This book has the feel of a discovery. Maya Sonenberg writes a compacted, evocative, poet's prose, and has a sense of form that can surprise even as it satisfies. These are not literary exercises in fashion-conscious ennui. Nor are they the verbal marathons of the now academicized avant-garde, never giving us a sentence or a paragraph where a full chapter will do. Sonenberg has an eye all her own. A woman dives into a river and swims "down into the cool where the red sand turned to red rock and the weeds swirled in the eddies slinky as nightclub hostesses." The wing "tangos the garbage in the empty lot on the corner." A woman reflects that her abductor "looked grim, as if he were chewing sand. . . . "
There is an adventurousness, too, in her subject matter. A story called "Nature Morte," perhaps the anthology piece of the collection, describes the birth in Paris in 1911 of "the first Cubist baby" from an appropriately multi-planar narrative perspective. The mother, we are told, felt that her baby's "many-angled body fit easily against her own and then again, that he grew or shrank and, suddenly, that her baby had far too many elbows." Surely Picasso would have agreed.
In another story, "Ariadne in Exile," we are privy to the island life of the wife of Theseus, abandoned by the hero for reasons that haven't survived with the rest of the myth: "The fine hairs were a golden net on his arms as he walked away, and she slumped, curled on her side, and slept. In the morning, she woke to the dark room. . . . " In "June 4, 1469," we witness the wedding of Lorenzo de Medici in Florence through the eyes of the bride's more excitable sister:
"Even the day we both had our ears pierced, she sat perfectly calm. Briefly she pouted, but Father shook his finger, told her to be brave, and she let them drive the golden posts through her earlobes. When my turn came, I dodged tables and maids until they called the footman in from the pantry to catch me and hold me down."
On occasion, Sonenberg's reach exceeds her grasp, as in the title story, "Cartographies," an elaborate conceit in which map and world become more intermeshed than is good for either one of them. It's as if the two characters, a man and a woman, are trying desperately to fall in love while sitting through an endless version of "Kon Tiki." Every time one of them gets an idea, the author shouts, "Lash the deck with bamboo!"
Alas, this brings us, a little reluctantly in the face of so gifted and authentic a writer, to the central problem of this collection as a whole. Selected by Robert Coover as the winner of the 1989 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and published in its annual series by the University of Pittsburgh Press, "Cartographies" is often more compressed and elliptical than does justice to Sonenberg's own gifts.
The story goes that the writer and teacher Ronald Sukenick once had the novelist and screenwriter Richard Price as a graduate student. While Price struggled to make his stories avant-garde in the de rigueur mode of the late '60s and early '70s, Sukenick kept noticing that his student's obvious gift had more to do with the traditional narrative virtues: character, dialogue, pacing, even, God forbid, drama. Sukenick, himself an avant-garde writer at the time, passed on to his student his intimation, and Price, aesthetically liberated, was able to begin work on his first novel, "The Wanderers," about New York street gangs.
Sonenberg's is a more complex and finely shaded talent, and there is substantial success to her achievement in "Cartographies," but almost all of these stories demand that a certain thorny threshold be negotiated before they may be entered comfortably. Too often she will begin a story with an informational glut, usually focused on a landscape or an interior, and it isn't until the reader begins to discern the presence of a character at the center of this setting that his attention becomes grounded and attuned enough to appreciate the genuine artistry with which the author is proceeding.
The reader is most at home when Sonenberg is closely tracking a single protagonist--or on occasion shifting back and forth between two protagonists--moment by moment in the traditional narrative manner: Her real graces are in the intimacy and originality with which she portrays complex states of mind and heart within a vividly evoked landscape. In a sense this is a simple technical problem: a matter of setting the horse before the cart. But Sonenberg's achievement is already strong enough to make one hesitate to lay down any too clear-cut prescription.
Indeed, one could address much the same cavil to Robert Coover himself, as well as to John Barth, Thomas Pynchon, and other novelists of the middle generation, who, it could be argued, have made a sort of cult of being tough going. At the moment, American readers are too often given the uncomfortable choice between, on the one hand, these serious writers who seem not to have taken to heart elementary lessons about how to set and pace and ventilate narrative, and on the other the "mega-book" crowd, who don't know how to do anything else.
In the late '70s, the German Expressionist painters turned away from conceptualism and the rest of the avant-garde to deal again with history and the human soul in the most elementary painterly terms. American painters like Eric Fischl and Martha Diamond have since taken up the same path. Literature tends to be the most conservative art form, but on the brink of the '90s, when the avant-garde appears just a little retrograde, a writer like Maya Sonenberg might want to take another look at her options within the literary landscape. Meanwhile, "Cartographies" introduces a writer of significant accomplishment and fine promise.