The French disconnection

Michael Sims is the author of "Adam's Navel" and editor of "The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel."

YASMINA REZA wastes no time in setting up her story in her second novel. Her self-absorbed protagonist arrives in mid-kvetch, like a Woody Allen character: "One day the writer Adam Haberberg sits down in front of the ostriches on a bench at the Jardin des Plantes menagerie in Paris and thinks, this is it, I've found the poorhouse position.... One fine day you sit down and there you are, you're hunched in the poorhouse position."

Like John Updike in his series about Henry Bech, Reza offers us in "Adam Haberberg" the tightrope spectacle of a fabulously successful writer describing a failed one. Reza's work has been translated into more than 30 languages. Primarily a playwright, she wrote "The Unexpected Man" and "Life x 3." She translated Kafka's "Metamorphosis" for the Paris stage and has written for the screen as well. Reza is best known, however, for the Tony Award-winning play "Art," about three men arguing over an abstract painting that is actually a blank canvas.

The audience-savvy Reza chose a reliable fulcrum for the opening scene of her new story: a decisive moment of crisis. "Adam Haberberg is forty-seven. A young age, he thinks, at which to see the murkiness of death winking at him." We meet him on the day he learns that his retina is degenerating, joining his thrombosis and suddenly leaving him hallucinating a green neon shape that resembles a medieval ankle boot.

Only two speaking characters appear onstage in this novel. Into Haberberg's maelstrom of self-pity walks a talkative onetime schoolmate whom he hasn't seen in 30 years, Marie-Therese Lyoc. She target-markets doodads -- zebra refrigerator magnets, Klimt ballpoint pens. The narcissist and the kitsch merchant spend the rest of the day together. Reza opted for a structure that would please Aristotle himself in its unity of place and time: a single afternoon and evening in Paris. Even after Joyce, Woolf, Solzhenitsyn and more recent practitioners such as Moacyr Scliar and John Lanchester, the one-day story remains a stimulating plot device among writers.

Actually, Haberberg and Lyoc don't so much spend the day as fritter it away; he is too inert to deserve active verbs. The story takes place on three sets, one for each act of our little tragicomedy: a park bench, Marie-Therese's Jeep (and views of the city therefrom) and Marie-Therese's flat. In each scene, Haberberg barely moves, imagining that his depressed passivity is a surrender to fate. Consequently, it is all the more impressive that this novel rolls along so quickly. The relentless drive of Reza's prose captures us with far more energy than Haberberg demonstrates in the entire book. At times she is like a movie camera circling a stationary character. Because there are no chapter divisions -- the first of only four line breaks occurs a third of the way through the book -- "Adam Haberberg" progresses like a film shot in long takes.

Only later do you realize how smoothly Reza maintains this illusion. Her authorial tricks -- the run-on sentences and fragments, the mental non sequiturs and elliptical orbiting of favorite lamentations -- all contribute to her portrait of a depressed and obsessive consciousness on the verge of absolute breakdown. She catches the confusion and second-guessing that precipitate so many traffic jams in the mind's daily circuit from one obsession to the next.

"Adam Haberberg" is brief, poignant and bitterly funny, and gains by its coalition of all three virtues. One advantage in a short novel is that it leaves the reader with a sense, possibly an illusion, of a comprehensible artistic experience. A novella provides more acreage than a short story but not enough terrain in which to get lost, and writers as diverse as Colette and Kafka have created some of their best work within its borders.

In some ways, Reza is revisiting the turf she explored in her first novel, "Desolation," which appeared in 2002. There, Samuel Perlman, the narrator, says flatly: "I'd like you to explain the word happy," and complains about "the whole unfortunate reality of the pathetic mechanics of life." Like his elderly predecessor, Adam Haberberg recites a litany of complaints and anxieties about this gross petri dish that transports our aspiring consciousness from cradle to grave.

Once in an interview, when asked who else she might want to be for a day, Reza replied instantly, "Philip Roth." Like Roth, she cages her characters in the animal house of the body. As Haberberg's first publisher once remarked in his diary, "It is the body, our body, that is the ultimate and principal foundation of our being." Reza's characters have ailments, experience indigestion, sit on uncomfortable chairs -- and this physicality anchors their yearning psyches like a shadow beneath a figure in a painting.

One could describe this novel as Reza describes her plays: not comedy but "funny tragedy." Brevity is the soul not only of wit but also of pathos. As playwrights and film directors know better than many novelists, a scene prolonged is a scene risking self-parody; witness the demise of Little Nell. The poignancy of Adam Haberberg's life emerges as much from our fleeting glimpse of it as from his ills and malaise.

For all her anatomizing of their foibles and vanities, Reza seems most comfortable with male characters. Her first book was "Hammerklavier," an autobiographical tale largely about her relationship with her father. In the new novel, her attention is unblinking, even brutal. She forces us to stay in Haberberg's claustrophobic and self-aggrandizing perspective. By attending to Haberberg's drab routine, Reza accomplishes what he himself yearns to do: She connects with life and preserves it for the rest of us. *

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