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Difficult Arrangements

Reviewed by Justin Cronin
Sunday, January 16, 2005; Page BW06


By Michel Faber

Harcourt. 232 pp. $23

Pity the poor novella. Misunderstood middle child of the literary world, it, like Rodney Dangerfield, gets no respect. Readers don't quite know what to make of novellas; magazines can't make room for them; book publishers don't know how to sell them.

This is unfortunate, because not every story that wants to be told should be eaten whole (as a short story) or devoured slowly (as a novel). Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener, stretched to 300 pages? One prefers not to imagine it. Thomas Mann's Death in Venice shoveled into 20? Its long swoon would be reduced to a canalside quickie. So Michel Faber, who made a splash two years ago with his sprawling, Dickensian novel The Crimson Petal and the White, is to be credited simply on principle for hazarding not just one but three novellas in his new collection, The Courage Consort. Sadly, the virtuosic flair he demonstrated in The Crimson Petal for plumbing old territory and coming up with something uniquely his own is strikingly absent here.

All three pieces in The Courage Consort have a half-cooked, glancing feel to them, like longer projects that failed to pan out. The title piece is the strongest of the lot and makes the best use of its length. The story of a group of singers who have retreated to a Belgian villa to prepare a musical composition of preposterous complexity, it's enlivened by its character studies of a group of artists who, in fact, don't really know each other very well. And it begins arrestingly: "On the day the good news arrived, Catherine spent her first few waking hours toying with the idea of jumping out the window of her apartment." Catherine is the wife of the group's founder and manager; her depression, a black Plathian pit, is the tale's anxiety-provoking centerpiece, exacerbated by the villa's rural setting. "Nature meant the absence of people," she observes. "It was a system set up to run without human beings . . . . Which was very relaxing now and then. But dangerous in the long run: darkness would fall, and there would be no door to close, no roof over one's head, no blankets to pull up." At such moments, one feels Faber's narrative powers gathering like a storm front, preparing to sweep through the story. But the parts fail to come together. Faber uses a number of the characters perfunctorily, as if they couldn't hold his attention, and before long he gives in to what can only be described as narrative time-keeping, noting how many days they (and we) have left on this suffocating, misbegotten retreat. Some stock gothic elements -- Catherine, for instance, keeps hearing a child crying in the woods at night, while nobody else does -- feel like wooden substitutions for an actual plot and ultimately lead nowhere. The story's most sparkling moments come, in fact, as comic asides: the visits of the piece's hilariously self-adoring composer and then the multimedia artist who intends for the group to sing in front of a giant screen depicting, up close, a woman's nether regions during childbirth.

Siân, the main character of "The Hundred and Ninety-Nine Steps," is a gently adjusted doppelgänger for Catherine: another death-obsessed young woman (she thinks she's dying of cancer, though there's been no diagnosis) who has also isolated herself in a rural setting, an archeological dig at England's Whitby Abbey. Each night she dreams of a gorgeous man who, in the midst of seducing her, slits her throat; soon enough she meets and falls for Mack, a handsome medical student visiting the town to finish a research paper while settling his father's estate.

Their relationship is neither an easy one nor, frankly, easy to watch. There's much tiresome circling, and the dialogue, meant to be snappy, dissolves into hectoring thematic speeches and page-devouring squabbling. When the two embark on solving a two-century-old mystery involving a letter in a bottle (Siân is, conveniently, an expert in restoring old paper), things begin to move; but the feeling in retrospect is hollow, as if, once again, Faber simply lost interest in his characters and had to come up with something for them to do. The dream sequences, risky to begin with, dissolve into hokiness. When, two-thirds of the way through, Faber describes Siân as "drunk as a skunk," whatever air was left in the balloon is gone for good. The less said the better about the volume's final piece, "The Fahrenheit Twins," a polar-bound recasting of the Hansel and Gretel story so choked with calculated nuttiness that it reads like the winning entry in a Gabriel García Márquez parody contest -- the sort of story in which characters don't just vomit, they puke "all the colors of the rainbow." "Don't be surprised if this ends badly," warns Boris Fahrenheit, father of the eponymous duo, as their mother lies dying. So noted.

Perhaps the most telling moment of the collection comes in the first novella, when the singers' host tries to allay their fears that their reputation will be tarnished by their hopelessly awful commission. "Bad music is not a problem in our circles," he tells them. "Bad pop music lasts forever. . . . Bad serious music . . . just sinks into the ground and it's gone." For Faber, who has more than proved his chops as a novelist, this thought should be a comfort. •

Justin Cronin is the author, most recently, of the novel "The Summer Guest."

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