Turmoil in the Front Row : Wiggins' journalists are witnesses to history while churning in their own darkness : EVELESS EDEN, By Marianne Wiggins (HarperCollins: $23; 337 pp.)

Marianne Wiggins' power is disjunctive, disruptive; she pounds the atoms of discourse until they split and go radioactive, or until she pops herself on the thumb. Of her recent books, "John Dollar," the entrancing tale of children marooned, and "Herself in Love," a glittering collection of short stories, emitted a subatomic light that tinted the world from off the visible spectrum. In her last collection, "Bet They'll Miss Us When We're Gone," Wiggins, who had come out of long concealment with her then-husband, Salman Rushdie, got a more mixed result.

Mixed is my reaction to her turbulent new novel, "Eveless Eden." It is not an averaging "mixed," a gray balance of black and white. It is more of a blinding chiaroscuro; blinding both when it dazzles and when the light goes out and it merely churns.

"Eveless Eden," a title whose meaning clouds among several rival clues to it, tells of a man's obsessed pursuit of a woman. It takes place grandly against the background of some of the great upheavals of our time: the Berlin Wall coming down, the weird displacements of post-Ceausescu Romania--an awakening almost worse than the nightmare--and mass death in Africa. Noah is a veteran American foreign correspondent, Lilith, a brilliant and untamable news photographer (hence their access to the world theater); but their rending encounters and partings suggest the spill-out from the old gods' passions: plagues, earthquakes, tidal waves.

Wiggins, perhaps uniquely, is at her best in extremes and cataclysms, both personal and universal. She is poorer at the smaller movements of life and love. Cyclones aren't good at unscrewing jar-tops. Wiggins writes with feverish brilliance recounting a story of evil in Romania's deceptive moral and political upheaval--Hell gets a new paint job--or the suffocating death of thousands in Cameroon when a volcanic lake suddenly inverts and releases clouds of carbon dioxide from its bottom. It is close to a prophetic brilliance: If the world's horror is advancing on us, Wiggins catches the creak of its dragon-scales and the stink of its breath.

Her voice is Noah's voice; when the journalist-narrator turns from these large things to his tormented affair with Lilith, the voice sometimes flares and often falters. They meet in a Cameroon bar when the police bring Lilith in for photographing without a permit. Passion ignites; they travel to the poisoned lake together--Lilith is a journalistic warrior, able to bluff, cajole and sneak her way onto any bit of going transportation; the burnt-out Noah mainly follows--and end up in bed. For two years they are lovers and sometimes partners, using her chic Paris apartment between assignments, or his smaller flat in London.

Her restless attention flags; suddenly she vanishes. She has fallen for Adam--three Biblical names in the book and I can't figure why--a powerful and corrupt minister in the Ceausescu government. They meet tough, to say the least; with unpardonable melodrama, Wiggins has Adam's Mercedes knock Lilith over on a London street.

For the next year or so, Noah's life is split between covering the drama of Soviet collapse in Eastern Europe, and suffering torments over Lilith. Meeting her by chance at the Berlin Wall he rapes her--another hard-to-take spectacular--and loses her trail once more. It will turn out that she has been living in Romania as Adam's mistress even as his evil begins to horrify her. She has amassed photos of his traffic in adoptive babies and AIDS-tainted blood.

When the regime falls, she and he are spirited to a safe-house in England. He was a British agent, it seems. Noah tracks down much of this when sent to cover the Romanian overturn; eventually he and Lilith will have a garish and ambiguous reunion in London.

Noah models his passion for Lilith quite consciously on the film "The Third Man." He sees himself as Holly, the Joseph Cotten character who is smitten by Harry Lime's lover, Anna, and seeks to make her love him by demonstrating Lime's villainy (which also involves selling contaminated medical supplies). Adam is Lime, of course, and Lilith, elusive and unreachable, is Anna. Noah has no stable voice of his own. Sometimes he tells things as if they were Carol Reed's darkly romantic melodrama; other times he speaks as a toughly sentimental American journalist weaned on Ernest Hemingway; sometimes he is Casablanca's Humphrey Bogart, other times a bumpy translation of Apollinaire or a fried-brain loony.

Noah's dealings with his newspaper and fellow journalists are told in a lingo that Wiggins has picked up from her American foreign-correspondent friends. Several real names and incidents are mentioned, and Noah's carpal tunnel syndrome is borrowed from The New York Times' John Kifner. The imitation is so careful as to be a little odd. (With agreeable perversity, she names Noah's cynical New York editor after the comically innocent William Boot in Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop.")

On the other hand, Wiggins gets a number of deeper things right: the ostensible pride--and sometimes quiet guilt--at getting a free front-row seat on history; the weariness and confusion in arriving at one more piece of chaos and taking one more set of notes; the macho camaraderie.

Noah's voice is so much all over the place that often--perhaps Wiggins intends it that way--we are not sure that there is a character behind it. It is hard to know how seriously the author means us to take the section about Noah's and Lilith's Paris idyll. It is pages and damp pages of "We'll always have Paris": all sex, romantic walks, good tough talk, food--he brings her three-dozen shucked oysters for breakfast--books and secondhand allusions.

His unstable witness makes it hard to fix Lilith, who fades in and out. How do you know it is a star you're seeing if you know your telescope is wonky? The fierce, irresistible femme fatale that Noah keeps lamenting never fully makes her appearance. When it does appear, it is mainly as fierceness: her burning need to be off and shooting, her fanatical independence, her appetite for sexual danger.

Provocatively, Wiggins makes Lilith more of a hard-driving macho journalist than Noah. She gets things to happen; he tags along. "Live like a man, love like a woman," she remarks one day, and he agrees that it fits her. No, she counters, she means him . He is the care-giver, in fact, she the rover.

Wiggins' style is to take big risks. The extravagances, the off-key and polymorphous voices, the frequent misery at being cooped up with Noah's jangling rhetoric and shredded passions can be very trying. Lilith's vanishing may be less of a mystery to us than to him. The thought occurs that if the story were told by Boot--who is smart as well as cynical, and above all, terse--we might have a better time.

Out of the author's whirling chaos, though, some powerful spells are worked. If we do not clearly see either Noah or Lilith, we do see, made momentarily palpable, the dark winds that blow behind their unstable forms, passions and gestures. What Wiggins writes are not histories but the prehistory that flares up--out of Cameroon's demonic lake and the surreal ghastliness of Romania's unpurged present--when history is cracked open.

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