Exploring What's Novel in Five First Novels


By Diane Schoemperlen Viking, 358 pp., $23.95


By Richard Horan

Steerforth Press

176 pp., $16


By John Gilstrap

Harper Collins

293 pp., $23


By Jose Raul Bernardo Simon and Schuster

299 pp., $23

WHEN someone recommends we read a novel, we generally picture a lengthy fictional narrative with a sizeable cast of characters engaged in more or less "realistic" activities. Although "Tristram Shandy" and "Finnegan's Wake" are novels, the word is more likely to summon up memories of "Pride and Prejudice," "Middlemarch," "Main Street," or even the latest John Grisham.

But the term "novel," applied to a long work of fictional prose, originally meant nothing more than "new." The very genre that has grown so familiar as to become a kind of norm - a way of watching people develop and lives unfold - was, at first, a "novelty."

Novelists still strive for novelty; sometimes, alas, they strain for it. Too often there is more novelty than originality in their efforts to avoid the formulaic - or one formula is merely substituted for another. Open to experimentation, fantasy, philosophical ruminations, stream-of-consciousness, backwards narration, and who knows what next, the novel has proved an amazingly flexible and expansive form - perhaps not a form at all, but the loose baggy monster derided by Henry James.

Canadian writer Diane Schoemperlen's first novel, In the Language of Love (Viking, 358 pp., $23.95), takes the ingredients of the generic, quasi-autobiographical coming-of-age narrative and serves them up in a somewhat "novel" arrangement. She takes the 100 "stimulus" words from the standard word associations routinely used by psychologists as the titles and mini-themes of her novel's 100 brief chapters. This device is less disruptive than it sounds. Although Schoemperlen has abandoned strict chronology for a series of chattily associated reminiscences, few readers are likely to experience any difficulty following the story of her heroine, Joanna, who grows up in the 1950s and 1960s in a dull provincial town where she squabbles with her parents, grooves on the Rolling Stones, and meets her first boyfriend, a dump-truck driver who plays bass guitar in a local rock band.

Seeking a broader horizon, Joanna moves to Toronto (that "evil city" in her parents' eyes), where she pursues her dream of being an artist (collages, not surprisingly, are her preferred medium) and her quest for love. Boyfriend number 2 is a married man; her third boyfriend, Gordon, turns out to be the man she weds. The marriage seems reasonably happy, and they have a son, Samuel.

Joanna's world - past and present - is deftly packaged into the novel's brief chapters. "Table," for example, introduces Joanna's mother slapping down dinner plates "in the way that all angry mothers do," while her husband, Joanna's father, "folding up his newspaper," pretends not to notice, and adolescent Joanna thinks she'll "die, just die, if she had to eat one more meal off these plates at this table with these people."

A petulant little girl with a long list of food-hates, a carping young woman who nags her boyfriends to change and then dumps them anyway, Joanna comes across as something of a whiner. Yet she is also capable of discovering love and happiness in unexpected places: in her daily activities of shopping, eating, housekeeping, listening to music, or conversing with her little boy.

Joanna's peeves and pleasures are presented with warmth and wit, although the warmth is occasionally a little too cozy with self-satisfaction, and some of the witticisms miss their mark. Schoemperlen, like her heroine, seems a little too pleased by her own cuteness.

By now, we've met too many Joannas in the pages of first novels, and a reshuffling of the standard material into cleverly designed chapters is not enough to make it really new.

Alison Habens, who lives in England and teaches creative writing, seems even more determined to have fun in her first novel, Dreamhouse (Picador USA, 336 pp., $23). It's a kind of updated version of "Alice in Wonderland," strong on puns and word-play, but unable to sustain the inventiveness and verve of its opening chapters throughout an increasingly preachy storyline.

Habens's heroine is called Celia Small (Celia being an anagram of Alice). She's a pretty but prissy blond maiden about to realize her long-cherished dream of being a bride, complete with white gown, trousseau, flowers, and - at this particular juncture on the road to wedded bliss - an engagement party for the families of bride-and-groom-to-be.

Celia's goal, serving up a perfectly planned roast- beef dinner, is not made any easier by the fact that she's currently sharing a place with three housemates with whom she can't get along: Dodge, a reclusive chap with an odd smell; fierce-looking Phoebe, whose room is painted black; and slovenly, smart-aleck Cath, who "hates washing, but ... doesn't mind a bit of irony."

