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First Fiction

June 01, 2003|Mark Rozzo



Bex Brian

Atlantic Monthly Press:

186 pp., $23

It's hard to tell if the title of this salty little novella from Canadian writer Bex Brian is meant to be ironic or dopey or both. And it's similarly challenging to get to the bottom of the book itself, a mesmerizing yet somewhat ridiculous tale: part rant, part fever dream and part catalog of bad behavior put across with relentlessly defensive preemptive boastfulness.

This is the general M.O. of Vivienne Yellow, "Promiscuous Unbound's" tart-tongued narrator, laid up in a Paris hospital after being mowed down by a passing truck. With rods in her leg and morphine in her veins, no wonder she's kind of ticked off. Her shattered physical state, of course, mirrors her emotional ineptitude: "But love came hard for me and was too strange. Must have slept with twenty different men in the first few months of our marriage just to calm myself down."

The lucky husband is Ralph McCrimmon, a zoologist known for his appearances on the Discovery Channel. (Vivienne's father, too, was a famous naturalist, underscoring the point that people are a bunch of animals.) Ralph is presented as a well-meaning stiff, although it's unclear whether his aloofness is what has given Vivienne license to pursue every available erotic outlet.

As she muses upon her odd life, Vivienne assigns equal blame to herself and human nature: "Marriage, unfortunately, never edifies. Never quite kills off the primal urges. How I veered between thinking my natural inclinations would destroy my marriage and how they were the only thing that made it feasible." Monogamy is a drag. Just read the latest issue of Scientific American. There's always something in there about the eyebrow-raising sexual high jinks of primates.

"Promiscuous Unbound" is as unabashed as a pair of macaques in the San Diego Zoo and yet weirdly unconsummated: Despite Vivienne's opiated reminiscences of bouncing across Nairobi in a Land Rover with Ralph, having affairs with countless men and her father's devotion to wildlife, nothing quite comes together here. In the end, Vivienne learns to walk again, but the reader yearns for bed rest.


The Laws

of Evening

Mary Yukari Waters

Scribner: 224 pp., $23

The Japanese and Japanese American women who populate this remarkably poised story collection from Mary Yukari Waters have had their lives and families decimated by World War II. And yet they -- and Waters -- manage to extract almost crippling beauty from the defining tragedy of the 20th century and its ever-lingering aftermath. Each of Waters' stories is as exacting and bittersweet as a Hiroshige landscape, and there's a sense of loss and nostalgia becoming hopelessly blurred.

The war, after all, spelled the end of the courtly old Japan, and these women now live in a world where headache-inducing Beethoven replaces traditional koto, where men wear suits and ties and where the kids clamor to use knives and forks, implements that the elderly widow of the exquisite "Since My House Burned Down" describes as glistening with "the malevolence of surgical instruments."

"The Way Love Works" finds an Americanized daughter revisiting Japan and trying to grasp the irrevocable changes that preceded her existence: "I pictured Mother playing here decades ago, to the drone of cicadas and the occasional ting of a wind chime: countless quiet afternoons, their secrets lost to the next generation." And in the book's final story, "Mirror Studies," the rations of wartime -- "rice" made from yams, for instance -- make a comeback among contemporary foodies eager to taste the privations of their parents' and grandparents' generation.

Muted and delicate, Waters' stories ache with loss. They echo the concept of shibusa, beautifully parsed in a story of the same name: "The Buddha's smile of sorrowful sentience had this quality. A maple leaf in autumn, slowly twisting during its long fall to earth, evoked shibusa." There's always a tartness surrounding their tender core, reflected by a haiku that resonates throughout this affecting book: "Since my house burned down / I now own a better view / of the rising moon."

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