision expects the visible, a world that is not just there to be seen, but that responds to our glances, "stares back." In a sense, Elkins reminds us, our eyes aren't ours. There are things we look at in spite of ourselves -- sexual things, above all -- and things we cannot bear to see, like death. There are also innumerable things we may in fact see but commonly overlook: the earth's shadow, for instance, or the anti-sun shining at the edge of night.

This is a congenial and stimulating essay on seeing, gracefully written and full of curious matter. The pictures are telling too.

-- Edwin Frank

Whom the Gods Love
Kate Ross
Penguin, $5.95 (paper)

In London in 1825, Alexander Falkland, one of society's leading young hosts, is murdered in his study during a thronged party. The Bow Street Runners, the understaffed precursor of Scotland Yard, make little headway, so Alexander's father seeks the aid of Julian Kestrel, a trend-setting dandy who has a flair for solving murders. Kate Ross doesn't waste a syllable on padding or red herrings as Julian pursues the culprit through an ever more sordid and confusing labyrinth. Her story makes crucial use of the classism, sexism, and anti-Semitism of the age, but her style is so limpid and her comic touch so deft that these elements rarely obtrude. Ross is of the full-disclosure school, and is well-versed in the classics of the genre -- to say which ones, however, would spoil the game. The book's only disappointment is the minor role it assigns to Julian's valet, the reformed pickpocket Dipper, whose pluck, ingenuity, and slangy speech are among the chief delights of the first two Kestrel outings.

-- Rosemary Pepper

Proper Name and Other Stories
Bernadette Mayer
New Directions, $13.95 (paper)

The future of literature lies with writers who can slip back and forth across the boundaries of prose and poetry, fact and fiction, the discursive and the descriptive; Mayer, a great American independent, is among them. Mayer's "stories" encompass journal, autobiography, essay, lyric, schoolbook exercise and comic shtick. Composed in fluent, flawless vernacular, their concerns are unabashedly personal, revolving around family, children, lovers of both sexes, and friends; at the same time, however, Mayer's attention to the formal, or abstract, aspects of language, together with her confident openness to linguistic suggestion, give her work the impersonal poise and daring of a musical étude. Love and the seasons and the exigencies and opportunities of daily survival are the inevitable occasions of a body of work that is as radical as it is Horatian, able as little else is both to delight and instruct.

-- Edwin Frank

Live Girls
Beth Nugent
Alfred A. Knopf, $22

Catherine, the narrator of this first novel, is a twenty-something woman who has drifted from college into a decaying, nameless city where she sells tickets at a pornographic theater and lives in a seedy hotel. Catherine's memories are disordered and intermittent -- emotionless parents, a sister with a severely disfigured face, resentful and unbelievably cruel -- and her clumsy attempts to communicate with the various other misfits she meets in the hotel are invariably rebuffed. Driven, however, by an intense curiosity, almost scientific and yet obssessive too, she goes on observing them from a distance, piecing together their sad lives. At times Nugent seems too determined to make her book disturbing -- the end especially slides towards melodrama -- but this is a serious look at the plight of the individual in a depersonalized society for all that. And Catherine's voice, naively earnest, witty, sarcastic, and deluded, commands our attention throughout.

-- Alice Clapman

Love's Work
Gillian Rose
Schocken, $20

Love's Work has been outfitted with the small pages, wide margins, and curlicue typeface of a so-called woman's book. Caveat emptor. This is not a pastel reverie, but a work in which the author, an English philosopher, feminist, and Marxist, not only bares her soul but carefully dissects it.

It begins as autobiography: Rose describes her secular Jewish upbringing and goes on to discuss professional and personal engagements, among them an affair with a priest. She writes with equal power and precision about sex or the place of reason in a postmodern age, and when she discloses, about halfway through the book, that she has been diagnosed with a fatal cancer, she resists the temptation to make her predicament pathetic. Deploring the different ways in which both conventional and alternative medical treatments diminish the lives of the sick -- the one by what she calls its iatrogenic materialism, the other by a "Screwtape spirituality" -- Rose develops by contrast her notion of love's work: the obligation to go on thinking and caring in spite of the certainty of physical and moral defeat.

Gillian Rose died shortly after completing this rigorous and lyrical book.

-- Katherine Browning

Originally published in the Summer 1996 issue of Boston Review

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