THE DEAD GIRL

By Melanie Thernstrom

Pocket Books. 430 pp. $19.95

CONTEMPORARY society, fast-paced and future-shocked as it is, has little time for death. The niceties of grief, the rituals of mourning, require a certain suspension of daily life; they demand a concentrated energy all their own. In the centuries before ours, death was accorded top billing, and mourners were willing to give themselves over -- even excessively -- to the consecration of memory. One thinks of the Victorians, in particular, clutching at their grief with ardor: of Queen Victoria dressed in ostentatious black ever after the death of her beloved Albert; of Tennyson's protracted desolation upon the death of Arthur Henry Hallam, his best friend at Cambridge, culminating in the writing (17 years later!) of his most important poem, "In Memoriam"; of the many wrung-out, tear-jerking deaths in Dickens. To find comparatively well-observed deaths in our time, one has to look away from private losses to the public orchestration of sorrow -- to the grand, televised ceremonies which mark the passing of people in high places. But even these occasions have become fewer, as though we have come to find something old-fashioned about according death its implacable due.

These thoughts come to me by way of having read The Dead Girl, a book whose title is as flat and succinct -- like the single tolling of a bell -- as the writing is not. In its 430 pages Melanie Thernstrom, the 26-year-old author, attempts to come to terms with, and make sense of, the bewilderingly sudden death of her best friend, one Roberta "Bibi" Lee. Lee, a 21-year-old Chinese-American Berkeley student, disappeared while running with her boyfriend one Sunday morning in November 1984. She became the object of a blaze of headlines and one of the largest missing-person searches in California history. Five weeks after the search began her body was found in the park where she and her boyfriend ran; the same night, Bradley Page, the boyfriend who "seems rather nice," confessed to her murder. Although Page later recanted, claiming that he was disoriented in his first dealings with the police and persuaded into admitting something he didn't do, he was brought to trial and convicted.

The Dead Girl is a sustained lamentation, a passionate keening over the loss of a friend and the passing of youth. It is also a rumination on consciousness, a highly sophisticated meditation on the nature of life perceived first one way -- i.e., pre-tragedy -- and then, radically, another: "I wonder," Thernstrom muses early on, "what would have happened had even one of her plans to go away -- to lead a different life at least for a little while -- worked."

She is a wily writer, this Melanie Thernstrom: She wants us not only to know what it feels like to find yourself touched by violence, but to feel it with the exact same complexity, the same tangle of emotions, that she feels. To this end she supplies us with an array of tangible details -- Roberta's "3-fingered gloves and tight black jeans," her "lovely loopy handwriting" -- as well as the import (real or imagined) of those details, "little driftings toward symbolism." It does not strike me as incidental that The Dead Girl began life as a senior thesis, for it is very much the work of someone who has been, among other things, a good student. The writer is the Harvard-educated daughter of academics, and she is nothing if not versed in the application of theory. Her book is informed throughout by the current literary lessons of the academy, by Thernstrom's immersion in deconstructionist readings of texts: "Who was the girl in the story?" she asks, with an almost piteous literal-mindedness. "What became of her; what was the story about? Were these tropes, themes, that kind of thing? There must have been themes. Lives always have themes -- like stories, just like stories. . . ."

If the author's insistently student-like approach to her friend's death gives the book its strange plangency, its quality of wise naivete, this same aspect also works somewhat to The Dead Girl's disadvantage. There will undoubtedly be quite a few readers who will be put off by Thernstrom's tendentiousness, who will find the writing bloated and the writer self-indulgent. The structure of the book -- with its slightly pretentious divisions ("Part 2: The First Interpretation: The Household Deities," "Chapter 5: The Elusiveness of Meaning: Marcellus and Other Half Symbols"), and weighty epigraphs from Sartre, Richard R. Niebuhr, John Berryman, Elizabeth Bishop, et al. -- is itself designed to either intrigue or annoy.

The Dead Girl might have benefited from more pruning, from a little less avidly self-examining reverie. Still, anyone who's going to take aversion to this brave, immensely gifted book would have done so at a drastically shorter length as well. Melanie Thernstrom is an original, take or leave her. She has written a dark and magical book, part memoir, part whodunit. It reads like the most convincing of fairy-tales, one where childish fears give way to the grimmest of adult realities. In its vaulting ambition, its fierce, unironic wish to create meaning from chaos, The Dead Girl is a welcome departure from much of contemporary writing.

Daphne Merkin is the author of a novel, "Enchantment," and is currently at work on a collection of essays and a second novel, "The Discovery of Sex."