Mind games: An adulterer begins an affair in the town library; an archivist catalogues his own secrets; a bookstore clerk discovers that her world is more Raymond Chandler than Jane Austen. In some recent fiction, the life of the mind is anything but tranquil.
In the Labyrinths of the Imagination
If you're a fan of the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges's ficciones, you'll slip right into the surreal tales in Steven Millhauser's The Knife Thrower and Other Stories (Vintage, $12), though they have a distinctly American texture. Millhauser, who won a Pulitzer not long ago for his novel Martin Dressler, sets his stories in places and times that are so much part of the national myth they take on an archetypal otherworldliness: New England towns, dotted with sugar maples, Coney Island in the teens and '20s, even a department store. It's a 20th-century land of faerie, where a boy might spend a summer learning how to pilot the cool toy of the moment -- a magic carpet -- before casting away such childish things ("Flying Carpets"), and where a midnight stroll on a warm moonlight night can literally have him walking on air ("Clair de Lune").
"The Way Out" seems, at the beginning, one of Millhauser's less fabulist ventures (but appearances can be deceiving). The story begins in broad realist mode: "Harter had expected the affair to end badly, but he hadn't expected it to end as badly as it did: he on the edge of the bed, grimly fastening the buttons of his shirt, she tearful and asprawl in her lavender nightie, the one that made him long for slimmer, younger, more desirable women . . . " The scene is interrupted by the entrance, almost comic-operatic, of the done-wrong husband, a little man who's losing his hair: "The exposed temples made him look oddly frail, as if the blow of a fist would crush his skull like a baby's . . . " It seems a prosaic end to an affair that began in the city library on a rainy night and never really raised Harter's pulse anyway. But the quotidian's never what it seems in a Millhauser story. When two mysterious men "in formal overcoats" show up at his door one morning on a mission from his aggrieved rival, Harter learns that "the way out" is not so easily found -- affairs end messily, after all -- and suddenly the casual adulterer finds he's living a scene out of the 19th century, pistols at 10 paces.
These stories are addictive, rich and strange -- one thinks of the blue twilight that falls after sunset and before absolute night. Millhauser excels at probing a communal emotional life few of us acknowledge and that his narrators often express using the pronoun "we." It's startling, this technique, in a time when so much fiction is driven by the first-person singular. In "The Dream of the Consortium," a city watches anxiously as its beloved, decaying emporium is purchased by developers and transformed into -- what? "The purchase of the department store by the consortium filled us with uneasiness and secret hope," the story begins. "Reports began to circulate. . . . To all such talk we listened with a certain reserve, for we no longer knew whether we desired the rebirth of our department store or longed only for its continuance in a perpetual brown twilight of decline." Nostalgia meets commerce in a store that fulfills every American dream -- only to dissolve into the ultimate nightmare of consumption, in which anything and everything, from stalactites to the Baths of Caracalla, can be reproduced for sale, and "we" long only for escape. But not from these stories, which are wonderful in every sense of the word.
The Waste Land
Steven Millhauser is a cabalist of our collective secret life, exposing the mysteries within. Martha Cooley, in her debut novel The Archivist (Back Bay, $13), discovers that there's enough mystery even in a solitary, bookish heart to sustain a story. Her protagonist, Mattthias Lane, lives outwardly the most quiet of existences: He tends a university's rare book archives, "the notes and letters of dead writers and other prominenti, and boxes of miscellany donated by eccentric graduates." His special care: a cache of letters from T.S. Eliot to an American woman, Emily Hale. This passionate correspondence has been bequeathed by Hale to the university with the understanding that no one will be permitted to read it until the year 2020.
Matt, aging, widowed, untroubled by scholarly ambition or vanity, seems the perfect guardian for the Eliot-Hale letters. But when a young poet, Roberta Spire, comes charging into his preserve, intent on gaining access to the letters, Matt's unsettled. He refuses her request but strikes up a friendship with her; they quote Eliot to each other over coffee, debate line readings, the famous poet's marriage and his spiritual crises, which find counterparts in both Roberta's and Matt's lives. Like Eliot, Matt was married to a brilliantly unstable woman; Roberta has had her own emotional wrenches. Like the poet they admire, both have run headlong into a spiritual wall and have to find some way over or around it. Will Matt succumb to Roberta and open up the archive? Can he open his own sealed-up heart? What's in those letters Eliot wrote to Hale, anyway? The Archivist is as much an emotional puzzle as a literary one.
