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The Way We Live Now

ANNA IN THE AFTERLIFE A Novel By Merrill Joan Gerber Syracuse University Press / Library of Modern Jewish Literature: 124 pp., $22.95 paper

April 14, 2002|MERLE RUBIN | Merle Rubin is a contributing writer to Book Review.

Merrill Joan Gerber is not only one of our most underrated contemporary writers, she may well be our least pretentious. Her utter lack of pretense is a major source of her raw power as a writer, and it may also be one reason her work has not gained as much attention as it deserves.

Gerber's literary career has been all over the map. She started out promisingly in the 1960s with fellowships, prizes, publication in the New Yorker, a strong collection of stories, "Stop Here, My Friend" (1965), followed two years later by an affecting first novel, "An Antique Man."

As her stories found their way into such magazines as Redbook, however, she became typecast as a "women's writer." Increasingly, she found it difficult to get published in an industry ever more obsessed with the bottom line. Yet she continued writing: novels that were not published and several novels for young adults that were. Repeatedly rediscovered by readers as diverse as Cynthia Ozick, Margaret Drabble and Robert Stone, Gerber's fiction found new outlets: University of Illinois Press; Pushcart Press which published her searing portrait of an abusive love-match, "King of the World"; Longstreet Press; and, most recently, Syracuse University Press.

A woman's writer. A young-adult writer. A Jewish writer. A commercial writer. A literary writer. Yet beneath these fluctuating labels, Gerber has been consistently engaged in a single endeavor: writing plainly, unflinchingly and searchingly about what goes on around her.

A native of Brooklyn who came of age in Florida, Gerber has spent most of her adulthood in Southern California, transforming the raw material of family life into fiction that carries the sting of its sources. She is a powerful realist who seldom shrinks from depicting the harder facts of life--sexuality, infatuation, financial anxieties, resentments and rivalries. But unlike some postmodern realists, such as Ann Beattie, who chronicle events in a detached, deadpan manner, Gerber takes the reader inside the minds and hearts of her characters, exposing their passions, prejudices, fears and longings.

Indeed, she brings us so close to her characters, we are sometimes almost embarrassed by how much we get to see. Although hardly a comic writer like Nora Ephron or Fay Weldon, Gerber--like Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and some of the great Jewish comedians--extracts wry humor from embarrassing, awkward and desperate situations, even illness and death.

In her latest novel, a tough little gem called "Anna in the Afterlife," Gerber returns to one of her most memorable characters, Anna Goldman, the forceful, discontented mother of the young heroine in "An Antique Man," more recently glimpsed in her 80s lying immobile, resentful and furious in a nursing home in the story collection "Anna in Chains." Now, after seven years in the chains of her illness, Anna finally dies. The opening whisks us into the world-weary mind-set of its heroine: "Once her dying got underway, Anna could not really complain about how the process moved along."

Anna's consciousness lingers on in its disembodied state, keeping a sharp eye on the preparations for her burial, while revisiting significant scenes from her life history. Now, having finally slipped off its mortal coils, her consciousness is able to correct her partial and sometimes mistaken memories with an accurate and objective view of what actually transpired.

Unsparing and unsentimental, Gerber's portrait of Anna is also moving and funny, not only capturing the essence of her character but exposing its inner dynamics: "For her, indignation was a natural reaction. She found it a relief to hold everything against everyone--it was almost her religion. For reasons she did not question, her life energy had been powered by fury. She was actually surprised (now that she was dead) that it hadn't kept her living forever."

Gerber's lack of pretension, though central to her strength, has some limitations. There is little sense of literary history in her writings or of large-scale social and historical movements. Her attention is focused on the thousand petty details that can loom so large in daily life; the repetitive patterns and undercurrents of relationships; the insistent tug of personal memories. Like Bellow, Gerber has a genius for the irritable, the acrid and the embittered: The visitor from another planet who doesn't know what it means to kvetch would need to look no further than Gerber's fiction for superb illustrations of the phenomenon. Unlike Bellow, she does not venture far beyond the personal. Her eyes are trained on the quotidian, but the acuity and intensity of her vision are no less extraordinary.

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