"Very little is known of that ancient race, the American people," Plato begins a lecture to his students and fellow citizens, some time in the future. "Yet we have discovered evidence that, beneath the surface of this wasteland, there may remain the vestiges of a great empire." "The Plato Papers" is a combination of conversations, musings, notes and theories regarding the lives of the people of Mouldwarp (Earth) and their fate. Some of this is amusing: especially the idea of a civilization being reconstructed from its language ("remote control: a form of worship," "psychotic: a person in communion with his psyche or spirit," "third world: unknown. The home of the third person?") Every so often, Plato has a dialogue with his soul ("Soul: Sometimes, you know, I worry about you. Plato: Why? Soul: You have no perspective") as he tries to puzzle out what happened to the people of Mouldwarp. "I know this," Plato says, after stumbling into Mouldwarp, "our world and their world are intermingled." "I recognized," Plato reports from that journey "that they were indeed our ancestors." The recognizable crimes Plato is accused of are here: falling in love with one's subject, questioning established theories, implying that your nation is not as evolved as its citizens think it is.
THE REALM OF SECOND HAND SOULS; By Sandra Shea; Houghton Mifflin: 388 pp., $23
The very unusual thing about "Second Hand Souls" (unusual for a novel but particularly for a first novel) is that it unfolds in your hands like a clementine. Most novels suffer from over-control, which can steer a good piece of literary fiction toward either plot-heavy predictability or self-involved author-therapy. A reader really has the sense with this novel that it starts with a birth and ends with a death only accidentally, that what happens in between surprised even Sandra Shea. What she does do, though lightly, is set up a magic with things--a kind of sixth sense through which certain items like cloth and shoes speak to certain people, who can put whole stories together just by looking at them. Catorza, who gives birth to Novena in the novel's first 10 pages, could feel a piece of cloth and tell where the shirt's wearer had been and what he felt. Novena, her daughter, can do this as well. Their odd futuristic names enhance this sense of wizardry. But the novel's core is the very troubled violent, wild son of the aunt, who raises Novena after Catorza dies (in childbirth with Novena's brother, who also dies), a boy who never got enough love and who stumbles like a beast through his short life. Novena watches him fall.
A RECIPE FOR BEES; By Gail Anderson-Dargatz; Harmony Books: 320 pp., $23
More second sight. Are you beginning to feel that everyone has it but you? Where is it written that there will be at least one psychic per novel? Someone will have a gift. Probably true to life, but at times it seems symptomatic of an author's natural god-status. The hubris is fairly contained in "A Recipe For Bees," a plain-speaking novel set in British Columbia that reminds a reader a bit of "Snow Falling on Cedars," though less is made of the political-cultural context than of the nature of love in hardscrabble rural environments. The setting and voice are reminiscent of Willa Cather, without her rich, complicated grammar of the earth. Augusta is an old woman, looking back on her marriage to Karl, son of a mean-spirited farmer; on her affair with Joe and their child, Joy, and a bit on her own parents. She has an uncomplicated and very reliable ability to foresee the deaths of people close to her. The novel wobbles a little between playful and earnest but stays true to its inspiration--the myriad honesties of country life.
THE ROSE GARDEN; By Maeve Brennan; Counterpoint: 320 pp., $23
"I am going to the country," children on Manhattan's Upper East Side used to say when asked what they were doing for the weekend. Usually "the country" was a facsimile of the city; one's neighbors were the same people, the same customs prevailed. In Truman Capote-style, Maeve Brennan, who wrote for The New Yorker from 1949 to 1981, wittily skewers the very people she wrote for (The New Yorker's audience) and "summered" with in a wealthy enclave on the Hudson River, called in real life Sneaden's Landing and in her stories Herbert's Landing. Some 20 of the stories in this collection are set here. These stories are just a little meaner than Cheever's, wittier than Updike's and richer than P.G. Wodehouse's, but Brennan lingers more over her people than any of these upper-class chroniclers. The Hudson River stories are all elbows; the stories set in Ireland are tender, never sentimental, free of the ferocity of New York society.