Cruising the Mediterranean Within : DREAD by Robert Steiner (Sun & Moon Press: $15.95, cloth; $10.95, paper; 188 pp.)

Lindh is a frequent contributor to The Times

Robert Steiner, a professor of literature and author of three previous novels, has written an astonishing work in which the nature of place (its unforgivable certainty of being) and the structure of person (his or her character) seem to be one and the same: mask over mask.

"Dread" is a bicameral novel that begins with the voyage of a psychiatrist, his wife and two friends through the Levant. This is no vacation. The psychiatrist is in need of one; his wife is depressingly depressed, and the two friends fade before the definition. At Venice, that symbol of marble awash with decay, another passenger boards: Keller, a mysterious figure who seduces both the psychiatrist's reason and his wife. Soon the Mediterranean sun is melting secrets like cocoa butter, and the bleached deck resembles a floating proscenium.

The psychiatrist narrates that with his wife, "our marriage bore the aura of a dying language." He has forgotten what Baedeker wrote between the lines: if there are cracks in a relationship, travel will open them. After Keller's infusion into their lives, the narrator senses his wife "no longer looked at me but past me, at somewhere else which she had never seen and yet had a detailed picture of in her mind."

In a style dark and gorgeous, reminiscent of John Hawkes, the author builds up an overwhelming sense of place within place . The Cairo streets ache with heat; melting ice cubes bump against sliding whiskey glasses, and the ship itself appears, "vast, powerful, white as bone, towering like an ancient creature as the sea slapped its ribs."

The reader is drugged by the same sunlight as the narrator, watching the waves "as if what is below the surface could burst into flame, as if the surface were cream and the rest a thick tenebrous jelly in which beasts might thrive . . . "

Steiner is a master of the sensual allowed to stall: "We rubbed lotion into our flesh, watching it bubble and peak, leaving a coat of clear polish across the graying hairy chests and turgid maroon veins of our bodies." Everything lolls in its own Sargossa Sea of description. Wandering through Corfu, the narrator notes, "Goats were suspended in air, turning slowly over careful fires, each of them young, blackening, spitted, their cleft hooves knotted tightly by wire."

Where this voyage of the senses is heading is not toward a reef of recognition or a port of redemption: its destination is itself. What the narrator is trying to make out--the blurred features of the ambiguous, the hint of deja vu, the sense of mystery where clarity should be, even the notion that the ship seemed like "a dreamed thing whose awe is too imbedded in sleep to be spoken of"--is beyond him.

No wonder he feels he is the top of an iceberg. The sea surrounding him is someone else's consciousness.

In a brilliant transition, much as a train traverses a tunnel into a totally different landscape on the other side, the second portion of "Dread" is no longer the narration of a voyage through the Mediterranean, but the voice of Keller revealing how his mind, stirring under the apathy of winter, creates loops within itself and forms, say, a lush, Levantine cruise, where Keller occupies only a peripheral place beside four passengers. We realize that the Keller within the psychiatrist's tale is not suddenly telling his side of the story, e.g., how the dark side of the moon sees itself--but is offering us the very thoughts of a man residing forever far from such a voyage, yet infecting the travelers' perceptions with his presence. Keller is nothing other than the lives he makes up: "He no longer has any life outside the myth he was making of himself for an audience thousand of miles and oceans and languages, away. He was more authentic during this period than in any other."

Like Velazquez in "Las Meninas," who, in painting himself within the picture, composed a subject that lay beyond the canvas itself and which could only be perceived in the reflection of a distant mirror hanging at the far end of the tableau vivant , Steiner has created characters commenting on a character who is himself a character in the mind of the character imagining them all and, as a subject in a novel, is himself imagined as well.

The greatest journeys are made without maps. "Dread" is a worthy quest, even if at the end--the reader is left imagining himself.

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