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He Pulled Her to Him; She Trembled : NAKED SLEEPER. By Sigrid Nunez (HarperCollins: $23, 233 pp.)

September 22, 1996|Ellen Akins | Ellen Akins' books include "Little Woman" and "World Like a Knife," a collection of stories. Her new novel is being published by Alfred A. Knopf

Sigrid Nunez's first novel, "A Feather on the Breath of God," was, as her publicist tells us, "one of the most widely and favorably reviewed novels of 1995." So it must have been good. And it must have depleted her, because her second is woefully under-thought and under-written.

"Naked Sleeper" is about a married woman of 40, Nona, who is writing a book about her dead father, and who spends a few weeks at an artists' colony thinly disguised as a friend's country retreat and falls for a loathsome, unhappily married man named Lyle. His fulsome letters, once she returns home to her husband, Roy, prompt her to fly off to Tucson to try out Lyle for a few days. Perhaps I'm wrong to tell you up front that Lyle is vile, since he's supposed to be so appealing before the test weekend that his true character, or lack thereof, should come as something of a revelation. And the full revelation is a point of interest in the book, as a spectacular car crash might be in the middle of a long, dull trip.

Unfortunately, though, we've read his letters, so we know it's coming and can only wonder why Nona doesn't. "If I am writing things you don't want to hear, you must tell me, you must stop me, I cannot stop myself," he writes, and, "What have you done to me?" and, "What's to become of me?" Now that's a letter, someone else talking, and excuses can be made, but this is the narrator: " . . . he pulled her to him, and they kissed and kissed. Her closed eyes filled with tears, and when he felt the trembling of her mouth he pressed her harder, made the trembling stop. They kissed, and Nona shut her eyes more tightly against her tears, against the vision of her life in ruins, her peace and all her happiness destroyed."

"What's the difference between pornography and erotica?" ask the Ugly Stepsisters--two other guests--also staying at the country retreat. "Erotica is pornography for people who don't want to get their hands dirty." There's a dangerous parallel here, in a book that's schlock for readers who don't want to dirty their hands.

What's surprising, in view of all that happens in this book--adultery, breast cancer scares, fatal car crashes, a gay father outed--is how little seems to happen, maybe because Nunez tends to unload all the dramatic freight before the moment arrives. For instance, we get Lyle's letters before we get the seduction that led to them. We hear virtually all the pieces of Nona's father's story before we hear the story. We learn about Roy, and Nona's marriage to him, before we're treated to the romance, which has dissipated in the meanwhile.

This flipping back and forth and using flashbacks to dramatize present moments is standard practice and can certainly work. Why it doesn't here, I really don't know, though I suspect it may be the failure of the present moments to live up to the past crises. Once Nunez gets to her point, she often explains it, giving us too little to gather for ourselves, to infer, to intuit--in short, to feel. Apropos, here's what the narrator tells us at the end of Nona's weekend with Lyle: "She had been mistreated, misunderstood. She had been seduced and rejected. She had been humiliated. She had suffered enough. Already it was too absurd to have actually happened."

It's possible that Nunez simply knows what she's got here, and in her heart of hearts doesn't really care to write it. Early on, the narrator asks, "Hadn't someone written a story that began like this? . . . A story that ended with something about a long, long road ahead, and the hardest part only just now beginning?" About Nona's childhood, the narrator says, "This was a girl's life, coming of age in California, in the '70s." Lyle and Nona go "out into the golden morning hand in hand, like children in a fairy tale." Nona is "an exaggeration of [Roy's] type." Certain kinds of stories, certain types: Too much of this has come before and won't sustain the writing that might sustain our interest.

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