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March 04, 2001|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS

BARGAINS IN THE REAL WORLD

By Elizabeth Cox

Random House: 218 pp., $19.95

Elizabeth Cox's writing in these 13 stories has a quiet well-mannered self-assurance a reader seldom sees. Odd to think that writing, like people, can have good or bad manners. Well-mannered writing is gracious and helpful. The timing is synchronous with the meaning. Nothing shouts at you. The style is quiet. The author is a conduit, a flute, an instrument played by mysterious natural, cultural and intellectual winds. This is rare, in literature and other arts, for good reason. It takes a while for writers to find their voices. When they're looking, it's like wanting to be in love. It's obvious. When they find their voices, they relax. When they relax, arteries that were constricted open; the instrument opens. The utter lack of dissonance in Cox's collection does not mean that all the stories sound the same. She plays with voice and structure and setting, but all in service of the stories. The collection is, in fact, like an album or a CD that proves the composer's range of talent. "The Third of July," about a woman whose day is interrupted when she passes an accident on the road then stops to help, is like a Civil War photograph: the eyes so bright and the rest so muddy. "Old Court," about a boy who has to grow up fast, is like a painting, full of glittering objects. The story, "Bargains in the Real World," is full of other-ness, juxtaposing the dull practicality of marriage and divorce and parenthood with the magical world of childhood. It too, has a glittering episode with moving light at its core. Cox's gentle writing allows the reader's mind to rest on moments and objects in her stories, and they can shimmer.

*

FEAR AND TREMBLING

By Amelie Nothomb Translated from the French by Adriana Hunter

St. Martin's Press: 134 pp., $19.95

Why do young French authors these days write such short novels? Redonnet, Darrieussecq, Nimier, all of these popular authors write books that fit in your pocket, to be read on the Metro, by the fountain, on the boulevard. Most have a little sour taste of nihilism, with a pinch of abject realism. But there can also be a bit of absurdity, rich imaginative fantasy sequences and sometimes surrealism. To this mix, Amelie Nothomb, who lives in Paris, adds humor, the ingredient most often missing in other writers from France of her generation, the ingredient most difficult to translate (humor badly translated makes a noise like square wooden wheels on cobblestones). "Fear and Trembling" is about a young woman named Amelie who takes her knowledge of Japanese language and culture to work in the Yumimoto Corp. somewhere in Japan in the early 1990s. She signs a one-year contract and brings her Western ambition and enthusiasm to the lowest rung on the corporate ladder. Everyone in the management structure, it seems, but mostly her immediate superior, the beautiful Fubuki Mori, sets out to humiliate her and crack her Western determination. She is "promoted" from secretary to calendar page-turner to bathroom cleaner. Again and again she bows, hilariously stubborn, to her host culture. Only her asides in this account betray any inclination toward revenge: "It is your duty," she addresses Japanese women, "to be beautiful, though your beauty will afford you no joy. The only compliments you receive will be from Westerners and we know how short they are on good taste. . . . Your husband will not love you, unless he's a half-wit. . . . You will never see him anyway. . . ." In the end, Amelie declines to renew her contract, pleading Western ignorance, making everyone incredibly happy, especially Fubuki.

*

I'M GONE

By Jean Echenoz Translated from the French by Mark Polizzotti

The New Press: 196 pp., $22.95

Sentences that begin "Not content with not being dead" are not the only problems with this remarkably smug, awkward, stylized and badly translated novel, though they do keep getting in the way: "Thus, addressing synchronic winks to each other between earth and sky, they mutually signaled their presence." Jean Echenoz (or maybe its Mark Polizzotti) describes an airport as a "belvedere circled by runways where rabbits with kerosene breath leap and bound." The real problem: This is not a noble experiment. It's a fairly simple slice-of-life story about an art dealer and his gritty bachelor life in Paris and his quest for Inuit antiquities above the Arctic Circle. Actually, quest is too strong a word. Ferrer is more of a laconic teenage punk than a man on a quest, especially when it comes to art. He perks up a bit in the presence of a series of faceless women (Echenoz barely bothers to describe them), but he is a creature of dull habit, and the horrendous, bumbling grammar that riddles the novel makes any effort to penetrate Ferrer rather futile. The mixed-up pronouns (sometimes in a single sentence) are like nails on a blackboard. The only other word on that blackboard is "why?"

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