Farewell, My Lovely
Though they each work with books, Matt Lane the archivist wouldn't know what to make of Jill, the protagonist of Jen Banbury's camp mystery, Like a Hole in the Head (Warner, $12). Jill holds down a job as a clerk at the Bitter Muse Bookstore in L.A. It has its advantages: "I liked the store better than my apartment. It was quiet. I could sit and read for hours at a time. The whole day, if there was nothing else to do. I recommended titles to people who came in. Sometimes they recommended stuff to me."
Jill's due for some excitement, and it walks into the store in the form of a dwarf, who has a signed first-edition Jack London under his arm. He wants 15 bucks for it. Jill, no fool, gives him $25, just to keep him happy, then turns around and makes a killing on the resale.
Only problem is, the dwarf turns up again, and this time he's got a giant in tow who says the dwarf took the book and he wants it back. Pronto. To demonstrate that he means business, the giant briefly sets the dwarf on fire: "So the thing that must be understood is that you will return this book so that I may forward it to its rightful owner. And that any attempt to do otherwise veez a veez police involvement or flight from duty will be met by a situation similar to that which you have recently witnessed here. . . . In other words, no matter how safe you think you are, you won't be safe. You will be wide open. I find everyone, you understand? Your friends, your family, your freaking refrigerator repairman. All wide open. Ya got it? S'aright? S'aright."
From Jack London to Raymond Chandler: We're in pulp fiction territory, and Banbury, a playwright, gives us the full guided tour: kidnapping, torture, lowlifes, good-looking cops and ugly ones. Hey, nobody said the used-book business was a piece of cake. The script gives Jill plenty of tough-guy lines as she unravels the mystery of the signed first edition; she's a female slacker version of Philip Marlowe.
Walk on the Wild Side
There's nothing remotely Chandleresque about W.G. Sebald's The Rings of Saturn (New Directions, $14), translated from the German by Michael Hulse. No tough talk, no brass knuckles. But like Jen Banbury's heroine, the protagonist of this semi-autobiographical fiction is on a literary quest of sorts, though his tastes run more to Joseph Conrad than to Jack London.
Ostensibly the account of a walking tour along England's eastern coast, The Rings of Saturn is really a series of meditations on literature and on the past, especially the imperial past, occasioned by whatever the traveler encounters as he rambles. In Southwold, he sees a BBC documentary about Roger Casement, executed in 1916 for treason (he worked for Ireland's freedom). Casement had made a great impression on the future novelist Joseph Conrad when they met in the Congo, of all places: "Conrad considered Casement the only man of integrity among the Europeans whom he encountered there. . . . I've seen him start off into an unspeakable wilderness (thus the exact words of a quotation from Conrad, which has remained in my head) swinging a crookhandled stick, with two bulldogs: Paddy (white) and Biddy (brindle) at his heels and a Loanda boy carrying a bundle. A few months afterwards it so happened that I saw him come out again, leaner, a little browner, with his stick, dogs, and Loanda boy, and quietly serene as though he had been for a stroll in the park." Sebald sets off on Conrad's track, imagining his youth in Poland and in exile, his early dreams of the sea, his acquisition of English.
Nothing follows a straightforward path in this daydream of a book, least of all the author (or rather his narrator/alter ego), whose mind roams where it will. A hospital stay in Norwich triggers a search for the 17th-century doctor and writer Thomas Browne's skull, reportedly kept in a museum attached to the Norwich hospital. Sebald is prompted to reflect on Rembrandt's "The Anatomy Lesson": Browne was in Holland studying the human body when the public dissection depicted in the painting was taking place; he may have been among the spectators who watched the dissection. That leads Sebald into the metaphysical thicket of "Urn Burial," Browne's famous treatise on archaeology and mortality (inspired by the discovery of buried funeral urns in Walsingham). The metaphysician, Sebald writes, "saw our world as no more than a shadow image of another one far beyond" -- an image that wouldn't be out of place in Steven Millhauser's fantastic tales.
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is email@example.com.