Lynne Sharon Schwartz fixes upon the world an anthropologist's clear eye, as though the contemporary, familiar-seeming people she writes about were members of a lost tribe whose habits and ways she has documented. Her novels and stories abound in telling details--the vagaries of the emotional life pinned, like so many butterflies, to a backdrop of the factual: what she wore, how he looked, the meals that got eaten, the movies that were seen. About all her fiction there is the sheen of verisimilitude, a stubborn realism that sometimes obscures but just as often illuminates her narrative intent.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Schwartz's latest book, "The Melting Pot: And Other Subversive Stories," brings us further news of the smell and sound of ordinary life: "As Ilse sauteed garlic and ginger, the kitchen filled with a luxurious tangy odor. She chopped the pork and set the girls to work on the peppers and scallions and cabbage," in "Killing the Bees." Or: "She should see my therapist," pronounces a moonlighting artist in "The Painters."
The best of these stories use their immersion in the actual as a springboard to the metaphoric; taken-for-granted, everyday occurrences are suddenly made resonant. In "The Sound of Velcro," for example, the most innocuous of background noises becomes a harbinger of more ominous unfastenings--presaged, in turn, by the meticulous description of the story's opening sentence: "He woke, as always, to the sound of her sneakers opening, six little rips, swift and searing like Band-Aids ripped away to expose the raw, crimson day." The less successful stories, by contrast, seem to get bogged down in, rather than released by, the literal; closely observed as they may be, they still stop short of artistic transmutation, refusing to yield their secrets. "The Subversive Divorce," although it has its arresting images--"Thus true marriage is a brown dusty salty weeping fruit, an anomaly, a contradiction in terms, an impossibility"--remains at the level of a clever exercise, as does "The Last Frontier," a story which relies heavily on an ingenious but unconvincing premise.