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Love Life as Trivial Pursuit : HOW OLD WAS LOLITA? by Alan Saperstein (Random House: $16.95; 270 pp.)

October 18, 1987|Allison Silver | S ilver is an articles editor in Opinion.

It's easy to be smug about yuppies, as Alan Saperstein proves with his new novel, "How Old Was Lolita?" After all, these are superficial people who spend their lives playing games, whether it's Botticelli during dinner or the sort of competition that develops as this group of friends vie to set up the best possible arrangements for a funeral. Nothing fazes them in their self-absorbed world, even suicide.

Roger Abel loves his wife, Victoria, just as he loves his friends, Frank and Lori and Dale and Phyllis and David and Barbara and Michael and Julia. As the book opens, this inchoate "Big Chill" group is playing that paradigm yuppie game Trivial Pursuit. It takes a while to differentiate these good friends, and when they are finally described, Saperstein does not bother with writerly details. Instead, he goes right ahead and casts the movie version of his book: Roger looks like Dustin Hoffman, Victoria looks like Meryl Streep, David looks like Timothy Hutton and, well, you get the idea.

Though Roger, who narrates, keeps insisting on the bond he shares with his good friends, he has no one when he needs a confidant. With all this talk about how these people are his surrogate family, they cannot help with real family problems. Roger's older brother, Andrew, whom he was never really close to, has mysteriously appeared and is staying on his hide-a-bed. And this remnant from the '60s, this drinking, ill-mannered, aimless lout who never says a coherent word to Roger, much less plays a decent game of Trivial Pursuit, seems to be having an affair with Victoria.

Gradually, encased in Roger's babble--yes, this is another case of the narrator as jerk--the intense and deep-seated sibling rivalry between the brothers is revealed. And although there is no supporting evidence, Andrew appears to have a lot to offer--what Victoria describes as the ability to evoke desire, to make her actually feel something in the sterile world she inhabits.

What Andrew cannot compete against is that these are people who need sterility. Roger and Victoria stay together through "the normal acting out of our lives"--with the emphasis on "acting." Roger tries to grab for the surface even as a friend is explaining why he's about to have a sex-change operation or a young girl is confiding secrets about sex. For this whole group, it is appearance that counts. When real tragedy strikes, their immediate reaction is to distance themselves. Confronted with the suicide of a young girl, Roger is amazingly articulate: "We are not unmoved," he says, "God, we are shocked, literally, our feet and our emotions galvanized by a million volts of electricity. But such a shock can only be survived by an equal and opposite current of self-control and perseverance." This is supposed to explain why the reflex reaction of David, the girl's father, is not so much grief as the desire to hire someone who can deal with this unpleasantness: "I'm sure there's some kind of service. I don't mean a service service, like a Mass, I mean a service I can call to take care of everything for me."

The question becomes why Andrew would want to have anything to do with these people. The one plausible reason is a trunk he has filled during his 25 years of travel in exotic places. Every scrap in it is reminiscent of Victoria, as though he had been building a sort of shrine to an ideal woman, and he suddenly finds the flesh-and-blood version in Victoria.

The problem is that she lives for a world of trivialities. And Andrew is supposedly part of the world of intense feelings--although Saperstein has created more of a void than a solid character. In any case, at least Andrew's not the sort of person who would believe that feelings and trauma can be erased as easily as deleting a file in your personal computer. Roger is. Making fun of these people is too easy.

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