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RICHARD EDER

The Thinking Heart

THE EVOLUTION OF JANE.\o7 By Cathleen Schine (Houghton Mifflin: 210 pp., $24)\f7

October 04, 1998|RICHARD EDER

Conceive this as an action novel about mountaineering or navigating a storm or fighting the bad guys--except that Cathleen Schine's brand of action is thought. Jane, her frail and comic heroine, batters through perils and ordeals, but instead of watching her climb, battle or sail through hurricanes, we watch her think.

Thinking leaves her bruised and scratched, her clothes partly torn off (almost literally, in fact), yet roughly OK despite various disastrous missteps. Pauline struggles up from her railroad track perils smudged but still quite cute.

Schine, author of "Rameau's Niece" and "The Love Letter," is making alluring headway with a kind of fiction more common in Europe than America: one built around a discursive play of ideas. Its elements are wit, paradox and a light voice. It is serious enough, but it refuses to take itself seriously. Think Kundera, Calvino, Penelope Fitzgerald--not to imply that Schine is at their level, at least not yet. As for American examples: She doesn't do the intensely novelized speculations of a Roth or Updike but something closer to "archy and mehitabel" ("toujours gai") of the '30s.

Jane Barlow Schwartz, a floaty young New Yorker, has divorced her floaty young husband, Michael, after a little toy marriage. With such terms as grief, tragedy and damnation unavailable in her Seinfeld-era vocabulary, she cobbles up her version:

"Here is the story of my ex-husband: Michael and I were young and stupid; he, being young and stupid, left me for someone equally young and stupid; I, being stupid, cried for three months, and then, being young, woke up in the middle of the night, ate a bowl of leftover spaghetti, thought 'This is pleasant,' and cried no more."

In fact, Jane has been holed below the water line but cannot admit it. Her mother, generationally attuned to waterlines and holes, proposes a travelcure. She treats Jane to a visit to the Galapagos Islands, site of Darwin's discoveries about random selection and the evolution of species. What ensues is a turbulent swirl of incident and brainstorm. Jane churns through the tour, swotting up impressions and facts, citing theories, evolving her own and revoking them; all in an effort to link Darwin's discoveries and her not-quite-admitted anguish.

Ingeniously, though sometimes as confusing to the reader as to the protagonist herself--this, actually, is one of Schine's ingenuities--Jane's struggles are as random as those of the Darwinian species. (Selection comes only at the very end.)

They are intellectual struggles, often delightfully inventive, occasionally blurred and exasperating. They are not arbitrary though. Think again of an adventure story in which mountain-climbing is real crags yet also a combing-out of the climber's tangled soul. Jane's feverish cogitating is partly wrong turns, denials and deflections; partly it is a way to press an individual wound into a universal framework--painful still but less lonesome.

The principal deflection comes almost at the start. Getting off the little plane that takes the tourists from the mainland to the Galapagos (somehow Schine figures the 600 miles as a half-hour flight), Jane finds that their biologist-guide is her cousin, Martha Barlow. Immediately, all her suppressed injury finds a point of discharge. Living next to each other as children, they had been inseparable friends; then, when they were 16 and Martha moved away, she dropped Jane entirely and inexplicably.

In the weeks that follow, with grueling daily expeditions, lectures and the pressurecooker atmosphere of a small group of tourists continually together, Jane reduces her larger anguish to one question: What happened? It flares into obsession. Fueled by her state of near-breakdown, a bad sunstroke and the stimulus of the strange islands--site of the great revolution in humanity's idea of itself--Jane's mind goes off in a blaze of multicolored fireworks.

Her assorted fevers weave in and out of each other absurdly yet never far from some disruptive insight. Schine, who is very funny, very smart and oddly forbearing--qualities that her stylistic tendency to pirouette and compress at the same time can cause to logjam--tells a number of different stories through Jane's voice. It is a voice that grows in hysteria as it grows in lucidity.

There is the enjoyably recalcitrant history of the Barlow family: of three patriarch brothers who made a sugar fortune and quarreled and of the feud that extends down three generations to touch Jane's mother and Martha's father. The feud plays as an amiable mystery woven into Jane and Martha's childhood friendship, one tugged slightly askew by the former's messily inquiring spirit and the latter's self-assurance.

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