The human factor

Lionel Shriver is the author of eight novels, including "We Need to Talk About Kevin," which won Britain's Orange Prize in 2005. Her most recent novel is "The Post-Birthday World."

THREE years ago, French journalist Philippe Vasset published a droll, cynical novel called "ScriptGenerator©®™," founded on the familiar notion that there are no new stories under the sun: " 'Everything has been said.' This mantra of artistic circles, you, entrepreneurs, can use to your advantage. If everything has been written, filmed, and acted, if the flow of stories has effectively come to an end, it means that narrative has finally become raw material, a commodity. Therefore its treatment can be mechanized." Not only does Vasset conceive screenplay- and novel-generating software that eliminates the writer altogether but he reduces all successful narrative to "the quest." By way of illustration, "ScriptGenerator©®™" is itself written in quest form.

There's something to Vasset's theory. Most memorable protagonists (Indiana Jones, Anna Karenina, Dickens' Pip) are on quests of some sort. Accordingly, Amy Bloom's new novel, "Away," could be called formulaic. Her protagonist, Lillian Leyb, is on a quest of the most classic variety: to be reunited with her young daughter, lost in a Russian pogrom. Yet rather than feeding the sour commercial pessimism Vasset so wittily encapsulates, "Away" testifies to the truism that execution is all. Bloom isn't fighting traditional forms; in some respects her second novel is one more standard American immigration tale. But her execution is exquisite, and exquisite execution is rare -- not only in books but (alas) in almost any undertaking.

It is 1924. Lillian, age 22, has immigrated to New York's Lower East Side but remains haunted by the grisly scene back in Russia, in which her husband and parents were murdered while she sent her 3-year-old daughter, Sophie, off to hide -- as it happened, all too well. Lillian speaks virtually no English. Asked about her language skills when applying for a seamstress' job at the Goldfadn Yiddish Theatre, she manages to recite what constitutes nearly her entire vocabulary. "I attend night classes," she says, adding carefully: "And they go very well, thank you." Lillian not only gets the job but doubles as the mistress both of Meyer, the Goldfadn's lead actor, and its impresario, Reuben, his powerful father. Once she gets word from a relative that Sophie is not dead, as she had presumed, but living with former neighbors in Siberia, Lillian burns with a mother's fever, and the quest is on. "Away" becomes a road novel, spanning North America from New York to Alaska. Each stop along the route is so richly fleshed out that the book never suffers from the monotonous, episodic quality that typifies lesser examples of this genre.

Lillian displays an appealingly ruthless practicality in her determination to reach her goal. She sexually services a train conductor to secure passage in a carriage broom closet. She helps dispose of a pimp's corpse when the scheme she has concocted with a prostitute to recoup the woman's stolen earnings turns accidentally into manslaughter. This heroine is not pure, but she is steely.

It is the last trek -- through the Yukon to Alaska, where Lillian intends to rent a boat to get her to Siberia -- that most tests her mettle. Bloom's evocation of the perils of the Alaskan wilderness is reminiscent of T.C. Boyle's grim description of the same terrain in his masterful "Drop City." As for the resolution of her quest -- and a mother's search for her little girl could easily grow mawkish -- it avoids sentimentality altogether.

The pleasures of "Away" are the ordinary pleasures of extraordinary novels: finely wrought prose, vivid characters, delectable details. There's a soft-smile, along-the-way humor. A business card condenses one character's whole frustrated life: "Yaakov Shimmelman / Tailor, Actor, Playwright / Author of The Eyes of Love / Pants pressed and altered." Having been given a thesaurus to help her learn English, Lillian tends to think in synonyms -- as when Meyer is late for their first rendezvous: "It is rude (crass, inelegant, uncouth, and also lacking in social refinement)." Employed deftly and never overused, the device is charming.

Bloom conjures the kind of specific details that creative-writing teachers are eternally begging their students to generate; it's a knack that cannot quite be taught. During a stint in a Canadian women's prison, Lillian works in the library: "It is a small room lined with books that no one wants (pamphlets of uplifting verse, privately published, Mrs. Beeton's housekeeping guide, Lutheran cookbooks, opera libretti, and the occasional first-person account of life among the Canadian Mounted Police, or the Eskimos, or beet farmers)." When an isolated telegraph station is abandoned, the linemen "walk out with their clothes and chess sets, their diaries, their Lemon Hart rum, their snowshoes, and their recipes," leaving behind "their tin plates and mugs, their cracked mirrors, their embroidery, their hand-carved jigsaw puzzles, their cloudberry jam, pine floors painted to look like Persian rugs, their shirts patched past usefulness, and the telegraph equipment itself." In Bloom's skillful hands, the elements of the humble list add up to a poem.

A practicing psychotherapist, this author combines eloquence with insight. Meyer "doesn't want to embarrass [Lillian], and he's not ashamed that she's a seamstress. He is ashamed that she's a seamstress, but she's a good-looking girl and not stupid, and her poverty, her seamstressness, is appealing." When Lillian is briefly pregnant, "bread and cookies and pastry fill her with a craving so deep it verges on sorrow." Listening as a widower recites Psalm 23 over his wife's body, Lillian "thinks that she walks through the valley of the shadow of death every day and she fears everything."

Bloom is also capable of a pell-mell fast-forwarding of plot, a skill she must have refined while writing two celebrated short-story collections: "Come to Me," a 1993 National Book Award finalist, and "A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You," a finalist for the 2000 National Book Critics Circle Award. As Lillian leaves each population of more rooted characters behind, their stories finish in a rush -- and that's rush as in "high," not rush as in "haste." The sudden narrative accelerations that conclude each of the novel's sections provide a thrill akin to careering from 5 to 100 mph in a powerful, pricey car -- as in this wrap-up after Lillian's departure from the Goldfadn. Her older lover, Reuben, mournfully picks up a button beside her abandoned sewing machine. Bloom smites the poor man with blindness and death a few lines later and ends the paragraph thus: "Meyer will grieve, genuinely and suitably, and then he will go to Hollywood, as Reuben suggested before he went blind, and Meyer will change his name and make a handsome living playing good-natured Italian gangsters and good-natured Italian priests."

In "Away," Bloom breaks no new formal ground, yet not a line is trite nor a character stereotypical. Working comfortably within a conventional form, she renews and redeems it. The ultimate test of any writer may be taking on the most traditional of genres -- the love story, the ghost story, the immigration story -- and pouring new wine into old skins. Matthew 9:17 sees that as a dubious practice, but in literature you want the skin to burst. "Away" is not a novel that (with apologies to Philippe Vasset) any computer software could ever generate. *

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