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LICKS OF LOVE Short Stories and a Sequel, 'Rabbit Remembered' By John Updike; Alfred A. Knopf: 360 pp., $25

ON A DARK NIGHT I LEFT MY SILENT HOUSE By Peter Handke; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 186 pp., $23

SOMETHING SPECIAL A Story By Iris Murdoch Illustrations by Michael McCurdy; W.W. Norton: 54 pp., $15.95

November 19, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

LICKS OF LOVE Short Stories and a Sequel, 'Rabbit Remembered' By John Updike; Alfred A. Knopf: 360 pp., $25

"Infidelity," reflects Frank, epicenter of the story "Natural Color," "widens a couple's erotic field at first, but leaves it weaker and frazzled in the end. Like a mind-expanding drug, it destroys cells." "These women who showed up at his readings," thinks the character Bech in another story, "His Oeuvre," "these women he had slept with were saying . . . we are your masterpieces." "You can go to the dark side of the moon and back," thinks Eddie Chester in "Licks of Love in the Heart of the Cold War," "and see nothing more wonderful and strange than the way men and women manage to get together." These three quotes form a sort of Pythagorean wall delineating the sum of John Updike's interests in this odd collection. Chester gets a squared, Frank and Bech hold the other two corners of this suffocating geometry. Middle-aged men crouch inside these lines. Women float around the outskirts: not women you've ever met, not women with any identifying marks not inflicted by their relationships to men. The stories are painstakingly written; effort shows on every page. There's too much detail, too much retelling of the characters' most ordinary thoughts. Most of the stories, except for "The Cats" and "Oliver's Evolution," feel unfinished; summarily ended, as though Updike simply shrugged. As for "Rabbit Remembered," this is what the word "banal" was meant to define. Updike, when not at his best, can remind a reader of those pallbearers of the ancient world whom Christopher Columbus tried so eagerly to convince. "The world is flat!" they shouted. "The world is flat!" he repeats. His horizon is all Freudian. Men and women are polarized in the corners of this universe.

ON A DARK NIGHT I LEFT MY SILENT HOUSE By Peter Handke; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 186 pp., $23

"When I inadvertently fell into such storytelling," explains Peter Handke's pharmacist, "[t]he things inside me and outside of me interpenetrated each other, became whole from one another. Storytelling and the steppe became one." Watching a writer searching on the page, after a lifetime of writing about the most convoluted subjects on God's green Earth--politics, culture, history, love, the tests of friendship--is like watching an adult learn to crawl. In his last few books, Handke has written like a supplicant who wants to be folded back into God's green Earth. In this novel, he takes the psyche of a quiet man, a pharmacist with a fascination for mushrooms, edible, poisonous and hallucinogenic, and flings this psyche against the great wide world. It shatters into little pieces: a son he threw out of the house; an estranged wife with whom he shares a roof and nothing more; a flickering identity shadowed by dreams. Handke shares some of Updike's bleak feelings on the gender wars: "These days men and women are furious at each other," a poet tells the pharmacist. "And if love enters the picture, all it does is unleash war." As in all of Handke's writing, guilt is a main character. The pharmacist should not have thrown out his boy. Odd that a psyche's skeleton would be composed of bones like guilt and regret. Odd that storytelling might prove to be a writer's strongest link to reality. There is a moment in this novel when, sure enough, if you do not try to understand every little thing, storytelling and the steppe become one.

SOMETHING SPECIAL A Story By Iris Murdoch Illustrations by Michael McCurdy; W.W. Norton: 54 pp., $15.95

"Something Special" is like a play in three acts. Iris Murdoch's usual web of social context and social connection is boiled down, folded neatly into three characters and a single evening. Set in Dublin in the 1950s, "Something Special" is a window into the life of a 24-year-old woman who lives behind the store with her mother. Her mother wants her to marry a Jewish man named Sam, but he is too plain for her. She wants to wear high heels and see the seedy parts of town. She feels fate strong-arming her because she is poor and plain, and this is the story of her last defiance of fate before the long capitulation. ("You're not Greta Garbo," an uncle who appears briefly tells her. "Sensible people marry because they want to be in the married state and not because of feelings they have in their breasts.") Sam, it turns out, is not plain either but deep and serious and not impervious to beauty or mystery. The woman is just too young, too cornered like a wild animal to see his sweetness. In a way, "Something Special" is very much like a line drawing by a master. You tilt your head, and it assumes one shape; turn another way, and it changes. Each shape, aligned with the eye of the beholder, has a fierce integrity.

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