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Book Review : One Woman's Power Just Dwindles to Deathly Silence

November 03, 1987|ELAINE KENDALL

The Year of Silence by Madison Smartt Bell (Ticknor & Fields: $16.95; 194 pages)

For a woman who never even has her own chapter until the middle of the novel radiates around her, Marian exerts considerable power. Madison Smartt Bell, whose distinguished short story collection "Zero db" appeared earlier this year, specializes in marginal lives. Ten years ago, you might have called these characters unconventional, but now, the world has caught up with them and made them all too average.

They're highly contemporary types--mostly young, disconnected, uncommitted and marking time. They've been around in every sense of the word, and they're still running in circles. The difference is they're not kidding themselves anymore.

Cross Section

In "The Year of Silence," you encounter a typical Bell cross section. There's an articulate, Dartmouth-educated dwarf--once an insurance salesman, now a panhandler. The invisible Marian has an airhead girlfriend, Crystal, a non-stop talker. Marian's ex-lover, Weber, a karate expert, is temporarily sharing his apartment with a musician who practices for his concert debut on a soundless dummy keyboard. A couple of jaded cops who seem to have escaped from a popular TV series rate their own chapter. Marian's agoraphobic former roommate and a disabled but fiercely independent elderly woman each has a section to herself.

There are also some incidental people--the sort the main characters would be likely to meet in the course of a day. They're losers all, but what brings them together is that they've all lost Marian. Despite her own despair, she's managed to affect and change the lives of the others; to give them a focal point, however illusory.

This Marian is a free-lance illustrator of children's books, a young woman living alone; talented and witty but with no apparent control over her life. We're encouraged to see her as the others do, glimpsing her at a street fair, catching her reflection in a barroom mirror, observing her eccentric behavior at a party.

Special Friend

The panhandler knows her from the donations she presses into his hands; luxury fruit from the market where she shops. At first she gives him ripe peaches and nectarines, looking directly at him as if "I was some special friend of hers, she was offering to have the first bite."

He thinks of her as "LadyBird," and from his vantage point across from her apartment, he watches her companions change from clean-cut Madison Avenue types to the sort of people who are usually called "denizens"--"less pinstripes, more punks, until there was nobody left at all but the junkie types." He notices when her shopping habits change and she begins living on pomegranates; all pits and no nourishment. The next step is "the authentic Beverly Hills diet: stop eating and start doing coke."

The problem is that this sensitive and acute observer is unable to do anything about Marian's decline. As he puts it after the body is found: "When someone really wants to depart, all you can really do is hold the door open in a nice way, make your bow and say goodby."

Weber, the ex-lover, can't understand what happened to the fun-loving Marian who was always ready for anything the city had to offer. He'd wanted to marry her--or perhaps wanted is too strong a word. He had certainly been willing to marry her when she had gotten pregnant, and had tried to talk her out of another abortion.

Now that she's dead, Weber drinks himself into a nightly stupor, trying to figure it all out, getting nowhere. Even Crystal, the dippy party girl, had picked up on the change in Marian. "There was just a little vibration, a fault line you might call it . . . just a kind of tension." Watching Marian in a crowd, pouring one straight vodka after another, Crystal thinks "She's going to need somebody. Anybody."

Human Jigsaw Puzzle

Everyone has an inkling, a notion, a sense that Marian is falling apart, but how do you put together a complicated human jigsaw puzzle if you only have a few of the pieces? Each character in the book does his best with what he's given, but the result is only a corner of background, a snippet of interior, a patch of Marian's black raincoat.

The first half of "The Year of Silence" is intimation, the second half is hindsight. Each voice is distinctive, authentic and isolated; the characters reminding us that modern lives are often nothing but fragments. The point is made effectively, but a powerful statement doesn't quite constitute a novel. Even with the special reader's advantage of seeing Marian herself on the last day of her life, a privilege no one else has, we don't ever know the whole story.

Of course there's something askew when a woman strews all her clothes on the floor of her apartment, something frantic about fighting a migraine by swallowing every legal and illegal drug in the house, something pathetic about the "cold cube of frozen diet dinners" in the bottom of her shopping bag, but there are a lot of askew, frantic and pathetic survivors out there. Why not Marian?

As short stories, these chapters are every bit as inventive as "Zero db," but that's the difficulty. This time they're presented as a novel, which can be almost anything as long as the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. At best, "The Year of Silence" is only equal to its segments. Marian is just too fragile and evanescent a presence to provide that essential plus; the vital glue.

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