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The Soul Thief

By Charles Baxter

Pantheon, 210 pages, $20

'Mirrored Room" is an 8-by-8-by-10-foot piece of art from the 1960s whose permanent home is the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y. As its name suggests, Lucas Samaras' little room is constructed of mirrors, inside and out -- convex, concave, flat -- and its main effect is to multiply and distort images, without end. Consider it visual fiction, although it is real. When two characters from Charles Baxter's trim new novel, "The Soul Thief," step inside, they find that "either the glass has been tinted, or infinity itself, as revealed by the mirrors, is green, a color that in this particular case has been emptied of all hope."

One of the characters, Nathaniel Mason, can hardly breathe and finds the room "monstrous"; seeing iterations of himself shrinking toward disappearance, he tries to inspect a far-off one but cannot, for when he approaches a mirror the distant images "recede into nothingness, blanked out by himself." His would-be girlfriend, Theresa (as she pronounces it, "Teraysa"), claims to be sexually charged by the experience. They are graduate students in this city, "Melvillians, Hawthornians, Shakespeareans, young Hegelians -- all of whom understand the mysteries and metaphors of finality," while Buffalo itself exudes "the noble shabbiness of industrial decline."

Before considering how Baxter, with his sly wit, fits this redoubling of self-imagery into "The Soul Thief" and what he calls "the human comedy of neediness," entertain its opposite: Nathaniel is distraught over fellow student Jerome Coolberg, a disdainful boy genius, "all nerve and brain," who thinks aloud as performance art and, according to one account, wants to " 'acquire everyone's inner life.' "

In fact, as Coolberg has described himself to Nathaniel's other romantic interest, lesbian sculptor and dancer Jamie, he was raised in Milwaukee but moved to New York City with his mother and stepfather after his father had died of a stroke, and has a sister who was rendered mute in a car accident -- all biographical facts of Nathaniel's life.

Distraught over this not-so-secret sharer, Nathaniel seeks authentically adult advice and telephones his stepfather. His stepfather tells a story from his own college days in Maine, when, under duress of confinement from an extended snowstorm, a social club was formed in which the students began referring to each other by the same name, Andrew, even the women, and dressed identically and "affected the same speech patterns, they acquired identical tics. . . . They disappeared into each other; they vanished into a collectivity."

Nathaniel doubts the truth of that, but Baxter has by then laid out the possibility of personal replication in opposing senses. And those are far from the only such examples in "The Soul Thief," as if the whole novel were a thought experiment by Coolberg, or our very own trip into Samaras' room. "The Soul Thief" thus reads as an extended riff on identity, even as its narrator denies that late in the novel, or rather, contends that is the least of it, in rather flat-footedly pinning a moral to the story instead. (Baxter has trod this literary terrain before, announcing in the "Preludes" section of his novel "The Feast of Love" that he -- the character Charles Baxter -- has "identity lapses," waking up in a startlement to find that "it, the flesh in which I'm housed, hasn't yet become me.")

Nathaniel's stepfather proclaims, " 'You know, few people really want to become individuals,' " and following their conversation, Nathaniel's reverie (looking at his own reflection in a window, no less) wanders in this direction:

"Every identity consists of a pile of moldering personal cliches given sentimental value by the fact that someone owns them. The fallacy of the unique! A rubbish heap of personal data, anybody's autobiography."

At one point Coolberg, having been accused of quoting from others without attribution, says, " 'Nothing is me.' "

These character assertions may represent nothing so much as devil's advocacy on the part of the narrator. At the outset of "The Soul Thief," we are informed that the literary puppetmaster seeks to "turn myself into a 'he,' " and for the purpose of receding into a kind of anonymity has chosen the name Nathaniel Mason. Amusingly, Theresa reports to Nathaniel as the novel progresses that Coolberg, who has an aptitude for "creating hypothetical narratives out of the air," is writing a novel titled "Shadow" in which Nathaniel is the devil.

Baxter's novel is not "Shadow," but neither is it what it appears to be. The external framing of the main story creates a perspectival shift, telegraphed subtly here and there but presented in sudden and leaden fashion near the novel's end. With enough detail to lend it narrative and emotional weight, it might have equaled effects achieved earlier in the novel. But that is not the case; it feels tacked on, like a sheet of plywood over the picture window to keep it from cracking.

