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Going Her Own Way : A novelist keeps watch on herself--and us--as century nears its end : THE FATIGUE ARTIST, By Lynne Sharon Schwartz (Scribner: $23; 320 pp.)

August 20, 1995|Daphne Merkin | Critic Daphne Merkin has a forthcoming collection of essays, "The Discovery of Sex

Anyone who reads or writes novels has had ample reason to wonder this past decade or two whither the art of fiction goeth, and why. Are there enough readers of "serious" fiction to make it other than an exercise in prestigious futility for mainstream publishers? Do the writers of serious fiction go on in spite of themselves or are they tone-deaf to the sounds of the marketplace, where the scaffolding is being noisily set up the better to erect the next blockbuster, the Grishams and Clancys and Steeles?

I ask these questions not idly or rhetorically but because they hum in the air around Lynn Sharon Schwartz's latest novel, providing the background music--its implicit subtext, if you will. "The Fatigue Artist" is a book that is determined to go its own way and gives little quarter to the reader who is looking merely to be entertained. Oh, the author is savvy enough to throw those of us who hanker after the conventional stuff of fiction some bones in the form of a "love triangle" of sorts, a "virus that dares not speak its name," a chic Hamptons weekend replete with "end-of-the-century Americans who played games that mocked their condition," descriptions of summer in New York City, snatches of pithy dialogue, and ruminations on sex and its discontents.

Indeed, Schwartz is, above all, a first-class observer. She writes as a self-described "realist"--a keeper of "databanks," as she calls them, on what is being said and by whom and the clothes that were worn and what the weather was like. Little escapes her eye, whether it be order-in Chinese dinners ("Soon we'll be eating steamed dumplings in garlic sauce, shrimp in black bean sauce, sesame chicken, and the little extras like toasted pecans and oranges they throw in to beat the competition"), the bleached-out world of the New York subway system ("The trains are steely gray, the papers at the newsstand pale and wilted. . . . At the far end of the car I enter, some unseen but surely gray person has a box blasting heavy gray music") or the appearance of a waitress ("She was a short, sturdy, honey-skinned Mexican woman neither young nor old, wearing a plain black dress and white apron, not beautiful but emitting a benign glow, an allusion to the idea of beauty").

Accurate or suggestive as these details are--and this writer has from her first novel been especially good at the quick, deft social capsule--they linger less with the reader than the writer-protagonist's tussle with the very notion of having to create a metaphor for her life, one that will rise above the details and take on the iconic quality of art. "There. An impeccable performance," she writes. "So lifelike, you could hardly call it a metaphor. Simply the cry we all utter behind each small, ritual interchange. 'I am still alive.' "

"The Fatigue Artist" is narrated by a woman named Laura who is suffering from a pervasive state of exhaustion that sounds very much like chronic fatigue syndrome. This malaise is possibly a delayed reaction to the accidental death of her reporter husband, who was gunned down two years earlier while covering a drug bust in the Bronx; the fatigue may possibly be induced by nothing more than the stresses of ordinary life.

In her search for both a cause and a cure for her illness, Laura quickly abandons the impersonal and peremptory solutions of Western medicine (" 'Stick out your tongue,' said Dr. A., and I became a child again") in favor of the ministrations of a T'ai Chi teacher and a Jewish "medicine woman" who specializes in "moving out the toxins" through the use of exotic herbs, needles, and the laying on of hands.

Although she spends much of her time succumbing to "the unmistakable lover's croon" of her bed or yearning for its "voluptuous embrace," Laura also manages to fit in an affair with Tim, much brooding over "Q.," her on-again, off-again actor-lover of many years, and a trip to Cape Cod with her stepdaughter, Jilly, where she conceives of a new book, which just happens to be the very one we are reading. "Maybe I even read this book, long ago completed and published though now it lies dauntingly before me," Laura muses in one of several self-conscious post-modernist moments scattered through the novel, belying its commitment both to realism and to readers who were hoping for what she calls "blockbuster material."

There is something curiously moving and, finally, absorbing, about the closed-in, solipsistic world of "The Fatigue Artist." Although Laura speaks in a "weary, mildly aggrieved voice," to borrow from one of her own characterizations, that voice begins to grow on you, like the presence of a crotchety but interesting friend. True, Schwartz seems to teeter precariously between literary influences in a Balzac-meets-Barthelme fashion, and her novel seems not quite fully conceived on the page, but it resounds with enormous intelligence.

"Besides, my ailment no longer interests me," Laura confesses toward the end. "It's tolerable only as I keep finding metaphors and stories to wrap it in. These I enter one by one in the composition book--a patchwork stitched together by touch . . . risking my fortunes . . . on the hope that it will make a garment against the elements." Underneath its passing parade of observations and characters and often irritable asides, "The Fatigue Artist" is a novel about the impulse to write--to shape sentences and thereby render order out of unruly experience.

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