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GHOST DANCE by Carole Maso (North Point: $16.95; 288 pp.)

July 27, 1986|Cyra McFadden | McFadden is the author of "Rain or Shine" (Knopf), a memoir. and

Intensely demanding and rewarding, "Ghost Dance" is a novel about family, especially the bond between Christine Wang, a poet, and her daughter Vanessa.

The mother, a celebrated beauty, is greatly gifted, "an elaborate inventor, who looked squarely into the invisible. . . ." Her husband, Turin, is a quiet man whose vocation is to love Christine, and insofar as possible, to protect her; the poet fades in and out of madness.

Fletcher, their son, is an activist, a believer that human beings can and must reclaim a purer world. "With every breath we take," he tells the audience at a rally, "we are taking toxins into our bodies; it is no secret . . . that we and everything we love will die from it if we don't do something now."

Daughter Vanessa shares her mother's gift for relentless and tormenting introspection. Though a lover chastises her for her mildness--" 'You are blurry with sadness,' he whispers, 'so passive' "--he may be confusing passivity with exhaustion.

Like Christine, Vanessa is a human seismograph, acutely attuned to sensory impressions, the rest of her family's dreams and disappointments, the world swirling around her and creating a vortex.

Her first-person narrative shifts between imagination and memory; the present and the past; the real and the surreal. It's Vanessa who finally has a vision of "the Topaz Bird," symbol of her poet-mother's madness but also her creativity.

At the beginning of "Ghost Dance," with Christine drifting off into her private world, she follows her mother's gaze and imagines that she, too, sees the Bird, "its terrible claws, its beak curved and sharp, its feathers brutal, sharpening into points." In the novel's final pages, it reveals itself to her as it revealed itself to Christine. "I see it perfectly, I do not turn from it and it does not fly away." This time, she and Fletcher "are nearly blinded by its brilliant, jewel-like light."

Christine is dead. Turin has disappeared, off on a solitary pilgrimage whose nature only he knows. Fletcher has reappeared after his own long absence, his sense of possibility shattered, as is the family. When he and Vanessa enact an American Indian ritual, one of letting go of the dead, they're seeking to undo what Vanessa sees as the Wangs' curse: "We love too much."

Written in dense, lyrical language, Carole Maso's first novel takes enormous risks, juggling level upon level of metaphor--the Topaz Bird, the mathematical theory of "the Golden Ratio," Indian mythology, Grace Kelly and Jac-queline Onassis as women and icons, facets of Christine. The book's repetition of sentences and entire paragraphs, while incantatory, eventually grates. Its eroticism has an unreal quality, sex seen through a grainy lens, and leads Maso into rare lapses of control, when her prose shades into purple. Vanessa's lover, Jack, is "a man so large he might blot out the sun with his body." His "great hands might wring the world of its oceans of salty tears." His face has a "brutal handsomeness."

No more convincing are Vanessa's addiction, first to cocaine and then heroin, on an impulse so slight, "impulse" seems too strong a word, or some of "Ghost Dance's" too-neat symmetries. Christine's accident confirms Fletcher's view of a planet ruled by corporate criminals. Vanessa has an affair with her mother's female lover of 25 years, a "love call . . . to the other side of death, where we were sure my mother was, whole, smiling, waiting for us."

The book's strengths are greater than its flaws, however, and the flaws are honorable, born of ambition and abundant talent. I can't remember a more striking depiction of madness, or the labyrinth of family ties.

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