Death Sentences

Intellectually alert, sensuous, and humane, Carole Maso is fascinated with the frisky boundaries between language and "reality".

Yet this fine writer is ultimately hobbled by the fiction conventions she'd hoped to pervert. Bernadette's background is the classic stuff of victim memoir: Mom the sad drudge, Dad the ne'er-do-well womanizer, brother Fergus, raped by the parish priest. Flying around Bernadette's tormented head, recurring and recurring like algebraic symbols, these figures rarely kindle with life; they're mostly denied the old-fashioned novelistic detail that would redeem them from seeming hackneyed. Bernadette's perfect Harvard preppies are wooden dolls, too.

Maso does not seem unaware of any of this. Her angry, lonely anti-heroine is obsessed with naming, classifying, and controlling the significance of her own writing; she's author and critic and theorist all in one. (When she says that Fergus was molested--by the archly named Father Peter--she actually calls the revelation a cliché.)

Maso has gambled that Bernadette's mania for turning life into symbol--algebraic and perhaps even novelistic--would fascinate us on its own. We're trapped in Bernadette's incredibly nimble, crowded, tormented head, and it's fascinating but claustrophobic as hell. Maso is no Dostoyevsky, and her portrait of a woman compounded of innocence, evil, brilliance, obsession, and purifying rage just misses the grandeur that would turn us into Bernadette's willing victims.

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