There's No Such Thing as a 'Typical' First Novel

Works with originality on space colonization, Emily Dickinson's invented life, New York art scene

The Sparrow

By Mary Doria Russell

Villiard

416 pp., $23

I Never Came to You

in White

By Judith Farr

Houghton Mifflin

223 pp., $19.95

Obscene Bodies

By Kim Benabib

HaperCollins

245 pp., $22

Anyone out to demonstrate there's no such animal as a "typical first novel" can confidently point to the evidence provided by three new novels. Their only common qualities are the originality of their very different conceptions and the skillfulness with which those conceptions have been brought to life.

An unusual kind of speculative fiction, challenging the heart even more than the mind, is Mary Doria Russell's harrowing yet strangely beautiful The Sparrow. Set in the 21st century, this novel tells the story of a Jesuit priest, Emilio Sandoz, who returns to earth in 2059 as the sole surviving member of an expedition launched some 40 years earlier in search of intelligent life in another solar system.

Although only a few years older than he was on setting out on this voyage (thanks to the great disparity between the passage of time on earth and the slowing down of time that he experienced while traveling through space at nearly the speed of light), Emilio Sandoz returns to earth a shattered man. He is broken in body and spirit, unable or unwilling to talk about his experiences, and suspected of having committed a heinous crime during his sojourn on the planet Rakhat.

A small group of Jesuit officials is charged with the task of trying to debrief, and if possible, rehabilitate him: to find out how this seemingly exemplary man could have come to such a dire pass.

Forty years earlier, Sandoz and his seven fellow crew members set off in high spirits on their Jesuit-sponsored mission. Their goal is to make contact with the civilization responsible for the strains of complex, exquisite-sounding music that Sandoz's astronomer friend Jimmy Quinn picked up one night while scanning the universe from radio signals.

The expedition also includes a brilliant, self-possessed Sephardic Jewish woman; a genial, mildly agnostic middle-aged couple, the husband an astronomer the wife a physician; a gung-ho Jesuit priest and ex-Marine pilot; an agronomist; and a music scholar.

Unfolding her story backwards and forwards in time, with chapters about Sandoz's painfully difficult debriefing alternating with chapters that tell the tale starting at the beginning, Russell deftly balances the joyful excitement, high spirits, good fellowship, and faith in which the expedition was begun with the terrible shame, guilt, and despair that have overwhelmed Father Sandoz in the interim.

Herself a former anthropologist, born and raised a Roman Catholic and recently converted to Judaism, Russell brings to this novel a keen grasp of the methods used by scientists investigating an unknown culture, as well as a deep appreciation for the varieties of religious experience.

She has created a cast of interesting and likable characters in Sandoz and his crew mates and in the team of Jesuits trying to rehabilitate him: These are intelligent, caring people equally capable of light banter and deep philosophical discussions.

Without divulging what the voyagers encounter on reaching the planet Rakhat, one can say that Russell has created a highly inventive, profoundly uncanny alien world, by turns charming, bizarre, soothing, exciting, beautiful, and downright appalling. Her ingenuity and invention are matched by the moral and psychological resonances of the strange tale she tells. Even readers who do not usually appreciate science fiction may well find themselves enthralled.

Unlike science fiction (which at least declares itself to be fiction, whether or not future events retrospectively confirm it to have been "true"), there is a growing new genre made up of biographical novels and fictionalized biographies, which seem like part of the same broadly revivalist trend that is also giving us sequels to "Gone With the Wind" and "Pride and Prejudice."

But much as I relish books imbued with a sense of the literary and historical past, I can't help feeling uneasy about the growing tendency to mingle fact, supposition, and downright fabrication that has resulted in efforts like Oliver Stone's "Nixon."

Insofar as Judith Farr's first novel, I Never Came to You in White, is an unabashed blend of fact and fiction about the life of Emily Dickinson, it is cause for dismay.

But insofar as this novel provides a provocative and intriguing account of what can happen when an individual of extraordinary genius blazes into the ken of more ordinary beings, I found it irresistible reading.

The author of a biographically critical study, "The Passion of Emily Dickinson," Farr has turned to the medium of fiction to give herself more freedom to speculate.

In her "Afterward," she makes some attempt to inform readers which elements of her novel are based on fact and which are merely informed fabrications.

This is fair enough, except that her novel employs the (pseudo) documentary device of letters to tell its story, thus lending a spurious air of authenticity to the proceedings.

These by-and-large imaginary letters are supposed to reveal the inner thoughts and perspectives of real persons, starting with Emily Dickinson herself and including everyone from her loyal sister Lavinia, her censorious cousin Emily Norcross, her friend (and later sister-in-law) Sue Gilbert, and her amiable mentor Thomas Wentworth Higginson, to Mary Lyon, the founder of Mount Holyoke Ladies' Seminary, where Emily found herself unable to participate in the evangelical revival that was then going on.

Despite my initial misgivings, this is a fascinating book, full of shrewd intuitions and rewarding insights about Dickinson and the New England world that in some ways shaped her but could not contain her timeless spirit.

Farr examines many aspects of the poet's young womanhood. She has invented a marvelous correspondence that takes place after Emily's death in 1886, between Emily's embittered English teacher, who still considers her former pupil a blasphemous witch, and the kindly minister Higginson, who vainly tries to assure her that Emily was a good and noble human being.

Another cluster of letters amusingly reveals Emily's views of the two women in her brother's life: his wife, Sue Gilbert, and his mistress, Mabel Loomis Todd.

Farr paints with rather a broad stroke, but with energy and sharp definition that brings this 19th-century milieu very engagingly to life.

For a sparkling, deadly accurate, but incontrovertibly fictional portrait of the contemporary art scene in New York City, connoisseurs of social comedy need look no farther than Obscene Bodies, by Kim Benabib.

Notwithstanding its title, this polished and provocative first novel has nothing to do with pornography: The "bodies" are works of art and "obscene" are some of the self-promotional tactics and slick sales techniques used to advance an artist's career in the modern marketplace.

The novel's young protagonist, Stuart Finley, an assistant curator at New York's famed Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a budding young expert on Old Masters. He reveres his learned mentor, a refugee scholar called Kohlman, who possesses the ability to tell at a glance what is authentic and what is not.

Finley has a correspondingly low opinion of the contemporary art scene, where brash painters like Miles Levy seem to spend more time being seen in trendy nightspots than honing their craft.

So, when Finley becomes involved with an ultra-chic young woman, Claire, who is one of Miles Levy's entourage, the stage is set for a conflict of values and world-views.

But not everything and everyone is what it first appears to be, as Finley learns from his experiences flitting back and forth between the two worlds of art.

Keenly observant and elegantly written, "Obscene Bodies" is a sophisticated debut. It is perhaps a little dazzled by its own stylishness and a little chilly in its zeal to be "cool," but a scintillating read nevertheless.

*Merle Rubin regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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