This Is Not a Book Review : THE STAR CAFE by Mary Caponegro (Scribners: $16.95; 180 pp.)

Imagine a time when all life is extinct, and the scalpels in hospital operating rooms continue to slice as if there were human hands to wield them. Imagine a time when Madonna in a pointed metal bra writhes through a sexual pantomime, all sexuality extinct.

Imagine a time when David Lynch makes a television series where the dead-moon face of a girl and the strange gyrations of a dwarf imitate loss and mystery, in a context where loss and mystery are equally extinct. A time when Peter Greenaway films greed, lust, sadism and decay in a restaurant or an architecture exhibit, so that they are vivid and immediate, yet as distant as radio signals from another planet.

Or a time when Mary Caponegro, author of the short pieces that I will touch upon later, writes of a mother-ridden daughter who bursts into flames and rises from them like a phoenix, of a woman and a beautiful young man who disappears as he makes love to her, and of another young man who turns into a bus stop.

Except for that first flourish, of course, there is no need to imagine such a time--it is now. To varying degrees, these examples suggest a style in the contemporary arts for which the word movement or school or even trend would be too definite. Leading or cutting edge would be too pretentious, since now as always, art is cutting several ways at once.

Where this style does cut, though, it does not bleed. This is its point: It cuts to show that there is no blood anymore, or if there is blood, it does not circulate because there is no heart to pump it. It is another stage in the line of post-modernism--that estrangement between style and essence. It is the child of camp, and at war with its filial likeness; fierce instead of languid. It is surrealism's grandchild and, as happens across skipped generations, the affinities are striking even though the difference is profound.

Surrealism and its offshoots--Dada and the strange artistic/philosophical movement called Situationism--were a powerful reversal of order. The power lay partly in the reversal; in the artist's vision, wit and audacity. In larger part, though, it lay in the power of the thing reversed. Dali's famous limp clocks hanging from a tree were partly memorable because clocks and pocket watches were so much the symbol of centuries of scientific and industrial self-confidence. Each night they wound up their owners to tick along through the following day, until the self-confidence deadlocked and died in World War I.

The Situationist notion that bombing Amiens Cathedral would be just as much a work of art as building it depended, of course, on the immensity of Amiens. Marcel Duchamp's mustache on Leonardo's the Mona Lisa would have meant nothing had it been a mustache on the portrait of an unknown by an unknown. Magritte's "This is not a pipe," scrawled under a burnished representation of a pipe, was also a game of hide and seek, of absence and presence. It was a pipe, that drawing of a pipe, but then again it wasn't: It was only a drawing. And what did "This" refer to? The picture, the sentence under it or the picture as undermined by the sly sentence? And although the effect did not depend upon the pipe's eminence, it did depend on the tension between the message and the incontestable presence of the object it denied.

By such ironic means did surrealism's subversive negation become a kind of affirmation, all the same, of the value of civilization's monuments. It raged--comically, sardonically, to be sure--against their decline. A child will rage at a parent who gets ill or goes out. "You are not my mother," it will tell its mother as she heads for the door. This is not a pipe, Magritte tells a pipe. (Was it his father's?)

But, as with the man given one wish, such power is a one-time thing. Had some Situationist actually bombed Amiens, there would be little excitement in periodically making the rubble bounce. After Mona Lisa gets her mustache, what happens when all the other portraits have mustaches? Dali's limp clocks contained time until he emptied them; what interest does a limp clock have if we are no longer harnessed to its ticking? A fun-house distorting mirror reveals something about us that an ordinary mirror won't, but it requires an undistorted visage to work upon.

A Greenaway, a Lynch, a Madonna, and writers--in different degrees--such as Robert Coover, Ellen Akins, Joanna Scott, Paul Auster and Caponegro have rubble to bounce, hirsute Mona Lisas to decorate, bent clocks to bend, and no reality to discover and bring before their distorting mirrors other than one that is already distorted.

What they produce is an imagery that is highly wrought, brilliantly executed but only seemingly dramatic. We get climaxes that exist by themselves, with nothing leading up to or away from them. We get moments that tremble with revelation and reveal nothing. There is sensation without experience. There are truncated epiphanies, denouements without stories, emotional and aesthetic bottom lines with no columns of figures above them.

The icy quality of the dead face in "Twin Peaks," and the weaving dance of the dwarf, seem to be windows on a mystery greater than the banal story, but the windows are trompe l'oeuil. The severed ear, sexual abuse and other violence of "Blue Velvet" are neither materially real, nor do they symbolize corruption or state it through extremity; they are a witty, breathtaking play of images and symbols for their own sake. They are gifted cousins to the caped figure against the sunset in a sherry ad, or the look of bruised distress in an ad for jeans.