In other respects, "The Soul Thief," scene by scene and sentence by sentence, sparkles with a tender energy and a tongue-in-cheekiness, lending it a wry quality overall. As Coolberg quips at a party where he and Nathaniel and Theresa meet, " 'We're all pretending to be smart, as if intelligence were the cure for our anguish.' "

The portion in which the main characters are students is set in the early 1970s, but Baxter will catch us up with the principals decades later, whether in suburban New Jersey or "the hot petulant loveliness" of Los Angeles with its "omnipresent aura of dreamy stoned hopefulness." We will even make it onto the Ferris wheel at the Santa Monica Pier in a Coolbergian setup meant to mirror a scene from the early postwar film "The Third Man."

Back in the day, Nathaniel (who naturally drove a VW Beetle) possessed a significant social conscience, joined the Allentown Artists' & Culinary Alliance and volunteered at the People's Kitchen, a storefront hunger-relief project. His soul "always thrived being around cast-off people . . . windbag artistes, hippies, losers, the poor and unwashed, and those with sociopolitical ambitions," although he recognized that "all his charitable deeds [were], at base, selfish," a version of liberal guilt.

Perhaps that is why old women on the street stare at him accusingly, and when he discovers a burglar in his apartment, he patiently suffers the thief's castigation ("[T]his place is pathetic.") and makes him a cup of coffee. Nathaniel is romantically a two-timer, and his feelings about Theresa, whose voice "has mastered somehow a tonal mixture of the bogus and the seductive," are laced with doubt about "her vaguely empty character." He is hopeful, however, about Jamie, in whom he senses "little fugitive hetero longings" and to whom he declares his love, although it occurs to him that it is not love but hysteria, and he is gripped by "all the insincere locutions of opacity and self-deception." His brain waves also channel Gertrude Stein at such moments (". . . he could not stop himself from insisting because it was the thing that he was knowing. . . ").

When we encounter Nathaniel later in "The Soul Thief" he has been married nearly 20 years and is the father of two boys, settled comfortably in suburban life with his wife Laura, a quiltmaker who is "almost frighteningly guileless," to the point that "about sixty percent of human behavior was simply beyond her comprehension." One day she takes a message from a caller who left a name and number for Nathaniel. He tells her it was nobody -- Jerome Coolberg -- then somebody from graduate school, but as he makes his way to his den, his hand holding the number continues to shake.

From that point, Baxter uses the novel to refract the lives whose early adulthood we have seen. Time has not been kind in some instances, and "The Soul Thief" exhibits qualities Nathaniel ascribed to a poem of Conrad Aiken's, flashing "the perky melodramatic intelligence, of everyday despair." (Despair and desperation are raised more than once: Invoking Thoreau without naming him, Nathaniel said of his own sweet and well-meaning biological father, "If he harbored quiet desperation, he kept it to himself.") A nicely evoked role reversal takes place between Nathaniel and his mute sister, too, but the intended centerpiece is the enigmatic relationship between Nathaniel and Coolberg.

Coolberg was something of a cipher in his student days, and in adult life, perhaps true to form, "He had become famously insubstantial." He is the host of the Los Angeles public-radio show "American Evenings," which consistently focuses on "the phenomenon of disappearances," and "tales of a twilight as experienced by this culture's citizens." As the host, he would begin in interview format but then drop away himself as the guest found his or her voice, he "nourished them into a form of knowing." Coolberg has kept track of Nathaniel's life, from a distance, and wants him as a guest on his show. It was Nathaniel, we assume, who suggested that Coolberg's " 'imagination heaves about like a broken algorithm,' " and perhaps that is so. Coolberg accuses Nathaniel of " '[w]illfull incomprehension' " and " 'strategic forgetting,' " and perhaps that is also the case. Someone reported living inside "the moaning green infinity of my own mirrored existence." Dare we shuffle back to Buffalo, in search of answers?

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Art Winslow, a former literary and executive editor of The Nation, writes frequently about books and culture.

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