THE TEMPLE OF MY FAMILIAR by Alice Walker, San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 432 pp., $19.95
ALICE WALKER is the author of stories, poems, ``womanist'' prose, and novels, most famously, ``The Color Purple.'' Her new book is classified as a novel. It is, indeed, written in prose. It has characters and a kind of plot. And it is, in the deepest sense, fictional: a handmade artifact containing invented material.
But the relation it bears to the genre of the novel is something like that of Shelley's ``Prometheus Unbound'' to a play, or Blake's ``Four Zoas'' to a poem.
Shelley and Blake spring to mind, not because Walker seems particularly influenced by them (consciously or unconsciously), nor because she is anywhere near their league as a writer. But she, too, is attempting a form of prophetic writing: in her case, a mixture of preaching, parables, myths, and personal his-and-her stories loosely joined in a form that resembles a novel, but which Walker herself calls ``a romance of the last 500,000 years.''
Read as a novel, it appears to deal with the interconnected lives of some half-dozen characters. There's Arveyda, a rock star, who marries a pretty Latina but finds himself drawn to her shy, gifted mother. There's Fanny, brought up in the loving household of her grandmother Celie, and Shug (both from ``The Color Purple''), but struggling with violent feelings against white people.
Fanny's ex-husband Suwelo is a model ``womanist,'' who feels bad about the way he used to treat women and hopes to make things up with Fanny. He learns a lot about life from Hal, an elderly artist, and Lissie, a remarkable old woman. Suwelo has had a brief affair with Carlotta (Arveyda's wife), and later, Arveyda turns - briefly but passionately - to Fanny.
But in a book where a character like Lissie is able to recall a prehistoric life as a Pygmy girl who loved to visit the neighboring tribe of gentle gorillas, and before that her life as the world's first white man forced to leave the Eden of Africa because of the lack of melanin to protect him from the sun, ordinary novelistic complications like love affairs, betrayals, and reconciliations become mere incidentals.
The core of the book is not what happens, but the stories the characters tell one another. Walker's term ``romance'' alerts us to the book's fluent, dreamlike quality, but understates its curious mixture of realism, mythologizing, timelessness, trendiness, and plain old-fashioned preaching. (There's even a chapter of beatitudes called ``The Gospel According to Shug,'' which expresses the values affirmed throughout the book.) In some sense, as its title suggests, the book is a kind of ``temple'': a verbal edifice of beliefs.
Walker is one of a number of feminists attempting to revise old myths and create new ones. Such revision generally proceeds by claiming that the new (in this case feminist) version is in fact the original, predating the ``corrupted'' later version.
Baldly put: Women had things right; men took over and, to justify themselves, invented stories presenting women (and, Walker adds, animals and blackness) as evil: Eve and the serpent; witches and their animal ``familiars.'' In ``The Temple of My Familiar,'' the repressed women and animals represent the lost harmony of earth and its children.
It is curious, however, that someone as committed to ecology and the preservation of species should allow her books to be published by the company that closed down Marineland almost overnight in Los Angeles.
AS a prophet, Walker stands in some danger of preaching only to the converted.
The uninitiated and unsympathetic may be put off by a style that sometimes falls from grace into grandiloquence and by a content that syncretizes everything from ecology, negritude, and feminism to New Age mysticism. It is, nonetheless, a viable work of fiction that engages the imagination.
Time alone will tell whether Walker's ``womanist'' myths will survive the occasion and accidental blemishes of their birth, but in the meantime, we have an intriguing novel/romance/temple that tells us something about the ways women are trying to reimagine the world.