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Small Claims by Jill Ciment (Weidenfeld & Nicolson: $14.95; 173 pp.)

November 02, 1986|Jay Cantor | Cantor is the author of "The Death of Che Guevara" (Knopf), a novel.

The small claims of Jill Ciment's title refer to those seemingly minor demands made on us by works of art. The artwork--which in these stories looks very much like a comically ungainly child tugging at our sleeve--implores us to see the world its way, to recognize a kinship, to justify a life by acknowledging a valuable specialness.

In Ciment's stories, the narrator often first tries to stake this claim by way of a contest--a drawing competition in elementary school, a science fair, a hearing in small claims court. Our striving young narrator, in the opening stories, lives alone with her mother--her collaborator--a misfit adult, wacky, charming, dangerous. (Her hair, falling out from peroxide treatments, is in continual fascinating metamorphosis, "now in the shape of a rocket ship, the color of a carrot.") These two have the liveliest interchanges in the book, the outcast adult not quite comprehending the depredations she inflicts on the child, deformations that give the daughter an outsider's fresh eye, a mildly surreal way of seeing things--the continual small deliriums one might imagine brought on by a low fever. "That night I devoured my first fingernail (a taste that carried within its brittle texture a lifetime of craving). . . ." The narrator's naive, outsider visions allows her to win in art, but, as she supposedly doesn't comprehend the ways of society, she can never triumph in her contests. In the drawing competition, her crayoning isn't acknowledged for its specialness, and she herself in the story's final moment is horrified to realize that all children see the world in the same way. But she can see that. Anyway, this supposed sameness is a forlorn and false realization; every sentence of the story quite rightly prizes and preens its particularity of viewpoint.

One believes that our young artist would like to think she and others see the same world, and would be horrified if it were true. For she, like her mother, craves something special, even if it's a monstrous birth. Thus, in "Astronomy" the mother elaborates a plan to produce a mutant for the science fair by having the little girl secret a pregnant rat in her pocket during a school X-ray. The child herself thinks of imprisoning a kitten in a cage of horizontal strips, until kitty's vision is made special; it is "able to perceive verticals but was now completely terrified of horizontals." A strain of animal torment runs through these stories--kittens, rats, a caterpillar sent sailing into space on a golf ball, a parrot dosed with tranquilizers till it will collaborate in its portrait. And, of course, the child herself has, one feels, been tormented till she has mutated. This torment produces the artist's moment of maladaptive perception, when, at the end of "Astronomy," her mother reveals from beneath a towel the self-mutilation of her hair: "The child didn't even notice the change of color. Under the direct sun, between the now-distinct roots, she could see the whole of her mother's skull--white round, as fragile as a porcelain globe. . . ."

The strategy of the naive, foolish narrator comes to grief somewhat in the novella that closes the collection. Here, freshly arrived in the big city, Lena falls in love with Yvette, a too-knowing adolescent who herself is in love with Mike, a bed-slug of a failed actor. Yvette is vain, self-regarding, and Mike is unspeakable. Lena doesn't notice Yvette's headlessness, and Yvette, in turn, is a sucker for Mike. In this story, Lena's foolishness becomes hard to bear. Whatever conflicts she has over her own sexuality, she enacts--as is, I suppose the case for us all--by her choosing an unsuitable object. But she simply notes the arc of this non-affair, as if she were rigorously avoiding self-knowledge. The story ends with Yvette suffering a botched abortion, Mike returning to her side, and the gay heroine, excluded from the holy family, out on the street.

Ciment's heroines, like those in much contemporary story writing, worrisomely don't seem to know the most elemental things about getting jobs, or finding apartments. And this foolishness of the narrator--which allows for their fresh perceptions--hides an edge of resentment. The family that excludes the outsider in the last story, like the few other characters of the earlier stories, is diorama of clods. The narrator's small gains of perception, with their becomingly hodgepodge and comic air, are the only genuine claims possible here. The case may be closed in small claims court, but it is reopened in fiction where our defendant/contestant turns out to have won by losing, the social world almost obliterated by the tiny flares of art.

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