Luis Bunuel's films, with all their surreal extremes, stretched our idea of who we are. The distorting mirror applied to a real face. Peter Greenaway's films, heavily influenced by Bunuel, use an imagery that recalls his, with quite a different effect. In Greenaway's "Belly of an Architect," for example, we have all kinds of striking signifiers--a furiously lubricious Roman gentleman, the architect's monstrous stomachache, the purposely awkward and amateurish delivery by the actress playing his wife, an ambiguous little boy with a gyroscope--that signify nothing but themselves. Except, of course, the impossibility of signifying anything else.

This style is, in its own way (as always with real artists), a statement about reality. But it is a statement in a foreign language, with the stresses in the wrong place and erratic sibilants. Deliberately so, of course. Reality is a foreign country, if indeed it exists at all.

It is unusual on this page to preface mention of an individual book with such a long general consideration, and perhaps to skimp it in the process. Caponegro's voice and vision are talented and individual. If I have placed her so extensively in a context, it is not to diminish the individuality but, on the contrary, to make it more apparent.

The four pieces in "The Star Cafe" all have some of the qualities I have referred to, though they have others, as well. Three of the four, in fact, apply their estranged effects to a common and substantial theme. They deal with woman and man: The present woman, the absent man; the centered woman, the wandering man; the waxing woman, the waning man. Feminist, certainly, but feminist art, not feminist polemics.

"Tales From the Next Village" is not polemical, but it is rather pat. It is a group of brief fables told in a traditional Chinese manner that seems, like 19th-Century Western chinoiserie, extremely precious. In one, a young man who has heard his mother sing of the silkiness of mermaids, goes to the sea to catch one, and is drowned, silkily. In another, a woman famous for a loving husband, is widowed. Everyone is sure she will take another man; instead, she lies down in the fields and opens her legs to the rain, free from the oppressiveness that goes even with devotion. In a third, a hunter who abandons his wife all day to hunt pheasants comes home that night empty-handed. The wife's cupboard is stacked high with the birds, who have obligingly flown in and arranged themselves in handy rows.

In the title story, a young woman, alarmed by a noise outside her apartment, follows it downstairs and finds herself in a cafe where the owner is preparing a drink in a huge and noisy blender. She confides her fears; he comforts her; they make love. As they do, he fades from sight, though she still feels him pounding along in solipsist excitement as her own correspondingly dwindles. He reappears; she asks to use the bathroom and chides him when he tells her there are no proper facilities for women. He is offended and disappears once more; she goes into a much more arousing bout of sex by herself.

In summary, this sounds crude, and the moral all too clear: Men take pleasure in women when they are fragile, disappear within their own pleasure, and vanish completely when the women assert themselves. In fact, "Star Cafe" is told delicately, with wit and mystery. There is something disconnected, though, between the message and the faintly surreal, dreamlike devices by which it proceeds.

"Sebastian," novella-length, relates the decline and fall, in the course of a day's errands, of an anxiously meticulous young man whose two passions are words and his fiancee's body. In playing with words and adjusting them with fussy pedantry, Sebastian finds security in a perplexing world; he finds a different kind of security making burrowing and voracious love with Sarah.

Her flamboyant beauty troubles him, though; so does her independence as an artisan-jeweler. Love for her is part of opening to the world; for him it is a refuge. On the day in question, he is frustrated and eventually undone by a chain of mishaps. Not only does he find his gas station and dry cleaner briefly closed, but the signs announcing this are improperly worded or badly spelled.

Waiting for the cleaners to open, he is beset by a series of odd incidents and disquiets. He stands so long in one spot that would-be bus passengers deposit ashes and trash on him, and someone uses him for a bike rack. Strolling, he is obsessed by the queues at the post office in the bank, and by the shape of envelopes and bank cards. "Everything's coming up rectangles for Sebastian." Alternately, he is haunted by phrases from Aristotle.

He goes to Sarah's workshop and tries to get her to drop what she's doing and make love. She refuses and sends him away; when he returns for another try, he gets stuck in the elevator. Not only are men threatened by women's independence, but the threat imprisons them.

Caponegro aims to use her surreal eruptions--giant blenders, disappearing lovers, bus-stop metamorphoses, the ominous prevalence of rectangles, Aristotle as a kind of floating, speaking bust--to serve her theme in the older, distorting-mirror fashion. Yet they don't quite serve, they break off; they shiver, like Madonna, in disembodied lust. They bounce like rubble.

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