Book Shorts

Book Shorts
Kim Benabib

Obscene Bodies

HarperCollins

          IS THE PUBLISHING industry really floating on the wave of a literary renaissance, or is it merely being pumped up with a bookish equivalent to junk bonds? I'd wager the latter, to judge from the number of pretty packages billed as "outstanding debuts" from "promising young writers." Obscene Bodies, which has supposedly "already observed controversy" because of its characters' thinly veiled similarities to real-life New Yorkers, is one such book.

          When protagonist (and probable authorial alter-ego, as with so many literary debuts) Stuart Finley, a 28-year-old wunderkind curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, takes up with SoHo art chick Claire Labrouste, we take off on a whirlwind tour of the downtown art world in all its hypocritical, decadent glory. As envisioned through Stuart's buttoned-down, Upper East Side lens (which is supposed to give the book its "satirical edge" and "biting wit"), we dine at the restaurant so of-the-moment it doesn't even have a phone number, and get the skinny on the inner workings of the public relations biz. We witness a blue-chip dealer's sale of one of his "obscene bodies" (a.k.a. works of art) attend an auction at Sotheby's, and hang at the fabulous SoHo loft of a world-famous artist-celebrity. All this, plus a little kink thrown in via heroin-dabbling and lite S/M.

          Sound tantalizingly trashy? Try just plain bad. Here, for example, is Benabib's idea of "insight," as Stuart sizes up Claire's snobby co-workers: "It was all in the attitude, the stance, the presumption of power and expertise. I thought, in expertise they're all sheep in front of me, though I was content to conceal this, employing my critical prowess with the restraint of a martial arts master, I told myself, only when provoked. (Of course this conceit was an unfair exaggeration and, if nothing else, a healthy way to deal with my own insecurity at such moments, a convenient and effective defense mechanism for which I could be forgiven in the face of so much oppressive judgment.)"

          Um... yeah. Actually, most of the prose reads more simply, and with all the passion of a dull sixth-grader's burped-up book report; the book should be titled Obscene Boredom. The NYC-born-and-bred Benabib may know the art world (he's got a painter mom and an art dealer dad), but that doesn't mean he can write--even if promo blurbage from Spalding Gray, of all people, crows just that ("some young can still write"). Who knows, maybe Spalding is friends with Kim's mom; or maybe his dad knows someone high up at HarperCollins). In fact, Obscene Bodies would seem to benefit from the very system it purports to critique, in which PR masterminds groom the frivolous, the fraudulent, and the out-and-out talentless to receive their unjust desserts. (Julie Caniglia)

Joyce Carol Oates

We Were the Mulvaneys

Dutton

          "WE WERE THE Mulvaneys, remember us?... From summer 1955 to spring 1980... there were Mulvaneys at High Point Farm... a well-known property in the Valley, in time to be designated a historical landmark, and 'Mulvaney' was a well-known name.... For a long time you envied us, then you pitied us. For a long time you admired us, then you thought Good!--that's what they deserve."

          Thus, with Cheeveresque grandeur, Joyce Carol Oates opens her 26th novel, the self-consciously tragic account of an American family's fall from grace. Narrated by Judd Mulvaney, a 30-year-old newspaper editor and the youngest of the four children, We Were the Mulvaneys is a classic tale of hubris and its consequences.

          The American family of myth and sitcoms--the father is a self-made millionaire, the eldest son a football star, the daughter a popular cheerleader--the Mulvaneys live in Edenic abundance at High Point Farm, a homestead that is itself emblematic of America: "Dad said of the house that it had no style, it was styles, a quick history of American architecture."

          Though the big, realistic novel (this one runs 454 pages) seems out of date, Oates tells a hell of a story. Despite its sometimes melodramatic plotting, the novel is not without narrative sophistication; throughout, Oates conducts a subtle investigation of the nature of memory and knowledge, of faith versus scientific inquiry. When, at times, the details of the story don't sync up--apple cobbler is served at dinner, but the father is said to eat cherry--one understands that Oates is reminding us of the unreliability of recollection and of history.

          The violent incident that topples the once-great family occurs in the '70s and is juxtaposed with an argument about the Vietnam war. It is hard not to read the novel as an allegory for the decline of the American dream, to read in it a history of a nation whose faith in divine providence and its own Manifest Destiny was irrevocably shaken by the war.

          At the book's conclusion, a dinner-time debate among various Mulvaneys pits Christian faith against the equally American faith in science. It is 1993 and Oates has brought us up to date, to a point at which--within the frayed American family that is this nation--the divergent positions have all been stated. It is only a matter of time, one senses, before things will come to blows. (E.J. Levy)

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