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Words don't do it justice

The List A Novel Tara Ison Scribner: 260 pp., $24

March 04, 2007|Hillary Frey | Hillary Frey edits the culture section of the New York Observer.

FOR my husband, it's Toni Morrison's "Beloved." For me, Jennifer Egan's debut novel, "The Invisible Circus," Anthony Swofford's "Jarhead" and Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter." For others, it might be Fitzgerald's "The Great Gatsby," Elizabeth Wurtzel's "Prozac Nation" or even Stephen King's "The Dark Half." These are the books we feel should never have become movies. Good books, or books that moved us, or books we just really liked and that, once adapted for the big screen, had their best features stretched and dulled, their value nullified, like a coin run over on the railroad tracks.

But what about movies that shouldn't have been made into books -- not cheap adaptations but actual novels that turned out to have been better as screenplays? It hadn't even occurred to me that such a category might exist until I read Tara Ison's second book, "The List." If there were ever a novel that was meant to be a film, this is it.

Take its very premise: A couple, Isabel and Al, cannot break up. They try again and again, but it never sticks. So they make a list of 10 things they will do together before -- for real, this time -- going their separate ways. (Can't you hear the slightly wry voiceover for the trailer? "Isabel and Al can't break up" ... cut to scene of fighting, an alarm clock hurled toward Al's head, followed by make-up sex.) For their orchestrated finale, they each get to choose five mutually agreeable activities, all of which must be within driving distance of their home in Los Angeles. (Al proposes a threesome and is vetoed.) He wants to camp out on the roof of the Holiday Inn on Sunset; she asks for steamed clams at twilight on the Santa Monica Pier. He requests "dancing in the gym" a la "American Pie" and a night of coupling ("baby oil/cheesy motel" with plastic dropcloths); she wants a "candlelit shower."

Poor Isabel. In a contest between two characters who turn out to be near-voids, she's the bigger loser. A med student -- brilliant, beautiful, 23 years old -- she's not just serious, she's a bore. She has no life or friends to speak of, beyond one fellow-doctor friend named Van, and only the whiff of a past -- an accelerated childhood filled with ribbons and prizes and little else.

Ison gives 30-year-old Al a little more depth -- but he's splashing in a shallow pool. He's a film dude with one huge movie under his belt who walked away from Hollywood for a job at Video Mania; he's an aging Salinger antihero and a person also in possession of exactly one friend, Julie, his lesbian ex-girlfriend. (To be fair, Ison also gives him a brother.) Oh, and did I mention that for some reason this book takes place in 1987?

In the two years of their lives covered in "The List," there are only a handful of others these two even seem to interact with, let alone talk to. Perhaps if Al and Isabel had been more welcoming company, a reader might not be so desperate for them to have friends. They aren't societal rejects, or hermits, or depressed. But because Ison doesn't reveal their greater lives, it's almost impossible to flesh out these characters, to grasp who and what -- good, misunderstood, evil or otherwise -- they really are.

Take Al. He certainly would have fared better on the screen -- and found a more understanding audience. At least, an audience that loves movies and therefore disaffected moviemakers. In his video store on La Brea, he can feel superior to everyone else and pity himself at the same time. He practically writes the screenplay as we go along (there is even a section of the book written in script form), setting up his life as a series of scenes, spitting out lines that beg to be followed by the words "fade to black." (Looking deep into Isabel's eyes after the baby-oil sexcapade, he says, "This. This is enough. This is the most gorgeous thing.") There seems to be some intended irony in the most arch of these moments, but Ison doesn't quite pull it off. To get the joke, to see it, requires work that an actor can achieve with one look.

And Isabel. Her bewitching beauty (she is "regal," a "tsaritza," with long, "lacy" black hair) is elusive, and her strange fragility is hard to square with her accomplishments. She seems bonded to Al out of a basic brattiness and insecurity. When Al moves into her ritzy, paid-for-by-Pacific Palisades-parents apartment on Sycamore after their second date, she resigns herself to having him around. (As she boasts to Van, "He was a great cook.") Later, she repeatedly tries to break up with him but within hours misses his housekeeping and massages and drags him back. (For him, things don't seem more complicated than a compulsive drive for sex born of boredom rather than passion. And her nice kitchen.)

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