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HEARTBREAK HOTEL by Gabrielle Burton (Scribner's: $15.95; 282 pp.)

October 05, 1986| Florence King | King's most recent book is "Confessions of a Failed Southern Lady." and

When Samuel Johnson was asked to comment on the plot of Shakespeare's "Cymbeline," he refused, saying: "It is impossible to criticize unresisting imbecility." I wish I had had the foresight to make the same reply when offered this feminist allegory about the comatose vision of a humpbacked albino named Quasi.

Museum curator Margaret Valentine is gravely injured while riding her motorcycle. When next we meet her in the intensive care unit, she has become Quasi, one-time guide at the Museum of the Revolution, a treasure trove of misogyny that boasts "a Bruges lace tablecloth so exquisitely detailed young girls lost their eyesight making it," an Up Your Ess Room (authoress, poetess), a College of Cardinals Room, a Male Gynecologists Room, a Sears and Roebuck Servicemen Room, and a Menstrual Show (where all the menstruals perform in red face).

The Museum's female guides number seven. (Get it? Dwarves, deadly sins.) Both the museum and the Heartbreak Hotel where the women live are about to be shut by sexist city fathers who symbolize the current political backlash against feminism as well as the eternal and literal backlash suffered by women through the ages. Hold onto your symbol cards, however, because "backlash" has yet another meaning. Remember Quasimodo, Hugo's hunchback of Notre Dame who was flogged by the city fathers of Paris? His name came from the lines in Peter: quasi modo geniti infantes , or "like newborn babes," the state of mind required of saved Christians. It is also the mentality men require of women; thus the medically dead Quasi (the word means "almost" or "seemingly" in Latin) is a symbol of the quasi-human status accorded the female sex.

While Quasi lies at brain-death's door bleeding from every orifice and even from her hump, the other six guides play out the theater of femininity in the threatened hotel, saying things like "I consider diarrhea a wonderful opportunity to lose weight," and suffering standard everyday female humiliations. One keeps getting her long hair caught in a shoe-polishing machine but endures cordovan scalp rather than cut it because she has been brainwashed into thinking that hair is woman's crowning glory. Another experiences epiphanies in Frederick's of Hollywood and longs to die amid the crotchless panties. Another is traumatized when she hears an Amtrak conductor refer to teen-age boys who hang around the train station as "railroad buffs" while teen-age girls who do the same are called sluts. Still another is haunted by the memory of buying sanitary napkins from a sadistic druggist who shouted, "SPEAK UP, LITTLE GIRL, I CAN'T HEAR YOU!"

Men to the left of them! Men to the right of them! All talking dirty, tormenting waitresses, demanding submission, and leaving the toilet seat up. Through it all, cropping up at regular intervals like deadly nightshade on the byways of purgatory, is a villainous silver-haired doctor who inspired the museum's "Tiny Town" exhibit when he complimented a patient for having the tiniest cervical opening he ever saw, thereby inspiring in egoless women a longing for tiny hands, tiny feet, tiny ears, and tiny you-know-whats.

This novel, which won the Maxwell Perkins Prize, reads like the contents of a 1970 time capsule. Not since the early issues of Ms. magazine has so much been said about menstruation, sadistic male hairdressers ("Leave them under the dryers till their eyes pop, then they'll be grateful for anything"), Norman Mailer, and the scarifying effects of a Catholic girlhood. It is streaked with sanguine religious imagery of woman as suffering Christ and sorrowing mother, and larded with litanies. The Litany of the Virgin is repeated incessantly in capital letters--VIRGIN INVIOLATE, VIRGIN UNDEFILED, MYSTICAL ROSE, etc., all followed by PRAY FOR US. The Agnus Dei gets several rounds, and when the author runs out of actual litanies she invents still more of her own, stringing them in long lists down the middle of the page, so that instead of a few choice and carefully controlled recollections of a father's failings, for example, we get:

He teases mercilessly

He makes fun of presents

He wraps her in cotton batting and calls her princess

He puts her on a pedestal so he doesn't have to meet her gaze

He's aloof

He's afraid

He's angry

Easy writing makes hard reading. CAPITAL LETTERS ON NEARLY EVERY PAGE MAKE FOR WEAR AND TEAR ON THE READER, and so do the poems, outlines, billboards, bulletins, parables, quotations, overdone sound effects of characters saying "Ummmmmmmmmmmmmm" and "Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh," sentences that run on for 25 lines, the compulsive list-making (e.g., every conceivable English slang word for the female genital), the cutesy "Bubblegum Facts" (BUBBLEGUM FACT 77: THERE ARE SOME PEOPLE WHO ARE NOT CONSUMED WITH SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS EVERY MOMENT OF THEIR LIVES. THESE PEOPLE ARE CALLED MEN), the unabridged lyrics of "The Girl That I Marry." Anything else? Yes.

I object to the strange

spacing this author

uses for

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