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Nibbling on Marzipan : NUDE MEN, By Amanda Filipacchi (Viking: $21; 288 pp.)

July 25, 1993|Kristine McKenna | McKenna is a frequent contributor to The Times

Just when you thought the terminally hip and ironic Tama Janowitz had finally vacated the bookstores and left us in peace, she's back. Not Tama exactly, but a 26-year-old clone by the name of Amanda Filipacchi, whose first novel, "Nude Men," plows the same fallow field of youthful Manhattan Angst where Janowitz was kicking up dust a few years ago.

A brief introduction to Filipacchi's characters should tell you all you need to know about this book; the lead character, Jeremy Acidophilus, is a lonely, downtrodden fact checker who undergoes a complete transformation of personality over the course of the book for no apparent reason; hanging around with him is Lady Henrietta, a painter of nude men who compulsively nibbles on marzipan animals; Lady Henrietta's daughter Sara, a beautiful 11-year-old who methodically plans and executes the seduction of an adult, contracts a fatal disease, grows a beard, goes on a killing spree, gets hit by a car and dies; a "post-modern" (Filipacchi's description) magician who's incapable of performing tricks, but attracts a legion of devoted fans who applaud her for performing such feats as removing her jacket and mopping her brow with a Kleenex; a talking cat who goes on at great length about the fact that she's in heat; and a nagging mother who enjoys sexually harassing strangers and hires people to accost her son on the street and berate him.

The characters in this remarkably idea-free book are so one-dimensional and unappealing that when bad things happen to them (and tragedy seems to stalk several of them relentlessly) it's hard not to feel they deserve it. And, when they fall in love with each other, one can only wonder why.

Filipacchi's characters are unable to fall convincingly in love because none of them seem to have authentic personalities or feelings--they have tics and do shtick. Moreover, Filipacchi seems to have little interest in such niggling details as character motivation; rather, the book comes off as a series of set-ups designed to accommodate dialogue, much of which is pedestrian and leaden. Filipacchi favors short, declarative sentences constructed out of words of less than four syllables.

One gets the feeling "Nude Men" was written with the sale of movie rights prominently in mind; it seems to aspire to a mood of heartfelt wackiness evocative of Susan Seidelman's "Desperately Seeking Susan." That film, charming though it was in its day, already seems like a relic of a very different time, and Filipacchi's book also seems mired in the obsolete posture of the mid-1980s, a time when Jay McInerney was being hailed as literature's great white hope and people still had money.

Times are tougher now, and it's harder to indulge glib, empty books like this. The conversations between Jeremy and his cat make one cringe (they discuss urinating a lot), and the sex scenes between the 11-year-old girl and her baby-sitter are neither funny nor touching--they're simply weird and in questionable taste. The entire story pivots on this ill-conceived seduction, so if you don't find the idea of a sexually jaded 11-year-old who gets hit by a car amusing, then you'd better pass on "Nude Men."

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