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BOOK REVIEW / FICTION : Young Lives Eaten Away by Troubled Pasts : OBJECTS IN MIRROR ARE CLOSER THAN THEY APPEAR, by Katharine Weber , Crown Publishing,$23, 304 pages

May 11, 1995|RICHARD EDER | TIMES BOOK CRITIC

The two young women in Katharine Weber's first published novel edge into adult life as if crossing an Alpine ice bridge. One slips down a crevice; the other survives, shaking, to tell the story.

Fledglings eat away their baby fat until they learn to forage. Harriet and Anne, sophisticated and tuned up to a string-snapping E above high C, are eaten away by childhood nightmares. Only Harriet learns to outdistance the gnawing. She does it by writing letters to a reassuring young man she addresses as "Oh, Benedict," and by using a camera to take grant-winning photographs of herself in the mirror.

Roommates in Greenwich Village, the two had lived in the laid-back, funky interregnum that many well-off young people manage to inhabit partway between college and fate. Anne, whose father is wealthy, worked in a fashionable art gallery. Harriet got a boost onto the first rung of New York's fame ladder by winning a place in a "Three Under Thirty" show. She is praised as "a young Balthus" by Sanford Schwartz, the real-life critical tiger whom Weber appropriates for her fictional roof-garden.

Anne mysteriously gets a job with an oil consortium and moves to Geneva. When Harriet wins a traveling fellowship, Anne invites her to share her apartment. Harriet finds that her free-spirited New York buddy has become the elegantly turned-out and utterly demoralized sex slave of the older man who hired her. Not only is he older; he is a former family friend, the fellow inmate who helped her father survive Auschwitz.

The Geneva arrangements are claustrophobic, to say the least. Harriet must leave the tiny apartment each day from 12 to 2 so that Anne and her married lover, Victor, can occupy the special bed Anne bought to accommodate his aged back. At night the roommates share it. The sheets are fresh but the apartment reeks with what Harriet describes as the "Cloroxy" smell of the noon revels. It is, as well, the smell of life's evil.

Anne, feeling guilty from childhood over her father's concentration-camp ordeal and his seclusion after her mother's accidental death, is unable to resist Victor's sadistic claims. He is the victim as amoral predator. Horrified by Anne's submission, Harriet finds her own childhood rising to threaten her. Her older brother died from croup, her father walked out, her mother had a series of breakdowns. Harriet, of course, feels she is guilty of all of it.

"Objects in the Mirror Are Closer Than They Appear" is elaborately contrived but poorly organized. Toward the end, in the course of an accelerating tragic denouement, we are still getting biographical background on characters that have been there all along.

Some of the writing is polished, though it tends to come out in the form of fine-writing opportunities strung together with pedestrian linking-passages. Weber has an ironic eye; she is very good on the material features of Switzerland's careful prosperity: a woman continually scrubs the apartment stairs, and Harriet's sandwich comes with a charge for "supplementary cornichons." Like many American tourists, she is conscious not so much of things as of prices: Those cornichons leave an aftertaste of 1.15 Swiss francs to the dollar.

There is a whiff of promising absurdity to the evil Victor. At a restaurant, he suddenly disappears under the table when he spots friends of his wife's; covered by Anne's and Harriet's raised menus, he bolts, leaving his steak untouched. Catching Harriet alone, he takes off his shirt; seeing she is unreceptive, he hands it to her, asking her to sew on a button he has surreptitiously ripped off.

Weber might have done better to write the devil as comedian; instead she makes him the center of a dubiously expounded tragedy. There is something facile and modish about her use of a grave theme: the dehumanizing effect upon an individual of living through a supreme historical horror. There may indeed be art after Auschwitz, but you don't make art by brandishing the name. To make a point of Victor's thuggery by having him tell a Geneva waiter "I will take the steak" instead of "I will have the steak" parses a significance that isn't there: It is the French idiom.

Anne, falling into her fatal crevice, is seen distantly and unevenly. Harriet is the focus, and a blurred one. The long, unmailed letters she writes to "Oh, Benedict" in the book's first part have a plaintive and winsome quality. Recalling their visit together to the seals in the Central Park zoo, she wishes that life "could be so sardiney and simple." Anne is described as "so angular and Vermeerish."

The letters are used as narrative--they tell of Anne and Victor and of Harriet's dismay--but the cozily addressed Benedict is an irksome distraction. It is as off-putting as hearing a story told by someone curled up in someone else's lap. Harriet's childhood sorrows, in the second part, are told more straightforwardly. But though they account for her undermined identity they do not establish it, much less enlist us with it.

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