By Jonathan Penner
Poseidon. 170 pp. $16.95
NATURAL ORDER, Jonathan Penner's fourth book of fiction, is a slim, dense, complicated piece of work. At its core is a story about a Connecticut beekeeper called Jerry Hook, a regular guy but a man in crisis, a man whose business, marriage and relationship with his teenage son are all threatening to collapse at the same time. The book's complexity arises not so much from the plot, which is relatively straightforward, but from the intricate layering of allusion, symbol and metaphor within which, and by means of which, the plot is developed.
This is no mere drama of a man losing his way in middle age. It is, rather, a story whose significance lies in its connections to much larger spheres of ideas -- to evolution, to organic process, to the cosmic potential of the human spirit, to the interaction of man and technology. All its metaphors, all its extended disquisitions on bee behavior and on reincarnation, its epigraph (two stanzas from Spenser expressing the wheel-like structure of the Elizabethan worldview) -- all contribute clusters of meanings which overlap, which echo one another, creating resonances so tantalizingly suggestive that the reader comes to feel that he is probing an arcane code which when cracked will yield the very secret of life itself. The question arises, whether a novel of 170 pages isn't too slight a construction to bear so much weight?
Natural Order is divided into three sections. The first, "The Changeful World," opens with a nice description of foulbrood, a disease that afflicts bee larvae. Then comes the parallel failure to flourish of Jerry Hook's offspring, a disturbed adolescent called Eli who is so infatuated with his biology teacher that he joins the reincarnation class she attends. Jerry Hook experiences the anguish of the loving father who can do little but look on as his alienated child slides deeper into confusion. The chapters alternate between Jerry's and Eli's points of view, and there are hints of Eli's incipient breakdown: "I'm starting to feel . . . the way a space probe or something would feel, heading away from earth." There are references throughout to time, nature and the cosmos, such as this, from a girl in the reincarnation class: "I had this vision once. Like our bodies? Plants grow out of us? And animals eat the plants? And we eat the animals?"
The middle section, "From Old to New," opens with a description of an odd phenomenon that occurs in the bee world known as "balling the queen." Eli by this stage is deeply involved in the reincarnation class, which is run by Cyril, a former leader of a biker gang called the Zombies, from which he has "evolved." Eli's fantasies now feature sex with his teacher, the death of his father and the sacrifice of his own life to save the president's, an idea that finds an echo in Jerry's observation of his bees' "brilliant industry . . . Because none of it was for themselves, all of it was for their race." ELI'S TEACHER, Virginia Victor, or VV, meanwhile develops at some length a theory of the "larva model" of humanity (95 percent of us are still grubs), and Cyril shows Eli how to let his spirit fly free of his body in astral projection. Jerry Hook is told that he requires a pacemaker implant, because the internal communications of his heart are "iffy." His wife Helen, whom he plans to leave, announces that she's pregnant and wants to keep the child. Patterns of meaning are growing increasingly complex. The dynamics within the Hook family, Jerry's desire to leave Helen and go back to his first wife, Jerry's heart condition, Eli's relationships with VV and Cyril -- all these instances of change and turmoil and regeneration in human affairs -- are being set within vast conceptual frameworks, but in the process the code is becoming hard to crack. One finds oneself trying to decipher each development in terms of its symbolic implications, and this is not happening unconsciously, for this is not a novel that secretes its larger meanings quietly.
The last section, "Mortal State," opens with a graphic description of mating bees. Jerry is suffering fresh complications with the women in his life, and Eli's mind is now obsessed with astronomy and cosmogony. "It was all one vast machine of intersecting cogs, reciprocating shafts, teeth engaging teeth, and events were just design displayed in time." He is using psychedelic drugs, not wise for a young man as disturbed as he is, and his fantasies have become distinctly psychotic. He finds Cyril and VV asleep together, a sight that mobilizes all his latent insanity. The climax of the novel involves a dreamlike ride with the Zombies, and the image of a creature crawling across a sandbar at the edge of the sea. The conflict between father and son achieves, in the last pages, a sort of grim resolution.
A novel that takes seriously, as this one does, the idea that events are "design displayed in time" runs the risk that its narrative will seem to be dictated by formal considerations rather than arising "naturally" out of character and situation. Penner has not tried to sidestep this risk, rather the reverse: The plot constantly defers to the book's didactic purpose, and this does distance the reader. But Natural Order in the end is a fable rather than a novel. It is an ingenious, subtle, enigmatic book, and though its plot buckles under the pressures it has to bear, which robs it of a certain pleasure, it succeeds, finally, in teaching an elaborate, difficult lesson by means of fiction. Patrick McGrath is the author of "Blood and Water and Other Tales," "The Grotesque" and the forthcoming "Spider."