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Can a Linguist Find Love? : THE FULL CATASTROPHE by David Carkeet (The Linden Press: $18.95; 317 pp.)

April 08, 1990|Tom Nolan | Nolan writes the Mister Los Angeles column in Los Angeles Magazine. and

This fourth novel by David Carkeet is the funniest book I've read in five-and-a-half years.

"The Full Catastrophe," a comic chronicle of marital misunderstandings, is eccentric, hilarious, wildly inventive and eerily accurate. It's the sort of zany social satire that hasn't been encountered much since the '60s, when wickedly word-perfect reporters such as Bruce Jay Friedman, Jordan Crittenden, Terry Southern and Charles Webb roamed the suburbs. In some passages, Carkeet harks back even further, to classic humorists like Stephen Leacock and Robert Benchley.

Carkeet seems to make a habit of producing remarkable volumes. His first effort, "Double Negative," a murder mystery set in a linguistics think tank, was nominated for an Edgar by the Mystery Writers of America. A baseball novel called "The Greatest Slump of All Time" was his second book, and it won raves from such sports and literary buffs as Larry King. "I Been There Before," Carkeet's third novel, had Mark Twain returning to Earth in modern times.

For "The Full Catastrophe," Carkeet brings back Jeremy Cook, the linguist introduced in "Double Negative." Thirty-two, unmarried, ignorant of most contemporary popular culture, Cook (author of "The Woof of Words," a "surprisingly popular general introduction to linguistics") sees everything through the quirky tunnel vision of his academic specialty.

A baseball score card looks to him like "a lost astronaut's daily log." Meals are necessary chores, like trips to the gas station. Social encounters are exercises in avoiding "the extremes of pushiness and passivity," and conviviality requires "a zero information flow."

Cook is seeking employment in St. Louis as the book begins. He quickly finds work at the Pillow Agency, an odd outfit that specializes in serving "the linguistically troubled marriage." Pillow agents actually reside in the homes of couples seeking help. They serve as sort of live-in therapists, following guidelines set down in the often enigmatic Pillow Manual.

Beth and Dan Wilson are the marrieds that Cook is assigned to. Beth teaches, Dan works (unhappily) at a printing business owned by Beth's family. They have a 10-year-old son, Robbie. Humming with low-level anxiety, Cook inserts himself into their daily routine.

Sometimes he uses his linguistic knowledge to sort out grammatical misunderstandings. His first night in the house, Cook is able to point to a wrangle over the use of our that never would have ensnared 7th-Century English speakers, who employed a dual pronoun number. And he heightens Beth's and Dan's awareness of the tension-producing "complementary schismogenesis" that inexorably builds when they simultaneously engage in mutually exclusive activities.

But to begin with, he mostly observes. It's speech, verbal and physical, that captures Cook's attention. "What else was there but language?" he muses. "Everything was a linguistic question these days. And if it wasn't, he'd make it one."

Because of his off-kilter sensibilities, everything Cook scrutinizes attains a heightened fun-house reality. Cook is like the rhetorical man from another planet who stares in astonishment at the "normal" behavior of Earthlings. Seen through his alien eyes, the ordinary takes on a farcical dimension.

Anyone who's ever listened to or participated in a linguistically oriented argument--where both parties try to clarify and assign blame about what was said, and end up getting even angrier--can wince in recognition and laugh out loud (an example of self-contained "complementary schismogenesis"?) at Dan's and Beth's circular tirades.

Some excerpts:

"It started with the way you approached the whole thing. The way you yelled up the stairs that our summer was ruined."

"Oh come on . . . I was upset. Okay?"

"You said it like it was all suddenly my responsibility--"

"That's ridiculous."

"Like you were saying, 'Our summer is ruined, and it's your job to make it better.' "

"I didn't mean that at all!"

"But it felt like that's what you meant."

"Well I didn't, okay? How many times do I have to--"

"Okay okay. Anyway, my point is the way you brought it up got us off to a horrible start."

"How should I talk? Can't I say what I feel?"

Such round-robins have led Beth and Dan Wilson to the brink of divorce. It's Cook's job to keep them from stepping over. As his therapy becomes more aggressive, Jeremy searches for "The Horror" that, according to Pillow Agency lore, lurks at the heart of this (and every) marriage.

It all came down to "one simple question," Cook concludes: "What possessed two intelligent people of good will to snarl at each other like jackals over a carcass? Didn't they both want the marriage to thrive?"

Threading through all this is the linguist's own yearning for a successful interpersonal relationship. Goaded by Mr. Pillow, the head of the agency (a character even quirkier than Cook himself), Jeremy endures a series of blind dates designed to find a replacement for Paula, the student linguist for whom he may or may not still be carrying a torch.

What is "The Horror"? Do Dan and Beth achieve parity together? Can Jeremy himself discover happiness?

Read this terrific book and find out.

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