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The Anomie Within : EMPATHY By Sarah Schulman ; (Dutton: $18; 182 pp.)

March 07, 1993|John Weir | Weir is the author of "The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket" (HarperCollins).

If personality is just an adjustment to stress, we may all be the result of the crises we survive. The characters in novelist Sarah Schulman's fiction struggle to come to terms with their identity in a contemporary urban landscape that has grown increasingly apocalyptic and implausible. They grasp at love as they watch their friends and lovers die. They strain to understand their lives in the context of global changes and local upheavals. In four previous novels and her current, "Empathy," Schulman has articulated an ongoing dialogue in which her fictional stand-ins, most often young gay women obsessed with cultural and political concerns, yearn to speak the language of their time, and to learn what actions will suffice in a chaotic world.

"I mean something different in the World than I mean in my world," says Anna O., whose fractured identity is scattered in shards throughout the poignant self-analysis that comprises "Empathy." She seems to exist only in relationship to her surroundings, or other people. Living in a New York City neighborhood left in disarray by the combination of partial gentrification and increasing poverty that overtook it during the Reagan-Bush years, she is acutely aware of herself as a child of middle-class Jews, "the kind that could pass up just as easily as down." Her word-processing job and visits to her parents help her maintain an illusion of tradition and stability.

She is, after all, an American, in whom certain advantages are supposed to inhere automatically. But she is also a gay offspring of vaguely gay-baiting parents, and a woman conditioned from childhood to conceive of her beauty, her sensuality and her intelligence wholly in comparison to men. Furthermore, she is a child of the '60s, raised to believe in a future that has long since passed into history. Wondering "what happened to the world I was promised back in the first grade in 1965," she describes what she grew up to expect: "successful middle-class romance, the Jetsons, robots and the metric system." That her life now consists of AIDS, reluctant lovers, crack babies and the homeless is the irony she strives to resolve.

Being able to listen to others and identify with their concerns is Schulman's understanding of empathy, an emotional receptivity that provides Anna with the key to the eventual reintegration of her initially fragmented personality.

If Schulman's structure is complex and sometimes abstruse, her style is refreshingly colloquial. "Simple words are best," the narrator notes, and while Schulman is occasionally guilty of oversimplification, she is most often the master of a gorgeous simplicity that is resilient enough to encompass everything from recipes for Three Musketeers Treasure Puffs to lyrical passages and intimate bedroom chatter. Her gift is her characters' capacity for grace under pressure, and her special charm is her generous, sensual and quite exhilarating observations of women. "Her orgasm was square," Schulman notes, when Anna O. awakes from a sexual dream. "A pink star, a spider web, a dancing star too and a point and a shadow."

Schulman's voice is comic, engaging, alternately hectoring and caressing. It is a New York voice, struggling to liberate itself from received notions about love and identity picked up from Sigmund Freud and Saturday morning cartoons. At times it reminded me of one of Schulman's literary precursors, Delmore Schwartz, a lifelong tortured and effusive New Yorker, a Jewish secular humanist with a broad streak of tenderness beneath his cynicism. "Existentialism means that no one can take a bath for you," Schwartz famously opined. The cosmic loneliness he suffered, comically expressed, reverberates throughout Schulman's writing. But while Schwartz withdrew from the world, retreating into madness, Schulman affirms her connectedness to life, stepping gracefully and conscientiously through the great disorder whirling forever around her.

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