A Legacy of Pain : AFTER SILENCE, By Jonathan Carroll (Doubleday: $21; 227 pp.)

Heeger is a regular contributor to the Times

Anyone on the verge of a big emotional commitment--falling in love, say, or having a baby--should probably steer clear of Jonathan Carroll's new novel, "After Silence." In his eighth book, Carroll, author of the critically acclaimed "Outside the Dog Museum" imagines a world of people numb and alone, and so sick of their own company they'll grab anyone who makes them feel--and makes them feel important.

Family life for these hurting souls--and especially for their children--is a precarious proposition. Badly hammered by their own parents, the grown-ups turn around and crush their young, who console themselves with drugs, guns and contempt for grown-ups. And so on, and on and on.

Carroll's protagonist, Max Fischer, enters the cycle at the L.A. County Museum, where his work is on display in an exhibit on visionary cities called "Xanadu." A 38-year-old single cartoonist, Max is a visionary of sorts when he's satirizing modern life in his syndicated cartoon. But stripped of his witty mask--and the human distance it provides--he's not so sure of what he sees. This is particularly true when two fellow museum-goers, a pretty woman and her son, happen to capture his attention. Even as he sums them up to himself as "bitch mother and hungry child," he regrets his reaction, apologizes for the impression ("I have a nasty, sometimes gothic imagination"), and proceeds to fall in with them.

What's clear during the first weeks of their acquaintance is just how desperate Max is to be needed, and to identify with something bigger than himself. Funny, passionate Lily Aaron and her son Lincoln give him a ready-made role to play, and he jumps at it, quickly moving into their home and family.

As may be guessed from a sprinkling of sinister early hints, the honeymoon doesn't last. While Max easily adapts to domestic life--in particular, to becoming father figure of a 9-year-old--his security crumbles at the first inkling that Lily isn't who she seems; that she may, in fact, have a terrifying secret.

At this point, Lily and Max are supposed to be blissfully in love. But instead of going to Lily with his suspicions, he snoops around in her drawers and engages a detective--a course favored by the people in this book. All of them, more often than not, are disappointed by the results. Ransacking each other's closets, reading letters, stealing diaries, they gather facts but little insight. The hungry soul just isn't satisfied with a list of lies or infidelities: It's only holding up a mirror. Its real longing is to know itself.

Nevertheless, Max forges on, as people do, and sure enough, unearths some major dirt on Lily. Before he confronts her, though, she suddenly breaks down and confesses, in a scene that's oddly dull given the nature of her crime. She also tells Max what he, and we, already know, leaving no real plot twists to come and adding no dimensions to her rather flimsy character.

But maybe what she says is beside the point. Maybe Lily is beside the point. What matters most to Max is his identity as Lincoln's dad--an identity he struggles to preserve at the price of becoming an accomplice to Lily's crime.

To a cartoonist, who spends his life switching roles and trying new ones on, transformation is a viable form of self-escape. Of course, the roles are stylized, and generally they don't last longer or go deeper than a few cartoons; but like a cartoon, this is a stylized book. Carroll isn't trying to paint pictures of reality. If Lily's character boils down to a page-long list of quirks, this in itself serves Carroll's argument: In our culture, it's not the individual who's scary or bad or even criminal. The sheer force of modern alienation forces people to do the unspeakable.

In the interests of suspense, Lily's crime will remain unnamed here, but it is horrific and it gathers force by going undetected for a decade. Even worse is its impact on Lincoln, its helpless victim. For whatever the mess grown-ups make of their decisions and their lives, they have choices a child doesn't. His future is in their hands. Inevitably, when he comes to see how he's been used by those who claim to love him, he utterly self-destructs.

Along the way, though, Lincoln gets in some good licks. Any parent of a young child will be horrified to watch the transformation of an innocent, loving boy into a 17-year-old monster--a metamorphosis Carroll calmly presents as inescapable, given the pressures of circumstance.

All in all, like Max the cartoonist, Carroll's cultural observations are his strength, and they are genuinely chilling. What weakens the book is that these observations aren't fleshed out enough through complex characters that would give them the weight of felt experience.

Early on, Max the narrator expresses the aim of applying a cartoonist's narrative strategy to the telling of his tale: "As a cartoonist, you learn to cut to the bone of language. If three words say it better or funnier than four, great, use three."

But a novel doesn't turn on the kind of quick, economical observation a cartoon does. It depends for its power on a gathering of small moments, subtle gestures and details that create a world big enough for readers to live in for 200 or 300 pages. Without these, Carroll's book doesn't rise above the level of an intriguing cautionary tale over-directed by someone anxious to get his point across. If it had, it would've been a full-blown, bone-rattling nightmare.

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