A family quartet out of tune with itself

Jane Hamilton has written a novel so disturbing that no one will enjoy reading it. But "Disobedience" is so provocative that you must.

Certain books capture the interaction between new technology and old human weakness at just the right moment. In "The Octopus," Frank Norris used the sprawling railroads of 1901 to explore the ancient terror of losing control of one's destiny. In "The Great Gatsby," F. Scott Fitzgerald plowed a flame-yellow car through a reckless fantasy of self-invention. In "2001," Arthur Clarke programmed the world's most modern computer to remind us of the old danger of hubris.

Someday, literary historians will look back at "Disobedience" and whisper, "You've got mail." Could the ancient prophet of Galilee have anticipated the secret backup file when he warned, "There is nothing covered that shall not be revealed"?

With stunning economy, the narrator of this haunting novel, Henry Shaw, describes his senior year in high school - the year he fell in love, his sister shaved her head, and his mother committed adultery.

It's an old story, as Henry reminds us, but the latest technology has transformed it. He begins with these words: "Reading someone else's e-mail is a quiet, clean enterprise. There is no pitter-pattering around the room, no opening and closing the desk drawers, no percussive creasing as you draw the paper from the envelope and unfold it.... No smudge of ink, no greasy thumb print left behind. In and out of the files, no trace."

Children have been spying on their parents since the kids found Noah drunk in his tent. But the illusion of e-mail privacy alters the dangers of illicit intimacy and the possibilities for surveillance.

When Henry accidentally opens his mother's AOL account, he discovers a passionate correspondence between straight-laced Mrs. Shaw and a musician in Wisconsin. In that moment, he's entangled in a web of betrayal and sexual fantasy that he never escapes.

At a time when he should be exploring his own fresh feelings of romance, he's stained by the intimate details of his mother's affair. He eavesdrops on their adulterous correspondence for months, carefully printing out their letters and storing them in his room for further study.

Throughout the narrative, sometimes in the same paragraph, he refers to his mother with a variety of names - mom, Liza, Mrs. Shaw, Beth, Elizabeth, the fornicatress, Liza38 - reflecting the grotesquely confused nature of his relationship with her. In the most excruciating passages of this Freudian nightmare, we can hear echoes from her e-mail woven into his own courtship and fantasies.

Seeing his mother from the inside-out alters his relationship with his sister and father, too. Once he's started down the path of spying, he can't help treating them all as subjects of his cynical critique.

Mr. Shaw teaches history with a special emphasis on debunking romantic notions of America's heritage. Henry, who's already seen enough romantic notions debunked, is baffled by his father's "insistent joy." How, he wonders, can his father be enthusiastic about the past if he knows the ugly details of slavery, war, and betrayal. To Henry, it's the same blindness that allows him to stay married to a woman he should discern is cheating on him.

Gradually, though, he comes to appreciate his father's mysterious tolerance, largely because he sees how crucial that attitude is for his younger sister. Elvira is a confirmed tom-boy, passionately dedicated to Civil War reenactments. While Mrs. Shaw rages against Elvira's budding lesbianism, Mr. Shaw encourages her interest in history and takes pride in her courage. Ten years later, Henry feels the bitter irony of how well his strange sister turned out, while he, the perfect son, remains so disturbed.

When Henry mentions that he focused on the work of Henry James in college, the influence is clear; he's inscribed himself into his own Jamesian tale, complete with a heavy dose of Freudian allusions. Hamilton's greatest accomplishment here is this narrative voice - a psychologically astute creation that's compelling and chilling. How masterfully she creates a character who jokes he was a middle-aged teenager, but now sounds like an adolescent adult. He has the voice of a 17-year-old boy forced to grow up too fast but the perspective of a grown man arrested in boyhood by exposure to the e-primal scene.

It's surprising, but there are also comic moments in this troubling tale of dysfunction. For instance, when Elvira insists on wearing a Confederate uniform (with sword) to a cousin's wedding, we can hear all the rhythms of family tension rising into absurdity.

"Disobedience" is an exquisite vase teetering on the table's edge. One wrong move by Mrs. Shaw or Henry could shatter their family beyond repair. One wrong line by Hamilton could drop the story into moralism - another chauvinist classic about the damage wrought by an immoral woman. But Mrs. Shaw is no wanton monster, and Henry is no innocent victim. Managing that precarious, psychological wobble is a remarkable feat.

Twice touched by Oprah's golden wand ("The Book of Ruth" and "A Map of the World"), Hamilton has produced some of the most discussed novels of the past decade. Clearly, this is another troubling masterpiece in what's fast become a remarkable body of work.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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