In Marilyn Krysl's female landscapes, men appear like ponds frozen hard in winter. They are surfaces for skating across fast, or falling and hurting yourself upon. Beneath the ice, opaque forms navigate on remote errands.
Men are emotionally peripheral to the narrators of her stories, though they can bruise them, divert them or trouble their imaginations. Krysl is writing out of what, in a way, is a rigorous feminist sensibility.
Except that if "rigorous" more or less describes the themes, it does not begin to convey the fantasy with which the best of them are told. Krysl is a poet as well as a fiction writer; and when it is working properly, her voice wreaths the rather stumpy body of her narratives with a bewitching sense of possibility.
The women in Krysl's stories are mostly children or mothers, or adults remembering their mothers or themselves as children. They seek clues to locate a happiness authentic to themselves and unmediated by the definitions of a world largely enunciated by men.
It could be a stolid and plodding kind of search but Krysl's journeys start like Russian leave-takings. She sits down on the ground first, remembers, woolgathers and thinks of something else. Then, likely as not, she leaves by the window instead of the door.
Her art is in the matter-of-fact flow and sudden, ensnaring disassociations of her characters' discourse. In "The Artichoke," the narrator and her husband are off on an expensive vacation to Canada. "We'll be in the dining car smoking and discussing Baudelaire or discussing Gulf Oil or discussing inflation," she writes with a dawning hint of sabotage. The waiter appears.
"He'll be black because that's how waiters on trains to Banff are; it's the decision of the railroad to conduct its business that way." And with the same bland edge, she affirms the whiteness of the linen, the gorgeous scenery, the splendid dinner they are about to have. "Right now I could easily dispense with high-toned moral phrases and sit down with the chairman of the board of Gulf, as long as each of us had an artichoke."
But the artichoke detonates on the plate. It resembles the decapitated head of an Aztec king. "We've always assumed our gentle intentions excuse our imperial way of life. But we still haven't got used to a waiter bringing Quetzalcoatl's head on a platter."
Something disruptive has been accomplished in scarcely two pages. A connection has been made between the comfortable assumptions of our society and its domestic and foreign inequities. The woman-narrator is both accomplice and protester. Yet the connection rattles slightly. The narrator protests her complicity, true; but her protest feeds on it.
These quicksilver shifts of awareness make the title story, the finest in the book, alluring and disquieting at the same time. It is a monologue, dreamlike and lucid, by Atalanta Soleil, the "Me" of the trio. She ruminates about the symbolic figures of her worlds.
One of these is Westmoreland, standing various for the general, or for any public mover and shaker. Another is Mozart, the artist who is desperate for the world's patronage so that he can go on working. Atalanta, with her perfume-ad name, her sunglasses and her anxiety to get by, works as Westmoreland's Woman Object at $2 an hour. What she really wants to do, when she gets the nerve, is be free and design arches, symbols of whatever is the opposite of oppression.
Between the single-purposes of the doers, and the self-enclosure of the artists, cold is taking over the world. Mozart, who will grovel to anyone, is freezing to death; he hasn't been warm since he sat in the lap of the protean Bach. Westmoreland, who "wants something to happen soon" does finally, when confronted by the unmanageability of life, push the nuclear button on his desk; but the cold has frozen it solid.
And Atalanta asserts herself. "My arches are first-rate and I want to get on with them," she says. But that's not all. "Afterward I want a double cheeseburger with everything on it."
Once again, the connection rattles. The playful and startling monologue that weaves about Westmoreland, Mozart and other subsidiary figures--among them, Sarastro, Mozart's pompous exemplar, and the wicked Queen of the Night, who is really just waiting for feminism to happen--is an astonishing achievement. But Atalanta's liberation, compounded of arches, cheeseburgers, a fling with an Italian tenor, and a sisterly tribute to a fat girl she had once snubbed, has a life-could-be-wonderful-if-only facility to it. Maybe you can separate cheeseburgers from mass culture, mass culture from the forces that manipulate it, and these forces from our doers' destructive energy; but you have to figure out how.