THE WONDERS OF THE INVISIBLE WORLD: Stories; By David Gates; (Alfred A. Knopf: 258 pp., $22)
By which he means something like the unbearable lightness of being, and, oddly, there is a lot that is reminiscent of Kundera in David Gates' writing. Perhaps it's the thoroughness with which emotional terrain is charted, perhaps the elusive ethics of his characters, as if they inhabited a completely apolitical landscape, a society with rules that shift so often it's hard for a large mammal to echo-locate. In fact, many of these stories are almost entirely dialog, as if the characters can be described and understood by even the cross-section the story gives of their everyday lives. And they can. You don't learn everything, but they are probably more familiar than people you see every day. That's because instincts we don't use anymore in daily life are called upon in fiction.
"Star Baby," in which a gay man is asked by his toxic sister to care for her 7-year-old son while she pretends to dry out, is my favorite story in the collection. The evolution of love in the story (the uncle for his nephew) and the self-doubt and awakening and fear and hope and loneliness and fulfillment that land in this kind man's life, is breathtaking. Reading these stories is, by way of a compliment, like working out in preparation for a crisis.
LAYOVER; By Lisa Zeidner; (Random House: 268 pp., $24)
The hero of this novel, Claire, is one of those spooky, hard career girls--really pleased with her own efficiency, with all her gadgets and her ambition. Whenever I see this kind of character in the middle of a book, I instinctively reach for a sweater. No revelation, no matter how large, can sever the tight web woven between these characters and the steady march of progress. They are not going to run to the woods or take up gardening. Gardening is not in their DNA. Childbearing barely is.
Nonetheless, Claire has lost a baby, killed in a car accident. In the year following her infant's death, her husband has an affair with another doctor. So she has reason to harden up and reason to run away. She travels for her work (selling high-priced medical equipment) and begins to stay extra days in hotels, refusing to go home, ignoring her husband and her therapist's many messages. She swims fanatically in the hotel pools, her only solace, and takes first a young lover, then his father. She has a breakdown. But it is not the unravelling type, it is the calcifying type, and it is well-plotted by Lisa Zeidner, whose writing is tightly controlled but whose ear for yuppie-talk is clear and menacing.
ENCORE PROVENCE; By Peter Mayle; (Alfred A. Knopf: 226 pp., $24)
He just keeps doing it, doesn't he? No matter how much criticism Peter Mayle received for "My Year In Provence" (that he caricatured the French; that it was so bourgeois; that he invited droves of the wrong sort of tourists to Provence and ruined it), he has written the same book all over again. You gotta love him. (The criticism of Mayle reached such a peak that he and his wife were actually forced to leave France for four years, which they spent on Long Island.) He's a little defensive now and then in "Encore Provence" about his critics, but you begin to think the guy can't help it. Born in England, with several decades in advertising, of course he's going to sound like a colonialist. And let's face it, for those of us who can't divide our lives between Italy or France and, say, Costa Mesa, it's fun to read Frances Mayes and Mayle. Though Mayes, a poet, has a much more multi-layered and textured writing style, Mayle is what he is, a happy-go-lucky thing person--one of those people who likes watches and shirts and wines and olive oil: nothing more, nothing less.
LOCAL GIRLS; By Alice Hoffman; (Putnam: 198 pp., $22.95)
These are interlocking stories told in the alternating voices of Gretel and Frances. Gretel Samuelson is a young girl growing up in Long Island with her divorced, disenchanted mother, Frances, who is dying of cancer. Other characters include Gretel's best friend, Jill, who has an equally unhappy if slightly more functional mother, and Frances' best friend, her cousin Margot, a bubbly, romantic source of hope and strength for Gretel. "Local Girls" is the amazing story of how any girl ever grows up at all, given the unhappiness of women. Yet the girls, in the tradition of "Grapes of Wrath," find ways to make it. "There are times," Gretel thinks at one point, "when certain people can't seem to avoid pain; it's everywhere you go, it sticks like glue, and that was what seemed to happen to me and Jill."
It's astonishing how Hoffman writes this truth without leaving a sour taste, without making it stick to the reader like old gum on a shoe. It's just the way it is, she seems to say. The most we can hope for is that these legacies of dependence and depression will unravel over generations.
MY PHANTOM HUSBAND; By Marie Darrieussecq; (The New Press: 160 pp., $19.95)
It's true that the French know how to enjoy themselves. Marie Darrieussecq had such a good time writing her previous novel, "Pig Tales," about a young woman who turns into a pig, that this reader felt like the control in a literary experiment. A writer having too good a time can be rather unpleasant. But "My Phantom Husband" is a more mature book: There are things to chew on, ideas to live with for a while, along with the playfulness, in language and plot, of "Pig Tales."
The narrator's husband has gone missing. Il est disparu. He does not come home from the office. At first she thinks she will die, but after a few days, her senses begin to sharpen and shift: "I thought I had entered a new space-time where I would flicker for the rest of my life, the zone where the sun would never again rise. . . . But the apartment became imperceptibly gray, then mauve." She begins to morph into various animals, to see the world as a swift would see it or a cat or a fish. Her environment becomes volatile as well: "The city was evolving by the laws of a sublime chemistry in which matter went directly from solid to gas, bypassing the state of liquidity to moulder bit by bit in a disbursement of mist." Could this be a French woman's confession that she does not exist, is not really female in the absence of a man? Could it be that with her husband gone, she is merely preserved, "in a museum of absences like the hollow bodies of Pompeii"? She is fond of him and misses him, but it is his breathing, his big body, his weight in her life that she misses, not the man himself. Hence, the Cheshire cat, the phantom husband--gases and vapours, a pixilated memory--not too many solids.