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The King Is Dead, Long Live the Dwarf : SUBJECT TO CHANGE by Lois Gould (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $16.95; 202 pp.)

July 17, 1988|RICHARD EDER

"Subject to Change" gives a slender clue to the book of which it is the title. "Lois Gould" gives no clue to the book of which she is the author.

Such previous novels as "Necessary Objects" and "Such Good Friends" were roughly in the vein of How We Live Now. Their psychological and social detail was pinned to the pages of our calendars.

"Change" is a Renaissance morality tale of journeys and spells. It is told through a text of archaic colors and locutions, with flashes of contemporary irony that are so sudden and brief as to seem like one spell more.

Its setting is loosely based on the court of Henry II of France, whose wife was Catherine de Medicis and whose celebrated mistress was Diane de Poitiers. Clammy King Henry, sour and sallow Queen Catherine; Diane, aging but miraculously young; the queen's prickly and illuminated dwarf, Morgantina; and the repellent court sorcerer, Cornelius, are presented in a dreamlike style where details are both specific and baffling, and what happens precisely is not precisely clear.

The only reality is the circle. The book is a carrousel; importance lies not in what or where each figure is of itself, but in its ornamented revolutions--now up, now down--and in the reedy, discordant music that commands them.

An ironic reversal of power and position occurs, but perhaps it is provisional. The book stops but the carrousel doesn't. The last line tells us that "the ending is subject to change."

Henry is inept in battle and in bed and his kingdom is mortgaged to the bankers. When he rides to joust, he wears a helmet with an enlarged hole around the mouth so that he can suck his forefinger. Whatever manhood he possesses is stoked by the charm and skill of Lady Diane, who is twice his age, a spendthrift and a schemer, but nonetheless the spirit of life and art in a cold, dead court.

Weak as he is, Henry holds his wife in sulky subjection. Catherine is fishlike and spiteful. "She seemed to have sworn a maiden's vow never to give pleasure nor take it in this life."

But the kingdom is more than the court; it is the country. The country will not be denied the promise of renewed life; it requires an heir, and the barren monarchs will have to provide one. And one day, Catherine receives a present from her sister.

It is Morgantina, a dwarf and a witch. She will be Catherine's companion and tormented servant, but more than that, she will be the fiery animator who, in odd partnership with Diane, will discover in Catherine what Henry lacks: a talent for power. And by the end, cold and mean as ever, Catherine will have the power and an heir, and Henry will be dead.

None of this is arrived at simply. There are dreams and digressions, and events that are not so much related as suggested, and loom in and out of clouds of exotic imagery.

Morgantina's witchcraft is constructive and self-denying. When Diane's efforts to get the king and queen to produce a child fail--she brings Henry to a state of arousal and he totes the arousal across the palace to Catherine, though to no avail--Morgantina takes over. Despite her deathly fear of procreation--her tiny frame makes it virtually suicidal--she gets herself impregnated, gives agonizing birth and, under cover of a pilgrimage with Catherine, turns the baby over to her.

The father is Morgantina's counterpart, Cornelius Agrippa, a figure based on a real Renaissance necromancer. Cornelius is all pride, confusion and villainy. At least I think he is; Gould presents him at colorful length without managing to make him memorable or even quite distinguishable. He is a woozy mix of lust, greed and vague intentions; the book's fantasy sags whenever he takes charge of it. Villainy aside, the reader may be grateful to meet Cornelius for the last time hanging from his heels in a dungeon.

Morgantina has a hand in Cornelius' fate, as well as in Henry's death by a spear through his helmet-hole. But if she is the animating force in the revolution at the French court, she is also the transforming achievement of Gould's risky experiment in literary pastiche.

"Subject to Change" has a high surface energy and considerable virtuosity. It is the lushest mixture of fairy tale and court chronicle, with comically prosaic interruptions. It employs lavish color along with mannered language and extravagant incident. There is a certain deliberate blurring of the events, suggestiveness, but arbitrarily puzzling.

In short, the book is prodigiously condimented. And there are stretches that seem to be all condiments and no food. The elaborateness becomes an array of angled prisms missing a source of light.

But Morgantina redeems most of this. Gould has been seized and inspired with a concept of dwarfdom. Morgantina the dwarf is a dwarf star, an incandescent concentration of substance and energy in a tiny space.

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