Book Review : A Fantasy World Made Fragmented People

Times Book Critic

The Art of the Knock by Philip Graham (William Morrow: $10.95)

Philip Graham's funny and disquieting stories are encased in two layers of desolate metaphor. The desolation penetrates; a vaudeville show held inside a leaky bomb shelter sited within a zone of chemical spillage.

The metaphors, in the form of two outer narrations that link the brief stories, tell respectively of the futility of human endeavor and the impossibility of human communication. In the first, which begins and ends the book, a nameless company tunnels through the earth to China. The hope is to reach somewhere strange, where the language is different and there are peonies and watercress. When the party arrives, China is like anywhere else. Only an act of willed imagination turns the factories and billboards into watercress and peonies.

Doors Never Open

The second narration is the lament of a displaced narrator obsessed with getting through other people's doors. He tries first as a peddler of such devices as a six-handled Family Fork and a Dissolving Toothpick, but the doors resist his knocking. He becomes a postman but the doors remain shut. Finally, he sets up as a psychiatrist who never sees his patients. They knock, instead; and he analyzes their condition by interpreting the rhythm of their knocking.

We deal, in Graham's age, with each other's symptoms and not with each other. All seeing is through a glass darkly and nothing will be face-to-face. Through this glass, his brief stories, part parable, part fantasy, go through their shadowed play.

The characters are splintered and oddly developed, like laboratory plants from which a variety of essential nutrients have been withheld. In "Silence," we encounter a clan that has banished the use of the voice. The mouth serves simply as a receptacle; the children can only conceive of speech "as a kind of clear and noisy vomit."

Double Date With Shadows

All talk is done by hand signals; a grandfather, who is arthritic, is therefore mute. Singing is a waving of arms; secrets are told by surreptitious pats. Snoring is accomplished at night by rubbing the hands on the wooden sides of the bed.

In another tale, a painter becomes detached from his shadow. He stops drawing; the shadow remains at the drawing board. He meets a woman with the same problem. They double date--he and she, his shadow and hers. After they finish making love, the bed continues to vibrate as the two shadows persist. Fidelity and perseverance have become ghosts in Graham's world.

If individuals are fragmented, so are their relationships. A girl finds a pair of binoculars; she spends the rest of her life using them to deal at this magnified remove with her husband, her child, and even her television set.

A husband whose wife has left him finds that she has spray-painted the entire house with all the lies he has ever told. He has the house repainted, but from under the paint the scrawls continue to haunt him: "I can't hear you," "I promise it won't happen again" and--in his daughter's bedroom--"A girl? That's wonderful." Graham has found a striking image for the erosion of intimacy by the daily withholding of small truths.

There is a very funny story about a man married to an artist; she uses him as her sole subject. She begins by making necklaces out of their movie stubs, goes on to create a composition out of his shoes, and sets a camera in the bathroom mirror for a photo series entitled "Searching for the Toothpaste." The humor chills at the end when she paints a shadow on the floor: "One day, she explained, he'd pass by the window and, given the correct lighting, moment, and identical gesture, his shadow would match, for an instant, the painted one. His feet tingled as he stood uneasily at the edge of the flat, dark shape. 'It's only a matter of time,' she said."

Not all of Graham's fantasies of dehumanization and fragmentation have the artistry of these examples. Still, the reader meets an original and febrile talent. Some of the fever is simply imaginative hyperactivity, but quite a bit is, in the way of art, symptom of diseases we are only beginning to notice.

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