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April 15, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

HONEYMOON And Other Stories By Kevin Canty Nan Talese/Doubleday: 162 pp., $21

The stories in this collection have the lanky, loose connection to the world that an adolescent might have, complicated but unexplained. A middle-aged aunt is sent by her family to help her nephew in his 20s confront his various addictions. She's been through it herself, but instead of teaching him the error of his ways, she has sex with him, takes him out drinking and helps him buy some crystal meth. A man falls in love with a woman dying of breast cancer. He knows he shouldn't, but he does. Two guests at a wedding ease the loss of their lover (one is bisexual) by drinking all night and sleeping with each other. "'You think I'm drunk enough to sleep with you?' she asks him. 'I don't know,' I say. 'I don't think so.' 'You think I'm lonely enough?"' That seems to be the source of action in many of these stories. Are you lonely enough? Am I lonely enough? Otherwise, God knows, it would never happen. These are not stories in which huge revelations create momentum that changes lives. These are stories in which action is taken one step at a time. "I am," the narrator says in the first story, "Tokyo, My Love," 'the thing that happens next to you."

*

THE BAY OF ANGELS By Anita Brookner Random House: 206 pp., $23.95

One of Anita Brookner's favorite subjects, in this and other books, is dignity, that source of salvation for many, that sometimes destructive goal. Whether it makes a character fatally lonely or helps him survive suffering, it is a thing to be played out in fiction's laboratory so that we can decide how and whether to pursue it ourselves. First of all, dignity is excruciating. To dissect it successfully, an author must observe its creation and destruction. It cannot be mistaken for cowardice or plain arrogance or even fortitude. It is something the author creates with the raw materials of his or her character's lives.

Zoe and her mother live alone, quietly and happily in a shabby but charming flat in 1950s London, capital of shabbiness, citadel of dignity. Zoe's father has died and her mother is completely isolated. When Zoe is 16, her mother finally meets a much older man who takes her to live with him in France. Zoe is on her own until her stepfather dies and she must go to Nice to care for her mother, dying in a nursing home. The path seems paved for a dignified spinsterhood. Whenever she reaches out for help, sorting out financial affairs or asking medical advice of her mother's doctor, she perceives herself to be unattractive. She retreats to a rented room or a quiet museum. That is all that happens. "The Bay of Angels" is the story of a small life, lacking ambition or high drama. A girl whose prime comes and passes. A plain Jane who uses words like "apotheosis" and "avid" to describe her life, a life in which sex, well, it's fine if you can get it.

*

OUR TWISTED HERO By Yi Munyol Hyperion: 122 pp., $21.95

The ability, often childlike, to control the minds and actions of others without using force is a source of fascination for fiction writers and politicians alike. How to crawl inside the needs of another human being and then use the fear of deprivation to control him? Better still, to create those needs and then control the source of their fulfillment. Now, that's power. And it is perversion. The minds and souls of the master and the slave are hopelessly intertwined. They drag each other down. They destroy each other.

The narrator of "Our Twisted Hero" is Han Pyongt'ae, remembering back 30 years to when he was 12 and had moved from the sophisticated city of Seoul to a country town because of a nameless shame in his father's civil service career. Still, he expects to enter his new school a prince among commoners. Instead, he is met with a political structure that holds his class of 60 students in a corrupt and well-entrenched fist. The entire class is ruled by the class monitor, Om Sokdae, who is taller and stronger and more able than most of the boys and has the full support of a tired teacher who appreciates the order and turns a blind eye to the bullying and theft and cheating that Sokdae insists upon.

The background to this story, we are told briefly, is the end of the Liberal Party government. Pyongt'ae graduates into Korea's brave new "salesman's era" (Sokdae eventually is, found out and punished, but the boys in the class are punished even more for their submissiveness) and reflects often on Sokdae's misguided charisma and the pathetic submissiveness of his classmates and himself. Pyongt'ae enters a business world in which, he reflects, "Om Sokdae would certainly have become class monitor again."

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