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Plaintext by Nancy Mairs (University of Arizona: $15.95; 154 pp.)

March 30, 1986|ART SEIDENBAUM | Seidenbaum is The Times' Opinion editor.

There are triumphs here--of will, style, candor, thought and even form.

Essays, including the dozen in this collection, are an old-fashioned testing--by writer for reader--of opinions and literary graces. The ideas matter, but the manner of presentation may matter even more, a literary standard of function following form. Nancy Mairs, a sometimes poet and professor, may be the most risk-taking practitioner of this noble, now-not-so-popular art.

She sits in Tucson winning regional literary prizes, directing research projects on women's issues, teaching school and rearing two children with her husband. The only almost-extraordinary fact of Nancy Mairs' life is that she suffers from multiple sclerosis, and she writes about it, in "On Being a Cripple," with all intellectual-emotional flags flying: on degeneration, pain, immobility, fury, self-loathing, embarrassment; on accommodation, humor, hope, empathy, self-discovery, self-dignity. On one page, Mairs is her own object of derision; on the next, she is her own subject of determination. With hardly any space for self-pity, she comes to realize that she has a disease but is not defined by it.

The same sort of sensitivity tempered by toughness carries through essays on being a parent, meeting another culture, taking a troubled stranger into the family, trying to write, making peace with men, making love to men--all those intimate and wholly unextraordinary events experienced by all of us who do not write as critically or as honorably. Mairs even offers an analysis of what was wrong with one of her own earlier pieces in an essay called "On Not Liking Sex," now describing the first attempt as "a kind of pretense at serious writing," as "brittle, glittery" but not going below surface to bone.

The final essay, "On Living Behind Bars," reaches bone and then bares it as Mairs explains a life of depression begun before the depredations of multiple sclerosis, a depression recorded long ago in her own diaries that "shriek fear" and "a sense of failure." Those diaries reveal Mairs to Mairs, "The terms of my existence: sickness, isolation, timidity, desire for death. They lie black as bars across the amazingly sunny landscape of a privileged life: good family, good education, good marriage, good jobs, good children. Since I don't believe in a depressive gene or genie, I must have chosen these terms myself. But who would make such a choice? Only a madwoman. But I'm not mad. You can take that as axiomatic. . . . However comfortable an explanation madness might be, I can't have it."

Isolation, of course, explains why many people want to write, why writers are immodest enough to perform in print on a public page. But if isolation impels writing, writing may only heighten isolation, raising all the old questions about words put to paper:

Do good writers work within the terms of their own hardships--be it the boiler room, the bottle or the war? Do writers manufacture hardships in the course of chasing a lonely craft? Or do people with hardships write better than the rest of us? These essays suggest affirmative answers to all three possibilities, including the apparent paradox of a frightened person whose life once looked privileged from the outside.

Mairs herself affirms by the end of the book, embraces her reality and her growing determination to continue. In the process, she has given this writing a specific life--her own; the test here, by writer for reader, is to essay in the most intimate terms, without the usual polite prose protections for author or audience.

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