Books for Burning Midnight Oil

TRAFFIC AND LAUGHTER. By Ted Mooney, Alfred A. Knopf, 402 pp., $19.95 WOMEN.By Philippe Sollers, Translated by Barbara Bray, Columbia University Press, 559 pp., $24.95

SPIDER. By Patrick McGrath, Poseidon Press, 221 pp., $18.95.

THE VISION OF ELENA SILVES. By Nicholas Shakespeare, Alfred A. Knopf, 250 pp., $19.95

AS this century of experiment in the arts prepares to retire, the weary critic grabs a little bedtime reading to help smooth the transition between waking and sleeping. The critic has every reason to believe that the stack of new books on his bedside table will fulfill the role of Mr. Sandman without a hitch.

Yet he's up all night. The novel he picks up will likely incorporate some of the techniques of the modern novel - it may have replaced plot with consciousness, it may shift point of view without apology, or it may display an untoward interest in perversity. But it may simultaneously envelop the reader in a fascinating world of sounds and smells and sights, it may expand his moral horizons and exercise his faculty of judgment, and it may, in the end, return him to his own routine with a renewed appreciation for the miracle of life on Earth.

Even the experimental novels I've read recently have tried to be more than just experimental - that is, they have taken their contract with the reader seriously. ``Women'' by Philippe Sollers is all about such responsibilities. Call it Don Juan meets the women's movement! The Don Juan is an American novelist named Will. Whether at home in Paris or abroad in New York, Milan, or Rome, Will witnesses the breakup of the old alliances, sexual and political.

``Women'' charts the hazardous waters plowed by the chic-left international set. Over the objection of his wife and other female friends, who want him to tell stories, set scenes, and take trouble over the plot, the novel Will is working on (the novel we are reading) remains loyal to ``the new art of the word caught as it flies,'' which Will still enjoys in James Joyce's ``Ulysses.''

Is Will a throwback or a gutsy guy who refuses to go along with the latest fads, among them radical feminism and the vogue of stories? On the surface, ``Women'' has the careening vivacity of a comic book for adults. But Will is a closet Christian thinker; he faces the end of the millenium quoting St. Paul, not always convincingly.

Known for the insistent narcissism of his experimental novels, Sollers appears through out this book as just ``S''; his friendship with Will adds yet another spice to this rich Gallic sauce. Still, reading ``Women,'' I witness the wave of doubt break again and again on the head of the radical European left. Given Europe's genius for self-doubt - and self-correction - the spectacle is bracing, though one can see why faint souls would prefer a good story.

A less practiced experimenter is Ted Mooney. A senior editor at Art in America magazine, Mooney reflects the malaise of the art world today. His new novel, ``Traffic and Laughter,'' tries bravely to find a solid foothold in the quicksand of the media-saturated present. Harshly but perhaps not unfairly put, his novel is an unsuccessful attempt to blend the worlds of Danielle Steele and John le Carr'e.

Mooney's images have an astonishing lucidity, whether it's the jagged, bright edges of a rock video or the brooding luminosity of the prime-time soap ``thirty-something.'' Faithful to the values of his characters - they are either media people (radio, TV, movies) or, in the subplot, well-meaning, sophisticated diplomats - Mooney creates a world where the best intentions are greeted with derision. He even includes a deus ex machina, a ghost who helps determine the outcome of the plot.

In the end, he blows everything up. After reading the book twice, I'm bothered by the remote possibility that, given the conclusion, Mooney meant ``Traffic and Laughter'' as satire. At its best, which it may be in Soller's ``Women,'' satire's lash has to come round and sting the satirist; Mooney seems at once too remote and too much in love with his sexy characters.

Far more convincing is a truly outstanding short novel called ``Spider'' by Patrick McGrath. Accomplished in the sinister and macabre, McGrath transcends his already solid reputation with a powerfully realized character named Spider, who simply won't let you go once you meet him in these densely evocative pages.

McGrath patiently unfolds the unspeakable details of Spider's desperate youth in London's East End before World War II. Poverty, cruelty, dampness, darkness, the ultimate outrage of murder: Spider is a punk-rock update of one of Dickens's sad children. As in Dickens, there's beauty here, too, the beauty of otherness - the way Spider shuffles when he walks, his layers of clothing (including cardboard), his love of gardening and writing, his uncompromising drive toward ultimate self-knowledge.

McGrath is a master stylist. Here's a scene in the dank garden shed on Christmas. Spider had gone there to escape the blows of his father when he is visited by the ghost of his mother, whom he believes was murdered by his father. ``Those moments are woven deeply into the fabric of my memory - the candlelight, the webs shining in the rafters in the cold, though I was not cold, wrapped as I was in the warmth and peace of her presence and the low, soft murmur of her voice, and above all the plenitude I knew then....'' Reading ``Spider'' is the privilege of the seasoned imagination.

EQUALLY successful is Nicholas Shakespeare's first novel, ``The Vision of Elena Silves,'' a story of 20th century Latin America that recalls Graham Greene. The ``bad priest'' plays a minor role, however.

The novel opens and closes with three old men on a bench in a remote town. Representing the points of view of history, journalism, and opera, they constitute the chorus and comment indirectly on the action.

Indeed, there's much Peruvian history neatly tucked away in the brilliant folds of this artistic novel. In keeping with Shakespeare's confident experimental use of tradition, the chorus makes possible a most satisfying end that forces the reader to assume the beholder's share of responsibility for the form and meaning of the novel.

Does love in fact (as well as in fiction) conquer all? Peru-at-the-crossroads is embodied in a handsome, green-eyed ``chino'' who follows the Shining Path of violent revolution and a fair-haired, blue-eyed ``gringa'' who follows the path of Christ. They are star-crossed lovers. Their tragedy is that of modern Peru (among other things, the novel charts the passage from rubber boom to oil boom to cocaine boom).

Composed of 28 compact, multifaceted chapters, the novel has almost as many flashbacks from the 1980s to the 1960s. It spans the revolutionary age of third-world Marxism and has ``experimental'' or surrealist passages - such as a tennis ball orginally thrown about by a radical young poet and later invested with a life of its own.

In addition to being a feat of compact literary architecture, ``The Vision of Elena Silves'' is gorgeously written, and wonderful to read aloud.

The novel is not dead. It is alive with possibility, as the sleepless critic knows only too well.

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