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Mirrors in the Labyrinth : FUN & GAMES: Short Fiction by Clarence Major (Holy Cow! Press, distributed by the Talman Co.: $15.95; 130 pp.)

February 18, 1990|Merle Rubin | Rubin is a frequent contributor to Book Review

While most black American novelists have worked in the tradition of social realism, Clarence Major is one of the small number who have pursued more experimental forms.

The author of seven novels, eight poetry collections and several nonfiction works, Major was born in 1936, made his literary debut in the 1960s, and by the 1970s and 1980s, was hitting his stride with offbeat novels like "Reflex and Bone Structure" (1975), "My Amputations" (1986) and "Painted Turtle: Woman With Guitar" (1988). He is currently a professor at the University of California at Davis.

"Fun and Games" is his first collection of short fictions. As one would expect from the title, many of these pieces play around with elements of form, narration, plot and character. The title story is a laconic, desultory catalogue of the narrator's girlfriends, past and present, which wryly captures the rhythms of contemporary speech and the monotonous irregularities of current life styles:

"Mary Jones and Lola Marie Jones are not related. In fact, Lola is white, Mary black. Mary actually looks white and Lola is a dark-complexioned white woman. Jeannie Devore is another story. She left two months ago. . . .

"Mary likes to make love.

"Jeannie did not.

"Lola likes to make love though she does not know much about it.

"Some day somebody will teach her."

In "The Horror!," an aspiring black actress agrees to star in a horror movie to pay for scuba-diving lessons. She wants to impress her aquatic-minded fiance, and besides, "out here it was the thing to do." But the movie, when released, is very different from the one she thinks she acted in, and her pot-bellied diving instructor is more menacing than he first seemed. The disjunctive narrative reflects the young woman's confusion about who she is and whether she is being exploited, as well as a broader cultural confusion about the indeterminate relationship between pornographic fantasies and the realities of sexual violence.

Not all the fictions in this collection are experimental. Major can write effectively--and affectingly--in the realist mode. In "Saving the Children," a pious elderly woman tells of her unappreciated attempt to rescue her grandchildren's souls from the irreligious influence of their parents. As she narrates her story in a vigorous, meticulously rendered dialect, we recognize her narrow-mindedness, yet feel the poignancy of her good intentions.

In "My Mother and Mitch," the adult narrator recounts the story of how his mother, "divorced but still young enough to believe she was not completely finished with men," became involved with a white man who met her by dialing the wrong number and falling into a conversation. "The lesson learned for the first time is that she did not always know what she was doing . . . and that made me feel closer to her despite the fear it caused. She was there to protect me, I thought. But there she was, just finding her way, step by step, like me. It was something wonderful anyway."

In Major's hands, straightforward realism has a way of wandering off into the labyrinths of literary self-awareness. The "Letters" exchanged by a pair of former lovers could very well have been lifted right out of the mailbag. The uneasy mix of familiarity; the bursts of confidentiality; the evasions; the banal, self-preening lists of new projects--all are instantly recognizable: as "real" as smog or television news. Yet, like smog and news, these letters are artificial--man-made byproducts--and Major's deadpan rendition contains a touch of mockery that brilliantly highlights the artifice that is inseparable from real life.

As Major demonstrated in his 1987 novel "Such Was the Season," and he demonstrates again in this collection, realism has its uses--which he is fully capable of exploiting. What haunts him, however, is the way that literature transforms everything into itself, whether the writer is willfully experimental or whether he starts out with the simpler intention of mirroring the world around him.

The final fiction in this book, "The Ghetto, the Ocean, the Lynching, and the Funeral," sums up the shifting relationship between the writer and reality. A street scene is described in detail: chicken, a baby sucking her thumb, a minister climbing the steps, and "vibrant black women, as alive as African violets in bloom, as open, as tough, as delicate, and as regenerating." Moments later, we are told, "This ghetto scene is built on squares and other hard and sharp right-angles. For all their life, the preacher and the women and the children, on closer inspection, are flat, blunt paper cutouts."

Simple realism runs the danger of collapsing into the literary cliche. Major's "short fictions" remind us that reality is not simply something out there: Ours, as he puts it, is a "man-made world," influenced by our ability to reflect, re-imagine, re-interpret and reform it.

This impressively varied and inventive collection testifies to Major's ability to do just that, with humor, shrewdness and considerable originality.

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