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The Solace of Art : THE DESTINY OF NATHALIE X: And Other Stories. By William Boyd . Alfred A. Knopf: 177 pp., $22

January 19, 1997|MICHAEL FRANK | Michael Frank is a writer who lives in New York. His essays and short stories have appeared in Antaeus, the Southwest Review, Glimmer Train and the New York Times

Two-thirds of the way through "The Destiny of Nathalie X," his new collection of stories, William Boyd launches an account of a crumbled marriage with a citation from a 1949 dictionary of cinema. "Persistence of vision is a trick of the eye," we are told, "an ability the eye possesses to fill in the gaps between discrete images and make them appear perfectly contiguous. This is what makes animation work."

Works of fiction do not often come packaged with credos, or clues to their architectural underpinnings at any rate, but the epigraph Boyd has chosen here offers the reader a sly nudge toward apprehending the way these 11 disparate stories are linked. They share neither subject, setting, period, characters (except in one case) or point of view; their connection is less one of theme than of technique--although, by the end of the book, the technique virtually becomes its theme, as we see that Boyd has been endeavoring to demonstrate that discrete images, when combined artfully enough on the page, can bring about animation in the reader's mind. An endeavor this remains, however: While the best stories in "The Destiny of Nathalie X" convey an evocative sense of longing, capture the pain of love grasped then ungrasped and offer art--or acts of imagination that stand in for art--as a redemption for obstructed or disappointed lives, many others remain merely fragmentary and undernourished. The physiological eye may possess persistence of vision, but the reader's inner eye resents having to fill in quite so many gaps.

"Nathalie X" is nonetheless an interesting departure for Boyd, who is the author of five novels and a previous collection of stories. The novels regularly display a kind of narrative bravura that is absent, or willfully suppressed, here. Boyd has elected to exchange the indefatigable comedy of "A Good Man in Africa," the Bildungsroman-layering of "The New Confessions" and the rich battle-chronicling of "An Ice-Cream War" for a tone that is both remote and, given his constructive effect, appropriately more elliptical. His prose seldom falters. It has a clean, almost aerobicized muscularity and regularly produces fresh and compact phrasings. An envious voice is allowed to "whine and whinge on" in one narrator's mind, for example; "serene, urinous" is the quality of beach light at dawn, while the scent of rain falling on dry earth is "strong--sour and ferrous, like old cellars."

In places, one wishes that the stories' contrivances were as telling as their language. Setting aside two of the briefest, which are fragments themselves, seven of the remaining nine stories are assembled out of discrete images or their narrative equivalent, which Boyd works into a number of different collages. In the title story, he intercuts a series of documentary-like confessions in the characters' own voices with pieces of third-person narration that advance the action.

The technique here is a particularly apt match for Boyd's subject, the journey to Hollywood of a prize-winning West African film director, Aurelien No. Unfortunately Boyd succumbs to a common pitfall of putting Hollywood at the center of literary fiction: Hollywood behavior is all too replete with models of self-parody, and these have seduced the writer into promoting still another portrait of the industry's venality. Boyd's variation on the theme is to allow his characters to conduct an exegesis of the Hollywood temperament; everyone in the story has a "theory about this town" and delivers it with more precision and ardor than Boyd brings to Aurelien No's artistic and human trajectory.

"The Destiny of Nathalie X" offers a range of collage-like methods of storytelling. In "Transfigured Night," which is set during World War I Vienna, the scraps are titled by theme, person or place and combined with diary entries. This fragmentation allows Boyd to advance time, shift geography and appropriate a canvas broader than a more straightforward short story might comfortably handle. Along the way, he presents a poignant sketch of an impoverished poet seen through the eyes of his benefactor, who is also the narrator. Upon receiving help equal to seven years of his salary as a pharmacist, for instance, the poet convulses in a spasm. "I knew then that he was an honest man," the narrator observes, "for he had the honest man's fear of extreme good fortune."

Further on, the poet, drunk, falls asleep and is buried under 40 centimeters of new snow. In one of the book's more haunting images, he wakes to a "turbid white void"--heaven--and then punches his way free from this false death. Boyd pairs two experiences of war: It infuses the benefactor's life with purpose, but it destroys the poet's. Although the contrast is compelling, the narrative pyrotechnics still draw more of our attention than the characters' feelings or inner lives.

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