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MASTER CLASS Scenes from a Fiction Workshop By Paul West; Harcourt: 260 pp., $24

ARRESTING GOD IN KATHMANDU Stories By Samrat Upadhyay Mariner: 208 pp., $12 paper

ZIGZAGGING DOWN A WILD TRAIL Stories By Bobbie Ann Mason; Random House: 214 pp., $22.95

August 12, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

MASTER CLASS Scenes from a Fiction Workshop By Paul West; Harcourt: 260 pp., $24

In a book full of conundrums with a cast of brilliant characters, here is the conundrum that rankles Paul West, the teacher of this master class in fiction writing: "When you hone the average into being superior, you are making them less publishable; so what on earth do you do with as bright and gifted a bunch as this, already superior from reading and practice, ready to be, if lucky, virtuosos?"

West wants to teach them what he calls freewheeling; he wants to teach them a rebellious use of language that flexes the medium. He makes them read Proust. They discuss practical aspects of writing as well; how to invest place names with specificity and meaning, "how to tinker with the component parts of individual metaphors; the problems with ecstatic writing, say, a private relationship to the universe--too farfetched, they risk not communicating at all." His students are eager; they turn their papers in early. "On they go, having created Africa, to give birth to Asia." Even so, he worries: "I do not yet see in their faces the prospect of hard work, when the rear end aches and the hand cramps." He worries in "Master Class," like a good teacher, that he cannot communicate to them the daily building of inspiration, the sense of nothing lost or wasted, in short, the writer's life.

ARRESTING GOD IN KATHMANDU Stories By Samrat Upadhyay Mariner: 208 pp., $12 paper

Nepal, in spite of all the tourists it attracts, in spite of making world headlines last June when the crown prince murdered seven other members of the royal family, has remained mysterious. The literature on Nepal is rich in travel lore and testimony, but the country hardly ever appears in fiction. "Arresting God in Kathmandu" provides an insight into Nepalese culture at home and abroad. Characters struggle with changing mores between men and women, employers and employees, parents and children. Students returning home struggle with the fears and expectations of those they left behind. Particularly revealing here are the insights into the tensions between classes. In "This World," a young woman studying at NYU meets an upper-class Nepali boy in Manhattan and tries to translate the relationship into Nepalese when they are home for the holidays in Kathmandu. "These Ranas," says her mother, referring to the ruling class. "The way they flash their money, you'd think they still rule the country. Someone needs to tell them that the Rana rule was over when the people revolted centuries ago."

Several relationships in these stories struggle under the weight of the tradition of arranged marriage. Some succeed, some fail (the most resplendent failure occurs when the father of the groom falls in love with the girl he has forced on his son). What emerges is a country on the edge of enormous social changes. Characters decide what to keep of their traditions and what to discard. Often, they flail in the ominous abyss between the modern age and the past, between Western and Eastern cultures. A servant in "A Great Man's House" wonders what will happen when the master dies: "Since last night I have tried to calm my frantic thoughts by chanting Om, but my thoughts have a life of their own and refuse to obey me .... I must keep my thoughts focused on the present: the cauliflower frying in the hot oil; the sound of our neighbors ... a child playing outside in the dark, mumbling about ghosts and demons."

ZIGZAGGING DOWN A WILD TRAIL Stories By Bobbie Ann Mason; Random House: 214 pp., $22.95

Ialways feel a little frightened opening a book by Bobbie Ann Mason: Her characters are stronger than I'll ever be. They can endure a smorgasbord of hardships with a sense of humor that seems maniacal at times. As for the grandmother out drinking in "With Jazz," the sources of happiness are mysterious. Child loss, poverty, loneliness, you name it; these characters rise above it. They also somehow rise above the trailer parks, fake ficuses, smoky bars and freeways that they live in and among. "Life seemed to her so strange," a character in "The Funeral Side" thinks. "The way people carried on, out of necessity, and with startling zest, at the worst of times. It was the stamina required by a bold adventure, a trek into the snow." This mysterious inner light steals the show in these stories.

In terms of plot, there's more zig than zag, as stories veer off and fizzle out, just when a little authorial direction would nudge them toward conclusion. Sometimes they don't seem to go anywhere, they just ramble. Like the character in "Tunica," we wait for "the spinning images

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