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Trapped in Paradise : MAKE ME WORK, By Ralph Lombreglia (Farrar Straus Giroux: $20; 211 pp.)

January 02, 1994|RICHARD EDER

Bindings once deformed the feet of Chinese girl-children so that, grown up, they could squeeze into tiny shoes. Wasp-waist corsets macerated the innards and constitutions of Victorian women. High starched collars immobilized men's heads and dispositions--stiff-necked they strutted into World War One--at the start of this century. A monstrous load of iron rendered the medieval knight unfit for much more than sitting a drayhorse and lumbering straight toward an equally unmaneuverable antagonist.

Successively, our civilizations locate a good, improve it, specialize it, and improve it still more until it is an armor that drags our humanity down. Ralph Lombreglia writes in an odd mix of parody and melodrama of characters who submit to the deformities they are confined in, paradoxically, by today's technological and cultural unconstraints. A mother schemes to run away from her grown son, rendered abusive by drugs and a world that avoids instilling values in its young. A scriptwriter in a high-tech video firm is unable to commit to his girlfriend until he sees their two images blown up into a giant hologram. An ex-Hippie, her counterculture rusting dangerously away in the Vermont woods, is given a hand by a Polish immigrant imbued with something like the old-style American dream.

It is not that Lombreglia is particularly conservative; he is just on the rebound from what he sees around him. Fortunately he is made extensively of Silly Putty. His rebounds, at their best, are extravagant and far-fetching. It is in his soberer moments, exploring the straight line of a moral or a plot, that he flounders. He flounders oftener in "Make Me Work" than in his splendid first collection, "Men Under Water." Lombreglia is all treble obbligato; when he tries for resonance and undertones they seem patched in.

Two of the best stories take us back to Paradise Productions: that splendid outfit, teetering between postmodern agility and utter chaos, that also figures in the previous collection. It makes promotion films for high-tech Cambridge entrepreneurs, usually on a moment's notice. It is staffed by Dwight, its leader; Anna his wife--half nightingale, half mother hen; the virtually bodiless Professor who seems entirely built of algorithms; Nemesto, an inventor freak; and Walter, the scriptwriter. Paradise is nonstop all- nighters, gourmet takeout, and hysteria alternating with lethargy.

It is a light-hearted model of what can befall brilliant people who live entirely in their brilliance. In "Late Early Man," Anna's nine-month pregnancy is put on hold while she helps her team film a belt-sander derby; a race, that is, in which various belt-sanders are set to scuttle around a track laid out in a factory loft. It is a grand, sociable affair, with lots to eat and drink; and when Anna goes into labor, Dwight, caught up in the promotion, asks Walter to take her to the hospital. They promptly get stuck in rush-hour traffic on the highway in front of the factory. Walter borrows a Wall Street Journal from a neighboring car and does the delivery, while Dwight watches with binoculars from the factory window, and calls up his emerging baby via the car's cellular phone.

The comic absurdity builds like "Hellzapoppin"; the moral irony is delicately touched upon. It sounds more strongly in "Heavy Lifting." The Paradise team is preparing a show for a client who is raising venture capital for a private takeover of the space program. The high point is a giant hologram of a moon-shot video; however, Anna's baby has been playing with the tapes. What the investor audience gets is a taped argument between Walter and his girlfriend--she wants him to move in with her, he hesitates. Seeing her projected 30 feet high, and in front of a cheering audience, he wavers no longer. Private passion may not be quite real; it needs the certification of electronic imagery and the public eye.

Again, Lombreglia's balance between his characters, zany but disturbingly credible, and his disconcerting moral message is gracefully achieved. None of the other stories quite manages such a balance. The author constructs an artful and ironic situation, only to dull it with action that is variously stagy, commonplace or overly elliptical.

Lisa, the disk-jockey protagonist of "One Woman Blues Revival," has lived through her bright and free Seventies, slowed down in the Eighties, and come to ground working for a shaky radio station in Vermont. Her husband, an Elvis freak, has split to run a record store; she holds valiantly to tradition by playing classic rock and blues while a 20-year colleague who plays groups with such names as "Brain Bandage." Funky and free has become faded and afraid. She is lonely. Her cabin in the woods is leaks and is infested with raccoons. It rains all spring. She drives an old Toyota: "never-say-die vehicles . . . but hers was saying die." "All the stray garbage signals of the world had found their satellite dish, and its name was Lisa," Lombreglia writes.

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