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First Fiction

November 16, 2003|Mark Rozzo

The Calligrapher

Edward Docx

Houghton Mifflin: 360 pp., $24

Edward DOCX has been a columnist for the London Express and the London Times. His first novel, about an enterprising young British calligrapher named Jasper Jackson, has the kind of polish that comes from being forced to regularly hit deadlines. At times, you wonder whether Docx isn't almost too fluent. Like his sure-handed hero, he has a flair for flourishes and curlicues. Yet there's something undeniably winning about a novel that dares to use the randy love poems of John Donne as a running thread (each chapter corresponds to a song or sonnet that Jasper is transcribing) and yet somehow manages to come off as a Fox Searchlight Pictures comedy coming to a theater near you.

Jasper is the kind of obsessive you might encounter in a Nick Hornby novel: Late 20s, Brit, unapologetically horny. But he's no lager lout or indie-rock trainspotter. He's a persnickety, overanalytic twit who agonizes over his arugula. And yet, miraculously, he's a serial philanderer. He's also a bit of a grandmama's boy: His grandmother, an expert in period manuscripts, raised him, infusing the young Jasper with an abiding love of quills, parchment and the letter "Q." Along the way, he also developed a lyrical fondness for the female form: "the shape of her naked body, hovering like an angel in my mind's coulisse."

The body in question belongs to a foxy travel writer named Madeleine who moves in across the courtyard from Jasper just as he has finished cheating, once again, on his girlfriend Lucy. What ensues is all Old World maneuvering and scheming: This, finally, is the Real Thing, and Jasper can't blow it. When Madeleine and Jasper finally do hook up (after Jasper successfully fights through a bout of "best friend syndrome"), there's something a little cold about the whole affair.

It's a red flag the triumphal Jasper is all too willing to overlook, to his astounding peril. In the end, "The Calligrapher" is a racy and stylish tale of comeuppance that is nearly Donnean in its density: Docx's prose and plot continually double back upon themselves in the way that Donne's poems knot up like little erotic puzzles. "The Calligrapher" is also a handy guide to seduction for English majors everywhere: "But all credit to Donne, she read him through to the end before she made love to me."

*

See Through

Nelly Reifler

Simon & Schuster: 150 pp., $21

Toward the end of Nelly Reifler's tiny collection of 14 tiny stories, a maladjusted young squirrel becomes fixated on the idea that his true nature is actually that of a rat. Spotting one such skinny-tailed creature at a local trash bin, the squirrel, who happens to be named Pavel, is enraptured and tortured by "the vision of what I should have seen in a puddle instead of perky brown eyes, little ears, and my obscenely fluffy, baroque tail." Sex-change metaphor? Coming-out drama of the lower fauna? Marlin Perkins by way of Franz Kafka?

Reifler's oddball vignettes, which sometimes seem more like convenient shortcuts than fully realized narratives, generate more questions than they actually pose or answer. They're spring-loaded miniatures that flirt with the surreal edges of childhood and adolescence. One minute you're wondering whether Reifler is struggling with attention-span issues, much like the boys and girls (usually human) who wander through these pages, and the next you're astonished at her daring, her craft and her flair for narrative mischief.

It's hard to recall the last time we've encountered a college student -- gender unspecified -- working a summer job selling issues of Boy Games and other magazines unmentionable in a family newspaper while slaving over a thesis on Gertrude Stein. Or a little girl, visiting Greece with her father, who has a thorn extracted from the top of her head by a kindly dwarf. Or a 6-month-old baby endowed with miraculous powers of speech: "Mom, my diaper's full of diarrhea again.... I'm not absorbing nutrients properly. I'm dehydrated."

What's weirdest of all is Reifler's ability to make these willfully bizarre proceedings seem perfectly normal. Who cares if we can't categorize them? As Pavel the squirrel says, "The finality of self-naming is as dull as death."

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