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The Sound of Velcro Rippingp : THE MELTING POT And Other Subversive Stories by Lynne Sharon Schwartz (Harper & Row: $16.95; 240 pp.)

November 08, 1987|Daphne Merkin | Merkin is an editor and author of the novel "Enchantment" (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich) .

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.

Few of the stories in this collection provide the purely formal pleasure that V. S. Pritchett's say, or Alice Munro's stories do; only one, "What I Did for Love," is genuinely shapely, and too many of them are abruptly truncated rather than concluded. In some instances, the lack of an organically arrived at ending mars the story entire, as in the otherwise impressive "The Sound of Velcro." In other cases, it merely suggests a laziness, a lack of sustained craft, on the writer's part. What we get instead of aesthetic perfection--the kind of story, like the smoothest of pebbles, that circles in on itself--is something both less fashionable and more ungainly: stories with a message, a didactic purpose. That purpose can be expressed by means of intelligent and arch asides, as it is in the only overtly autobiographical offering in the book, "The Two Portraits of Rembrandt: A Memoir." "He was not introspective by nature," the author remarks of her father, "and the habit of introspection had not yet suffused the middle class so that one undertook it as a duty whether or not so inclined."

Or it can run, like a basso continuo , underneath the melody of the story, as in "The Infidel," an ambitious morality-tale about a self-deluding, womanizing painter: "For was there not a morality to seduction too? Could one lure a stranger and then desert her midway? Manners were morals and Martin was a lover of extensive courtesy, until he rolled away, clutching a pillow, isolated in a fog of oppression." Whether the inquiry is direct or implied, the reader senses that questions--an examination of ascribed values and unacknowledged desires--are being asked.

Interestingly enough, although the characters featured in these stories are scrupulously drawn from varying cultures and classes--ranging from a homeless black family to an Indian immigrant to an affluent yuppie-ish couple--there is a consistency about them and about the author's vision of them. Grounded in the civilities and sanctions of middle and upper-middle-class existence, Schwartz's characters feel the pull of alien longings and primal anxieties; beneath the circumstances of their lives lurks the possibility of chaos, a sense of identity that is provisional and incomplete.

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