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First Fiction

May 18, 2003|Mark Rozzo

The Quality

of Life Report

Meghan Daum

Viking: 309 pp., $24.95

Meghan Daum is a prolific contributor to Vogue, Vanity Fair and Self, and "The Quality of Life Report," her first novel, gushes on like an endless personal history from one of these glossies. Yet it's also smart, stylish and sometimes downright hilarious. It's about Lucinda Trout, Smith grad and correspondent for the television infotainment magazine "New York Up Early." She's single, on the verge of 30 and a bit fatigued from covering the thong underwear beat. Chasing a story on crystal meth abuse in the heartland, Lucinda journeys to fictional Prairie City, where she's amazed to find that the locals aren't total idiots. Even better, you can rent a house -- a house! -- for $475 a month and throw a barn dance for under $300.

What ensues is an amusing update of "Green Acres," as Lucinda keeps her job but trades in her New York life of Manolo Blahniks and takeout Chinese for chunky boots and meatloaf. In Prairie City, Lucinda finds an authenticity-rich John Deere society where dudes bathe in the river, militant lesbians hold weekly book clubs, supermarkets have impossibly wide aisles, and, in one particularly climactic scene, stud horses have the power to suggest boundless fertility and promise. Yet Daum is too perceptive and honest to merely make "The Quality of Life Report" a breathless dispatch from an oddball Eden. There's considerable crabgrass growing amid Prairie City's amber waves, as Lucinda's Sam Shepard-esque beau turns out to have some major issues, and her newfound Midwestern feminist friends look askance at her efforts to package them for "Up Early's" New York viewership. (Her heartland reports are a regular feature on the show.) Then, of course, there's the creeping menace of crystal meth, which seems to have replaced Skoal as the local vice of choice.

As you might have guessed, the provincials eventually turn the table on their urbane interloper, putting her life under rather unforgiving Klieg lights. But even then Lucinda finds refreshing sensitivity in the great American steppes, where "[t]here was no mess that the wind couldn't blow away."

*

On the Nature of

Human Romantic

Interaction

Karl Iagnemma

Dial Press: 214 pp., $22.95

Karl Iagnemma's bracing story collection -- often about grad school math geeks wrestling with Venn diagrams, mild desperation and bouts of disaffection -- opens with a classic collegiate tableau: stressed-out students letting off steam by jumping from the shortest building on campus. In keeping with the focus on higher mathematics, there's a game-like, playful quality to Iagnemma's stories and the way his characters deal with the pressures of lives that can't be adequately plotted on x- and y-axes.

In "Zilkowski's Theorem," a love triangle's geometry becomes a tangled intersection of infidelity, nostalgia and revenge when Henderson, a jilted lover, sadistically pokes holes in his former best friend's presentation of a paper called "Perturbation Analysis of Weakly Nonlinear Systems." Jeremiah, the roving 19th century quack of "The Phrenologist's Dream," encounters an astonishing bald woman while traveling through Ohio; she promptly steals Jeremiah's phrenology gear, transforms herself into the Living Phrenological Diagram and, finally, through sheer underhandedness, uncorks Jeremiah's strange desires. The math-obsessed immigrant miner of "The Ore Miner's Wife" sneaks away from his grimy labors to attend a geometry lecture, thus stirring up his wife's suspicions of infidelity. And in "Kingdom, Order, Species," a young attendee at the North American Agroforestry Research Conference stalks her hero, J. Poole, the author of "Woody Plants," a botanical tome she cherishes for its inspiring mixture of "whimsy and precision."

The same warm appraisal could apply to "On the Nature of Human Romantic Interaction." With its sudden shifts from quotidian to fantastical, with its airy flirtations with life and death and with a cast of characters who spend their time in the company of circles, ellipses and conic sections, Iagnemma's fiction can make even the most ardent math-hater appreciate the parabolic nature of life's ups and downs.

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