A LOVER'S ALMANAC. By Maureen Howard . Viking: 270 pp., $24.95

Paula Friedman reviews contemporary literature for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle

"Lightness is his affliction," Louise Moffett says of her lover Artie in Maureen Howard's comic tour de force, "A Lover's Almanac," a novel about love, art and life precariously poised at the edge of the third millennium. Patching into the narrative excerpts from works dating as far back as the Greek and Roman classics and as contemporary as the lyrics of a Joni Mitchell song, Howard extends the boundaries of her love story into a broader meditation on Western thought. The story begins on New Year's Eve 2000 with Artie and Louise frenetically celebrating at a party somewhere near Central Park in New York City. The evening's disaster and the central breach in the relationship between Louise and Artie occur when, having drunk too much champagne, he playfully spills his drink down the front of Louise's blue retro silk dress, an act that pushes her to the end of her patience with him: " . . . for can it be that one night can unravel their years, one rotten night of Artie's misdemeanors? The answer is yes. Her Artie will never give up on his lightness. And the years that stretch ahead offer a diminishing view in which he will never change."

This "lightness" and the "hedging ironies," reflected both by the couple and by the age itself, prove limiting, Howard suggests, making it difficult for her characters to spontaneously express themselves. Louise, an artist--who had become "somewhat famous" for her Botanicals, paintings of trees in which the foreground is made background and the background is blown up, intricately detailed, creating a "simple reversal of scale"--finds herself limited to ironic mockery in most of her work. Having been raised on a dairy farm in a manner she found stifling, Louise makes the family operation--brimming with cows, silos and barns--the subject of much of her work. Artie, a New Age computer whiz, works for his friend Boyce "designing plausible graphics . . . stylish bar charts and pies, seductive pictograms out of mightily inferential statistics." Artie's work is big on flash and low on purpose.

With well-aimed but playful pokes, Howard hints that her confused characters have plenty of talent but find themselves lacking any solid perspective. This problem is not peculiar to Louise and Artie, Howard implies, but one that has characterized the frantically uncertain atmosphere of an age cowering before the looming millennium.

Nostalgia, even ironic, becomes the guide for stance and style. Louise isn't the only one of the pair given to retro clothing. After Artie's disgrace at the New Year's party, he finds his "sodden garments on the floor. . . . The coat is an Eisenhower jacket with military emblems and campaign ribbons now stained." While Louise is working on a new series of photographs titled "Postcards," her art dealer drops by to survey the work, commenting on how she and her generation are "so adept at appropriation" or even "counterfeit." The dealer's comments address the idea that Postmodern work specifically interests itself in imitation, a phenomenon arising from the belief, on the one hand, that everything has already been thought and done and, on the other hand, that all art is appropriation: Postmodern work simply makes the process more explicit. Howard's own use of historical excerpts within the narrative--whether she draws from the Iliad or the Bible--supports this view, demonstrating her own dependence on historical texts for the shape and substance of her novel.

Howard uses a quote from the American historian Henry Adams to comment on the writer's task: "The secret of education still hid itself somewhere behind ignorance, and one fumbled over it as feebly as ever. In such labyrinths, the staff is a force almost more necessary than the legs; the pen becomes a sort of blind-man's dog, to keep him from falling into the gutter. The pen works for itself, and acts like a hand, modeling the plastic material over and over again to the form that suits it best." Howard joins such eminent precursors as Laurence Sterne in taking a book-within-a-book approach to her novel, yet there are moments when the reader might wish Howard would simply get on with her tale. But this sort of impatience occurs whenever narrative is interrupted by other forms of extended commentary and, in fact, "A Lover's Almanac" relies on this impatience for bringing a sense of suspense into the otherwise familiar territory of contemporary love.

In exploring the relationship between her central characters, Howard wittily suggests the mechanistic use of genuinely valuable knowledge, in this instance targeting Freudian psychology and its offshoots. As Artie attempts to sift through his feelings for Louise, trying to understand why he seems to himself so incapable of sustaining deep feelings, he ponders his early loss of his mother. Howard evokes cyberspeak as she describes this process: "Artie, sensing that his heart is adulterated, gives up on love, on Louise. Click AVOIDANCE DISORDER to find your way out, your way back to the old attraction, the mysteries of his mother's past. . . . Click REENACTMENT OF LOSS, which images love on the simu-scape, which tests pain beyond endurance." Believing themselves "free of conventional family tales," Louise and Artie are, on the contrary, as bound as we all are to history and specifically to our own personal pasts: "They will not make it out of the happenstance of birth and are headed for yet another shopworn romance. . . . "

Yet Howard does not leave her characters hopelessly stranded. Artie's hostility toward a woman artist who has the year 2000 tattooed on her arm, Auschwitz style, hints at the limits of what he will swallow. However familiar and incremental their steps, Artie and Louise do move--at least somewhat--outside the trap of Postmodern limitations. For it is within the acceptance of their very ordinariness that they begin to grapple with their difficulties, shedding superficial impulses toward individuality as they attempt to nourish themselves on ordinary, if uncommon, human love.

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