Clea and Zeus Divorce by Emily Prager (Vintage Books; $6.95, paperback; 252 pages)
Serialism galore. Sequins to the max. Deer-hoof boots that won't quit. An old Chinese retainer. A loyal Xhosa servant. Seven golden lieutenants, paramilitary refugees from what used to be Rhodesia. Rock 'n' roll! (or something like that). The fear of nuclear war. And of course, Clea and Zeus, a sort of highbrow Ike and Tina Turner or Sonny and Cher--one of those couples whose private lives become drama, the public pantomime of the countries in which they perform.
Wouldn't you think that already there's enough here for a thoughtful novel? Not hardly. "Clea and Zeus Divorce" is more like a fruitcake than a story, full of sweet, glazed nuggets of this into that, cramed with goo that tastes nice at first bite, but after 10 pages you long for a simple straightforward sentence. Emily Prager seems drunk on her own prose style, infatuated with her own gluttonous love of the bizarre, and the end result is dizzying--in a not altogether pleasant way.
Here's the story, if I read correctly:
Clea, of "Clea and Zeus," that famous performing couple, has consulted a psychic, who has had a vision of atomic devastation; a bomb dropped directly on New York's Kennedy Airport at 10 on a particular night. By coincidence, Clea and Zeus will be giving their farewell performance on that same evening. Against the destruction of the world, then, one couple experiences a personal devastation, the metaphorical car crash of divorce, and, since they are pop icons, they have decided to dramatize their break-up on the stage.
FOR THE RECORD - It's Surrealism, Not Serialism
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 8, 1987 Home Edition Book Review Page 17 Book Review Desk 2 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
An error in editing led to the use of the word "serialism" instead of "surrealism" in Carolyn See's review of "Clea and Zeus Divorce" (View, Nov. 2). See wrote:"Surrealism galore." "In the old days, when you were bored by surrealism, you could never admit it."
A small digression, in terms of the personal history of this golden pair. Clea is the daughter of a general and a Texas woman who used to stuff armadillos as a hobby. As a result of this avocation, Clea's mother contracted leprosy. (Never mind that now, in the 20th Century, leprosy is Hansen's disease and is controllable by medication. The author wants leprosy, she conjures up leprosy, and Clea's mother dies, a mass of disfiguring stumps in an obscure leper colony.) Along with this, Clea has spent much time in the Orient, whiling away many a happy hour in Chinese tea houses in white makeup, telling stories to grizzled Chinese peasants. She has also learned to be a juggler and acrobat, twirling plates on sticks, and took her act to Cairo, where . . .
. . . she met Zeus and his entourage, the African native woman who speaks in "click" language, a sidekick named Doron and those Seven Golden Lieutenants. Zeus also has a long and sad tale. His family lived for years in Rhodesia, but finally, in their third generation in that benighted country, became victims of the general native uprising that ousted the white colonials. During a bloody battle out on Zeus' front lawn, with the black servants shooting from the bush and the whites shooting back from the veranda, Zeus' mother, made up in black face, appeared in the center of the battle, and fired off a shot at her own son. Zeus returned the compliment, nailing her right between the eyes.
You begin to get an idea about this novel. How can members of the oppressor race, tainted as we all are by past historical sins, ever aspire to be happy? Specifically, how can Clea, who paints herself up like a Chinese doll, minces along on those deer-hoof boots, showering sequins as she goes, ever manage to love, really love, Zeus? (Clea takes a Zeus puppet to an awards show, is unfaithful with an old boyfriend in the limo, and returns only to find Zeus in the arms of the puppet maker fastidiously covering his eyes during the sexual act.) So--however it goes, Clea and Zeus cannot succeed as a couple, even though they have been pierced by the same arrows of personal suffering and historical sin.
The structure here is like Chinese boxes (as one character broadly hints). The performance, the slices of personal history. And, when Prager can't think of anything else to do, she has Clea nag everyone to put on radiation suits against the upcoming nuclear blast.
I'm trying to be nice, but I really hated this novel. It's painfully, hideously repetitive, and, for me, Prager never makes it clear what she thinks about her endless baroque details. Time after time you think she must be ironic as she writes for the 90th time: "She was wearing black stirrup pants, her deer-hoof boots, and a white Angora sweater that was covered with rhinestone sequins across the shoulders and around the neck. At her ears she wore giant rhinestone flowers, and her mane stuck out straight from her head and rode down her back to her waist like she was some kind of new feminine animal. Zeus was wearing black pants and a white shirt trimmed in black leather. Around his wrist he wore a black leather bracelet. Together they were very classy and very beautiful."
But all this describes a couple on the very night the world ends! Prager's mind seems blank at the center. She seems stoned on detail, bogged down in a swamp of self-created weirdness.
Then again, if Emily Prager were Alfred Jarry or Jean Cocteau or Louis Bunuel, this review might be more respectful because it would have to be. In the old days, when you were bored by serialism, you never could admit it. Buy this book for the very young, the very smart and the very pretentious. Perhaps they'll have the strength to protect the eroding flanks of the New Wave of the avant-garde.