The Labyrinth of Words

Coffee House Press
Norah Labiner
Coffee House Press

F. Scott Fitzgerald's heart stopped while he was eating a chocolate bar. Albert Camus, who distrusted the mail, died in a car wreck while delivering a just-completed manuscript to his publisher. Edgar Allan Poe was found, drunk and raving mad, in a Baltimore gutter. Having risen early, Virginia Woolf stuffed her coat pockets with stones and threw herself into a river. This catalog of literary morbidity--all true stories, inasmuch as biographers and repetition would have them so--begins Norah Labiner's tour-de-force second novel, Miniatures (Coffee House Press). A touch ghoulish, you might think. But it turns out to be a fitting preface for a book that's haunted by the ghosts of its forebears: You can almost hear Mary Shelley and poor Anne Brontë rattling their chains in the spaces between Labiner's sentences.

Miniatures hangs on a famous literary suicide--though not a factual one (at least not strictly factual; such fine distinctions tend to get terribly fuzzy in Labiner's fiction). Early on, the novel's narrator, Fern Jacobi, lays out the facts of the case. Some 30 years ago Frances Lieb, celebrated author and wife of similarly celebrated author Owen Lieb, happened to have died in the bathtub of the couple's Irish estate. In the aftermath of her death, one unpublished manuscript, one sheaf of letters, and one baby were misplaced. "There have been any number of books about Frances Warren Lieb," Fern informs us. "This is not one of those books, not in the strict sense."

Fern herself is a young, hyper-literate, and grimly self-conscious Midwesterner (which description sounds not at all unlike Labiner). Working as a maid during a post-college drift around Europe, she happens upon Owen Lieb and his second wife Brigid, rutting in the semi-abandoned manor. Taken on by the famous literary couple as a kind of sentient house pet, Fern finds herself drawn into the mystery of the first Mrs. Lieb's passing.

The attentive reader will undoubtedly notice circumstantial similarities to real-life personages. (And Labiner's book, with its baroque prose style and puzzle-box plotting, is probably not for the inattentive reader anyway.) You might, for instance, note Frances Lieb's parentage--her father is an aloof German doctor--her obsession with the Holocaust, or that the title of her novel, The Bright Corner, echoes The Bell Jar. Labiner scatters such breadcrumbs throughout the labyrinth of her narrative--though, as it turns out, the subject of this mystery is less the death of the author than the death of The Author.

Labiner has a taste for clever, hopelessly complicated metafictional conceits. Her first novel, Our Sometime Sister, is narrated by a precocious girl named Pearl who has also written a novel called Our Sometime Sister modeled on Hamlet get the gist. Miniatures, too, seems caught in a literary feedback loop. The Lieb household, with its macabre secrets locked away in an upstairs room, resembles nothing so much as the Thornfield Hall of Jane Eyre (with a little of the hothouse psychodrama of Elsinore thrown in for taste). When the novel's characters sit around on a stormy night telling ghost stories, they're meant to conjure Mary Shelley and Co., cloistered in Switzerland and forced to invent their own monsters.

The novel's torturously tangled plot, meanwhile, recalls Dickens--there's even a mysterious figure named Esther, in apparent homage to Bleak House and its consanguineous sprawl. Describing the autumnal rot of the Irish landscape, Labiner modulates into the supersaturated, purple-tinted prose of these 19th-century romances: "The wind was growing colder as though for the select and sentimental purpose of ripening the apples," Labiner--or Fern, rather--writes at one point. "You see how it is, don't you? Some days cannot help themselves; they are good for nothing but ghost stories. Blackbirds hovered, circled, landed, and picked among the ruins of the garden, all weeds now." Labiner doesn't just summon the Brontës for atmospheric timbre, though. Those novels, with their mad Creole wives and creaking Gothic manors, act also as a palimpsest, or perhaps the picked-over skeleton upon which Labiner hangs her self-referential burlesque.

There is, generally speaking, something off-putting and faintly snobbish about this well-mined vein of postmodernism: You want characters? Something as quaintly bourgeois as a story? Go watch TV. And Labiner's syntactical parlor tricks do sometimes wear past their welcome. Yet to call Miniatures an ambitious patchwork would seem to willfully overlook the playfulness with which it practices its sleight of hand. And, despite myriad false starts and dead ends, the novel's freewheeling deconstruction of the Brontës ultimately amounts to something more than lit-crit wankery: Labiner exhumes these icons in order to interrogate the tricky, necessarily mendacious performance of writing. Or, as Fern herself explains it, "Every story hangs on the thread, hitches a ride on the hips of all the stories that have come before." Even more impressive, then, that Miniatures, in piggybacking greatness, takes us on a ride so distinctly its own.

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