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Richard Eder

Measuring the Tolerances in American Love : TIME WITH CHILDREN by Elizabeth Tallent (Alfred A. Knopf: $15.95; 158 pp.)

November 15, 1987| Richard Eder

Elizabeth Tallent fills in the details. The emotional calligraphy with which she draws her uneasy modern couples and trios is minute and perfectly formed. Every flinch of conscience is recorded, each millimeter of withdrawal within a centimeter of closeness, each nanosecond of warmth during a microsecond of disgust.

In one of the stories in "Time With Children," an American woman has been wavering between her husband and her English lover. During a visit with the lover to some friends of his--one that stirs up a wasp's nest of contradictory feelings--Kyra is suddenly handed the hostess's baby. In the few minutes of holding it, she seems to experience three sensations: a twitch of pleasurable shock, a distaste for the wriggling helplessness, and a contented warmth.

You are convinced that Kyra must indeed have felt these three successive ways. You may wonder if you care.

The power that lies in the description of someone crossing a room depends upon the artistry of the description, but also upon whether it matters if the person gets across the room. Does the errand matter? Does the person?

A fictional character, clearly, is not made real simply by actions. The character can perform all kinds of spectacular and energetic things and not exist. We may think that emotions strike a deeper level. They do, but they are still not enough.

Tallent's meteorology of contemporary alienated emotions is breathtakingly accurate. It rains just when she says it will, and just as little. We need more, though. Emotions by themselves do not fix a human essence or distinguish one from another.

There is a certain interchangeability among the characters in "Time With Children." The restless infidelity of Kyra, whose troubles occupy four of the stories, matches that of Jenny, who lives in an imperfectly restored adobe house in New Mexico, and is the subject of three.

Kyra's husband, Charlie, with something of a wandering spirit of his own, is a cooler personage than Sam, the husband of Jenny. But both find themselves doing a good deal of placating.

Their wives blame them for life in general. Kyra is angry with Charlie about the problems of their child, Nicholas; and Jenny goes at Sam over the flaws in their house. They resent their husbands' distances and occupations, though they find their closenesses are no great improvement.

Taking lovers is a reaction to the news that there are holes in life and spaces between people. The lovers are extremely nice but they can't do much more than rearrange the location of the holes.

These flattish situations are conveyed with skill and impressively nuanced writing. There is a strong sense of place, particularly in the stories set in the Southwest. The Kyra and Charlie sequence conveys very well the subtle displacements, in the midst of familiarity, that affect Americans living in England. There is also, in these four stories, a sense of emotional progression that keeps them from repetitiousness.

In another set of related stories, it is the man who shuttles uncertainly between women. Caro, Hart's second wife and the apparent beneficiary of his infidelity, suddenly realizes that he is sliding back to his bereft first wife, Hannah. The agent of discovery is a pair of black widow spiders. Having made only a half-hearted effort to kill one in his and Caro's bedroom; when they go to dinner at Hannah's, Hart slaughters a second spider with a quick and decisive thwack.

It is a little too neat. Tallent sometimes will point up the rather flaccid quality of her characters with a symbolic line or twist that has the effect of an aimed spotlight. In "Black Holes," on the other hand, such an effect is the heart of a wonderfully comic and touching story about a child's woeful misunderstanding of a phrase casually delivered by her father.

If Tallent's mainstream Americans often lack much individuality, and their feelings much interest, she is more successful with foreigners and members of minorities.

Sandoval, the old Mexican-American neighbor of Jenny and Sam's, is aloof and demanding; miserly, tricky and capable of odd gallantries. As he arranges the apples picked from his trees, he is rural old age personified in a line or two. "Burnishing and sorting, Sandoval passed an hour. He was so old that an afternoon was nothing to him. It passed in apples."

Caro, who is Nicaraguan, has an equivalent visibility; a weave of specific and decisive colors. She is no more admirable or perceptive than anyone else, but she exists in a social matrix--one member or other of her extended family is always on the phone--and this network of awareness makes her peculiarly aware of herself, allowing us to be peculiarly aware of her.

Brian, Kyra's English lover, is another example. His warmth and his urgencies erupt suddenly and unexpectedly from a seeming self-containment. There is an element of mystery. The reader is aroused to want to know more, to see Bryan more clearly than the author allows.

And this, perhaps, is a clue to the unsatisfying aspects of Tallent's skills. Her foreigners seem so much more alive, more distinct, and more worthwhile, precisely because we know less about them. Writing needs to aim not so much at imagination displayed, as imagination aroused.

In painting, there is a point at which excessive elaboration dispels the vision. In Tallent's emotional landscapes, we are led to notice so much that we see relatively little.

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