THE MUSEUM OF HAPPINESS by Jesse Lee Kercheval (Faber and Faber: $22.95; 276 pp.) Who’s in charge here? Certainly not Jesse Lee Kercheval, a talented young author who prefabricates a book-and-a-half’s worth of off-center personae, then watches in astonishment as they gyrate to their own nachtmusik . Certainly not Ginny Gillespie, Kercheval’s doppelganger , who hauls ash (her late husband’s) to Paris in 1929 and becomes enmeshed with Roland Keppi, an Alsatian with webbed fingers whose prescient family “know things they have no way of knowing.” They meet in Montmartre where Roland is feeding the birds and proceed to consecrate a demi-innocent love affair.
It’s a pleasant bagatelle, a delight to read, not quite straightforward but close enough. Such is Kercheval’s wile that you are thigh-deep into the narrative and pausing for a smile before you’re fully aware of whom you’re dealing with. There’s Claudia, a restaurateur who “had been a nun once, or was it an artist’s model?” and who refuses to serve the well-off (“Go eat at Maxim’s, you can afford it”). There’s a couple of Gypsy pickpockets named Bathsheba and Beelzebub. There’s big-eared Fuss, a German “as ugly as liver” who involves Roland in a murder, and Schmidt, who tries to commit suicide by overdosing on carrots. And Marie-Louise, a career ladies-room attendant worth knowing: “The third from the end has the most comfortable seat.” By windup, it seems normal that they all end up running a lace factory in the town of Le Puy. Nobody in charge there either.