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August 31, 2003|Susan Salter Reynolds

Heartsnatcher

Boris Vian

Dalkey Archive Press: 246 pp.,

$13.95

Summer's just about over; time to get serious. We begin with a supremely nonserious novel, politically subversive like the best surrealists; full of allegory and silliness, generous to a fault with time and structure. Boris Vian died at 39 of a heart attack at the 1959 premiere of the movie made from his most famous novel, "I Spit on Your Graves." He reigned in Left Bank cafes after World War II, but his books were, in general, ignored. Surrealists always have to be poking fun at someone, preferably someone who takes himself too seriously, and in this novel the protagonist, a psychiatrist, bears the brunt of Vian's humor.

The psychiatrist wanders into a village where a woman is painfully giving birth to three babies (twins and a third). He stays, searching for patients, because he is, he admits, "himself, empty." The villagers have several disturbing rituals, including the Old Folks Fair, in which the elderly are auctioned off for abuse. It's a rotten society, and the language reflects the decay: "Antique parched puddles" and expressions as "morose as a sandstone saint after a particularly brutal bombing." Vian crosses the line of obsession somewhere, which explains his lack of fame but not his lack of readers.

*

Stories From

Another World

Sheila Kohler

Ontario Review Press: 152 pp.,

$22.95

The verandahs of colonialists, boarding schools and nice hotels provide the settings for these stories of adultery, the perils of parenthood and social obligation. These traps that ordinary humans fall into no longer move fiction, but something else does: the psychological and even biological evolution in the characters. Sheila Kohler's language alternates between the suspiciously baroque ("Laura apologizes in her soft liquescent language") and the suspiciously simple ("My husband has taken a mistress, so I take out my address book and run my fingers down the list of men I used to know."). In some stories, like "The Mask," characters are completely overwhelmed by interior forces over which they have little or no control. Their better selves rarely triumph. The psychiatrist who promises to help an unhappy and perhaps wrongfully admitted patient is consumed by his own problems; a pregnant fiancee swims into the ocean on the night before her wedding. "I don't want to be like that" is what determines these characters' actions rather than "This is the person I want to be."

*

Built to Win

The Female Athlete

as Cultural Icon

Leslie Heywood

and Shari L. Dworkin

University of Minnesota Press:

218 pp., $19.95

Welcome to "third wave feminism," which seems more like "'60s radical feminism" than the later "cultural feminism." Confused? Third wave feminism is led by female athletes, multiracial, eager to compete in traditional male sports like boxing and hockey and not ashamed to flaunt their sexuality while they do it.

Leslie Heywood and Shari L. Dworkin call this the post-Title IX generation, referring to the 1972 Education Act that was "used to fight for equal funding and facilities for women's sports in any institution getting money from the Fed." The authors refer often to advertising campaigns that trade on the female athlete as icon, and they emphasize "stealth feminism," an increase in "female masculinity" and even machismo: "Machismo, like femininity ... can be what binds you together after a shattering fall, some life event that leaves you staggering ... that sense of mastery that says 'yes!' " They contrast movie heroes of the late '80s and early '90s ("Thelma and Louise," "Basic Instinct") with killer women like "Charlie's Angels" or "Tomb Raider's" Lara Croft.

"There is something," they write, "about the giddy joy ... a viewer can experience watching women knock out their abusive fathers, fly through space with dominion and certainty, and wield swords and guns."

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