VAPOR By Amanda Filipacchi Carroll & Graf 313 pp., 22.95
Amanda Filipacchi's latest novel, "Vapor," is hard to pin down. This satire of America's celebrity culture blows by with strangely mingled scents of sadness and comedy.
In a deadpan narrative voice that belies the novel's humor, Filipacchi tells the surreal story of a talentless but ambitious acting student named Anna Graham.
An anagram may be "the actor of words," but Anna Graham displays no such versatility. "For months I had been trying to be less myself," she laments. Her blunt acting teacher has decreed that her personality is so strong that she can't act like anyone else - not even when trying to copy people at her Xerox shop.
Raised by professional fencers in a family where meaningful communication takes place only while dueling, Anna plunges into the challenge of cutting her too-strong personality down to size.
She decides to dress as the Good Fairy Queen and spend an evening wandering the city to humiliate herself into selflessness. But seeing a man in transparent clothes being mugged, she transforms into Super Cinderella and saves him. From this point on, things get strange. Okay, stranger.
The world's most famous super-model, Chriskate Turschicraw, becomes obsessed with Anna, determined to discover the source of her allure. "Leave me alone!" Anna screams at the gorgeous model in a wonderful reversal of the pursued celebrity. The tabloid news shows go crazy trying to identify Chriskate's frumpy friend.
Meanwhile, the fluid man Anna rescued turns out to be an experimental meteorologist named Damon, who's discovered how to make small solid clouds, "bonsai clouds."
Jarred from his hopeless misanthropy by Anna's bravery, Damon kidnaps her, imprisons her in his cloudy house, and spends the next few months forcing his reluctant student to become the world's best actress. (He knows how to do this because water is the greatest actor of all.)
When she finally escapes Damon's cage and his painful water-gun treatment, her career takes off just as he promised. She begins dating a good looking etiquette expert, who's also an accomplished cellist, Weight Watchers counselor, and exotic dancer.
Did I mention this is a very strange novel?
Filipacchi has stirred the stories of Cinderella and Pygmalion with the scatological humor of Chaucer. The resulting mixture is a through-the-looking-glass vision of America's obsession with personalities.
"Vapor" never fails to splash up some new wave of wit or horror. This is the slippery tragedy of a culture in which everyone wants to be someone or something else.
*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society