Parable, satire, romantic parody. Short stories of doubt and belief, self-consciousness, and love

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Herself in Love, and other stories, by Marianne Wiggins. New York: Viking. 184 pp. $16.95. Marianne Wiggins is wickedly talented. Her first collection of short stories is like a rose: beautiful, but thorned.

The book's title - ``Herself in Love'' - suggests feminist fiction. And the dust jacket - a painting of a fleshy nude - may likewise be misleading. But the erotic theme is only one among many.

Parables, satire, parodies of romance: Wiggins uses many fictional forms. The result is that some of these pieces don't work like stories.

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Still, many of them do what short stories do best: through the compact presentation of character, reveal the reader to himself. That may be something the title, ``Herself in Love,'' is trying to tell us.

The brevity of short fiction puts a premium on flashes of understanding, not on historical panorama, as in novels. Wiggins writes in both genres. She has published three novels; and four of the 13 brief stories in this collection appeared first in periodicals.

``Brief'' is putting it mildly. Wiggins can be very stingy with words. Sometimes she gives herself only a few pages. But by producing a believable and fascinating voice, she can establish a character, usually a woman, quickly.

Sometimes coy, sometimes sassy, sometimes just lonely, these voices speak out of the modern condition, as defined by the nasty-mouthed art historian named Fanny in ``Quicksand,'' a story that gets inside the head of a woman who believes what she reads in Nietzsche about God being dead.

The compactness of the form results in a sometimes startling reduction of big questions to very personal images.

Fanny has been trained to visualize ideas. She embodies the romantic imagination. ``As she stands there,'' thinks her husband, Tom, ``there's a moment just behind her spine which says she knows. It says she owns the information. She holds the news, the silhouetting line along her spine is tense with it.''

That's Tom doing to Fanny what Fanny the art historian does to pictures: interpretation. ``There's a moment just behind the knee, she can say about a Degas nude, where the silhouette is almost disappearing.''

While Fanny and Tom work as characters, the story is obviously about ideas. It opens this way: ``Information travels on a circuit, same as jurisprudence in the Old West, same as uninvited preachers of the Word who ride up in the night in black coats, tie their nags outside your window, watch and wait.'' The comparison has a knowing air; it's Wiggins doing some fancy writing. The mystery and foreboding of the comparison suggest the tone of ``Quicksand'' as a whole and place the little scene is a large context, historical and even cosmic.

When these stories fail - and there are flat spots where Wiggins seems content to merely shock - they seem to do so in the service of ideas themselves worth the candle. The carnal imagery and some of the brutal language will probably limit the audience for ``Herself in Love.''

At the same time, a couple of the stories may find their way into the great anthology of short stories for everyone.

One of the latter is ``Gandy Dancing.'' It's one of the longest pieces (24 pages), and it's about a man. In some respects, it's all been done before: the alienated businessman, named Redcar (there's a story in that name), leaves hearth and job on a whim and takes a cross-country train ride. There are memories of Walker Percy's heroes in Redcar's gradual waking up to himself, and in the marvelous conclusion.

The satirical and comic tone is complicated by pathos, as when the train personnel start to warm up to the strange little man. He looks out the window at the Rockies on the return trip: To him, they ``seemed to be the expression of the sheer exasperation of the earth's crust with its gravity.'' Such personification of nature sounds like a clich'e. Thankfully, the meaning of this story doesn't depend on that old trick, but on moments of shared experience with other people.

The climax of the story - when the abyss of anonymity brims over with the blessings of identity in the dead of night in the middle of Iowa - is beautifully and realistically and simply there.

For all her intellectuality, Wiggins works to convey her messages with all the immediacy of art. Still, being pricked by a rose thorn is also an immediate experience. These stories require careful handling! Read patiently, however. Wiggins's fictions tell us much about the ways of doubt and belief, of self-consciousness and the need to love.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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