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Encounters With Dead Parents : WEARING DAD'S HEAD by Barry Yourgrau (Gibbs Smith: $7.95, paper; 128 pp.)

November 01, 1987|Stewart Lindh | Lindh is presently writing "Deep Blue," a screenplay based on his experiences as a merchant seaman aboard an ammunition ship. and

The whole story? There is none. We are all witnesses to a cosmic "Rashomon." If one wishes to step farther and farther back to include all, one can never finish telling a story.

The minimalist chooses another direction: to step closer and closer--to lop off the ends of an experience and let its ambiguous, resonating presence on the stage, amid surrounding absence, exude inference and absorb implication.

At the intersection of the minimal and the surreal appears Barry Yourgrau's "Wearing Dad's Head." These 73 tales--the longest of which is 10 pages, the shortest a paragraph--are the adventures of an "I" through a sometimes urban, sometimes Henri Rousseau-like, always Oedipal, landscape inhabited by dead parents, a nameless girl and strangers who remain so.

Yourgrau, a 38-year-old New Yorker and author of three books, wants "to jolt people" with his writing. Concerning "Wearing Dad's Head," he says, "A good portion of the book was written in the aftermath of my parents' deaths."

In 39 of these tales, the narrator encounters his dead mother and father. The remaining stories attempt to construct an epistemology beyond grief, but for all their verbal pyrotechnics, they are doomed to a painful form of nostalgia--allowing the past to infiltrate and usurp the present.

Yourgrau's stories lack the narrative muscularity provided by the details of realism or the power of poetic condensation.

Sensed through Yourgrau's vignettes is the tedium of the act manque-- all the narrator's attempts at rapprochement with his deceased mother and father are doomed to failure, for the very reason they are dead, and he is alive--albeit in an imaginary space where such a distinction makes no difference.

His defunct father says, "Do you know what it's like being dead and having your precious memories flung back in your face?"

Later, the narrator confronts his mother: " 'How do you feel?,' I ask quietly. 'Do you have any signs of rigor mortis?' She winces. 'Don't use that awful word!' she puffs."

One can write about the dead as dead; one can write about when they were alive, but to bring them into a series of stories where neither they nor the narrator are dead or alive, is to seek the abyss for a home.

In assigning value to Yourgrau's work, it helps to recall Coleridge's distinction between the primary force of the imagination and that of fancy. "Fancy is no other than a mode of memory emancipated from the order of time and space."

Yourgrau's stories function as fancy through no lack of talent--but because of the dead parents (as dramatic impulse), who hypnotize the narrator and guide the stories away from irony and release, toward a narrative black hole where no abandoned son can ever "get it right." Yourgrau's imagination is trying to accept what his mind already has: They are gone.

Only in the last vignette, when the writer emerges from the jungle of the past-present to contemplate the past recollected, does the beauty of his language soar free: "I have my eyes painted blue--the color of the sky. My mother is telling us a story in the heat of the afternoon. On the easel, the sketched clouds pile up slowly from the horizon. . . ."

Yourgrau promises to be a brilliant explorer, yet one whose undiscovered continents must wait while he removes a dark splinter from his writing hand.

These stories are that splinter.

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