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Self Storage A Novel Gayle Brandeis Ballantine Books: 274 pp., $23.95

January 21, 2007|Marisa Silver | Marisa Silver is the author of the short story collection "Babe in Paradise" and the novel "No Direction Home."

WALT WHITMAN begins "Song of Myself" with the famous lines: "I celebrate myself, / And what I assume you shall assume, / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you." He then fills the pages of "Leaves of Grass" with his rhapsodic embrace of humanity, locating the mysteries of identity in the panoply of life, and in that simple blade of grass. Flan Parker, the central character of Gayle Brandeis' new novel, "Self Storage," is a young wife and mother on a self-styled quest to make these same existential discoveries, using the Whitman poem as a spiritual guide.

Brandeis writes in sprightly and unembellished first-person prose, capturing Flan's wry humor and her carefree, sometimes careless life. Flan lives in university housing for families at UC Riverside, where her genial neighbors are an assortment of multi-ethnic academics who share their national cuisines, child-care duties and sometimes each other's mates. Flan has put aside her own academic aspirations to take care of her two young children while her husband, Shae, works, or mostly doesn't work, on his thesis.

Finances are slim, and Flan contributes to the coffers by buying up the contents of self-storage containers at auction (the items are sold off when the owners fail to pay the storage fees) and then selling the goods on EBay and at yard sales. Brandeis does an excellent job of evoking the slightly off-the-grid lifestyle of those who make a living culling through other's castoffs, and she mines the metaphor of her title to strong effect.

Resourceful, free-spirited and highly whimsical (her children's names are Nori and Noodle), Flan bids on and buys a container that offers only a single unmarked box. Inside, she discovers a piece of paper with the word "yes" written on it. Flan recognizes a Whitmanesque sign in the message. Buried under a life of economic stress, children's needs and a detached husband, she begins a journey to unleash herself from the psychic container that binds her, to find her own "yes."

Although Brandeis presents Flan as charmingly offbeat, there is something disquieting about this woman with a void at her center. Flan possesses the unsettling quality of a voyeur in her obsessive interest in the lives of others, sometimes at the expense of paying less attention to her own family. In particular, she is drawn to the mysterious Sodaba Suleiman, an Afghan woman hidden underneath a burqa who lives nearby. Although Sodaba is as inscrutable as she is unfriendly, Flan identifies with her neighbor, imagining that Sodaba's self is as hidden and unrealized as hers.

Flan involves herself in Sodaba's life when she discovers that a storage container filled with the Suleimans' belongings is up for auction. Thinking to perform a good deed, Flan bids on and buys the goods, which include many baby-related items, with the intention of giving them back to the Suleimans. But her idea backfires when the husband is horrified by her presumption and by how she has uncovered the Suleimans' private sadness surrounding their childlessness. Her breach of etiquette seems obvious, but Flan does not seem to recognize the depth of her gaffe. Indeed, many of her actions are driven by her overarching need for purpose, justifying herself throughout by finding relevant passages of Whitman to explain her motivations.

The consequences of Flan's actions often belie her professed philosophy, a fact that might make her a compelling, untrustworthy narrator. But Brandeis does not seem to be interested in mining the dislocation between Flan's thoughts and deeds, or in exploiting her character's implicit complications. She offers Flan's reasoning at face value, and so the reader is left to interpret Flan's sometimes confusing behavior without authorial guide.

When Mr. Suleiman expresses his rage at having his privacy invaded, Flan's reaction is unnerving. She notes of him, "His teeth were small. His breath smelled of lunchmeat. I probably should have been scared. Isn't that who the news told us to be scared of, angry Middle-Eastern men? ... All I could think about, though, was kissing him. His tongue would be thick with mayonnaise. Warm." Her response is of a piece with Whitman's own effort to connect with the sensuality of life, but Flan's impulses remain unexplored.

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