Poor Celia's engagement dinner turns into a hostess's worst nightmare despite her careful planning. Beating a temporary retreat to the bathroom, Celia loses - or finds - her way into a wonderland of unexpected adventures.

She first stumbles into a rave party at Cath's, where guests are dressed as Alice in Wonderland characters and Celia, in her girlish blue frock and white apron, is mistaken for Alice. Before the evening is over, Celia visits Dodge's room, changes her outfit, and is mistaken for the guest of honor at a welcome-home bash Phoebe is throwing for her sister Hebe, a feminist filmmaker.

Allusions to Lewis Carroll's Alice books pile up as the plot thickens. Actually, the plot seems to grow thinner, ever less substantial, ever more attenuated by too many druggy and drunken mishaps, too many echoes of Lewis Carroll.

As silly Celia expands and raises her consciousness, transforming herself from a priggish doll into a free-spirited, independent woman, it all becomes a bit of a bore: a complacently cheeky rehash (or, in honor of the special ingredients in the jam tarts served at Cath's rave party, re-hashish) of the breakaway antics of the 1960s and 1970s.

The hero of Richard Horan's first novel, Life in the Rainbow (Steerforth Press, 176 pp., $16), is an aspiring writer who's taken Henry David Thoreau's advice by setting off on a walk - across America. From Boston, he makes it as far as Chicago, where a wisdom-dispensing Italian barber tells him that if he really wants to experience life and meet "int'resting peoples," he should try working at the local "asane asylum," where the barber gives monthly haircuts to the inmates.

The narrator follows the barber's advice and finds himself in the Rainbow Home, a publicly funded facility in the process of privatization. This means, in addition to the usual challenge of looking after people who are not always in touch with reality, the staff must also cope with a new administration whose aim is to replace indigent patients with a paying clientele.

Horan does not romanticize the "int'resting peoples" or their problems, but he does portray both staff and patients with a mixture of wry humor and down-to-earth realism.

This novel also conveys a controlled sense of outrage at the plight of people in danger of slipping through the ever-flimsier social safety net, bearing out the humane view expressed by the Italian barber: "Those 'a poor peoples half a sad live.... Ev'rt'ing upaside down for them. But that don' mean they no wort' nothin', that don' mean they no human bein's."

Another first novel with a clear social message is John Gilstrap's Nathan's Run (Harper Collins, 293 pp., $23), a slickly constructed tale of suspense about a 12-year-old boy wrongly accused of murder in flight from the juvenile-justice system.

Pursued by police - and a sinister contract killer - the frightened yet resourceful young orphan finds a surprising ally in a radio talk-show hostess, whose initial response to the story of this juvenile fugitive was to see him as a symbol of a national epidemic of juvenile crime.

This first novel, already sold to the movies, was rejected by more than two-dozen literary agents before being snapped up by an agent - and an editor - who saw its commercial potential.

It is competently written, clear-cut to the point of oversimplification in its character portraits, and in no way novel in the sense of "new." It is, ironically, the kind of work that springs to many people's minds on hearing the word "novel," and not a bad read if that's what you're in the mood for.

A first-time novelist who has mastered the techniques of writing colorful, eminently marketable fiction is Jose Raul Bernardo, a political refugee from Castro's Cuba who has lived in the United States since 1960. The Secret of the Bulls (Simon and Schuster, 299 pp., $23) is set in a pre-revolutionary Cuba.

Indeed, it unfolds over the years 1911 to 1938, a period just prior to the author's birth. It is the story of a Cuban family caught up in the violent code of machismo and honor, and of the crisis that occurs when one of the sons decides - against this unwritten code - not to kill his adulterous wife and her lover.

Leading up to this dramatic event is the story of the wronged man's parents, handsome Maximiliano, a butcher of German descent, and the gracious, lovely Dolores, the daughter of a landowner who defies her family to marry the butcher.

In this culture where men are very intent on being seen to act like "men," the quiet, feminine courage of a woman like Dolores turns out to be a far more potent force than might be guessed. Bernardo's lush, sentimental style of storytelling portrays a world that is at once "voluptuous and prudish" like the romantic and graceful Cuban dance that first brings Dolores and Maximiliano into each other's arms.

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