Extraordinary Tales for Ordinary Dilemmas

By Lauren Slater

Norton. 211 pp. $23.95

Once upon a time there was a psychologist who blurred the line between fact and fiction in her writings. Sometimes she did it just a little, telling interviewers, for example, that she had "mythologized" patients she described in her first book, a collection of nonfiction essays, Welcome to My Country. And sometimes she did it a lot, inviting readers of her Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir to contemplate the possibility that the "memoir" they held in their hands was more fiction than fact.

Lauren Slater's blurring ways enchanted some and annoyed others. Then, last year, she published Opening Skinner's Box, in which she applied her creative nonfiction skills to an analysis of some of the 20th century's greatest psychological experiments. And the real sniping began. Slater found herself at the center of a controversy involving several prominent scientists who decried what they called "errors and 'outright fabrications' " in the book.

Perhaps it's only coincidence that Slater's new book, Blue Beyond Blue, is clearly fiction, but it's hard not to see this collection of fairy tales for adults as a writer's reaction to being trounced for telling tales. These aren't just any fairy tales, though. They're "Extraordinary Tales for Ordinary Dilemmas," a kind of "very special episode" of fairy tales in which much hurting and healing occurs.

In her introduction, Slater describes the process of "narrative psychotherapy," or having patients write stories as part of their treatment. "In this book I have compiled my own fairy tales," she writes. "Writing them has forced me to bear something out of blankness, and this is good."

Alas, the stories are not. Like descriptions of someone else's dreams, they mostly fail to transmit whatever it was that made them significant to Slater in the first place, and the language throughout is surprisingly flat and ungainly (as ungainly as the black-and-white illustrations that dot the book). Can this be the same writer whose memoirs, while uneven, never failed to crackle with electricity? The power that animates her earlier work is only an occasional flicker here; the self-important, overwrought quality, which is mitigated in her memoirs by the grit and heft of a specific life, remains.

Slater would seem a natural for fairy tales, given the dense, lyrical quality of her earlier writing. So what happened? For one thing, she has told several of these tales before, and better. In Prozac Diary, she described the man she was seeing and the way he traced self-inflicted scars on her arms, "following their undulations, reading them with his eyes shut, like a blind man absorbing Braille, touch giving way to tales -- once upon a time. . . . " The effect was powerful. But when in her fairy-tale version of the story Slater writes of a "seal woman" whose blind lover sometimes "stood back and stared straight at her, and she knew she was seen," the reader, invested in neither the seal woman nor the blind man, remains unmoved.

For another thing, Slater doesn't seem to have edited her therapy sessions. The promising title story, about a woman who finds an egg and raises the girl who hatches from it, is marred by lackluster lines such as "On the actual wedding day, there were many feelings and fears experienced by many people." The most effective story in the book, a one-pager called "The Golden Egg," stands as a reminder that, especially with fairy tales, less is more and distillation all. "The night is warm, the galaxy visible through my bedroom window," Slater begins. "A goose flies in. She alights on my floor, her tail feathers bobbing, and I can just make out the curve of a golden egg beneath her backside. The goose hunches over her egg all night. When the morning comes, she leaves, and the lone egg wobbles on my floorboards. I wonder what's inside of it. I figure money, or a man." That's half the story right there, and the whole packs a solid little punch.

Like the fertile egg, many loaded symbols that appeared in Slater's earlier memoirs -- pills, wings, scars -- recur in Blue Beyond Blue, but they've lost their potency here. Without the specificity of fiction or the emotional resonance of memoir, these symbols, like the stories that contain them, exist in some arid place beyond our senses -- a land that may hold great psychological significance for Slater, but not much for the reader who follows her there. *

Deborah Sussman Susser is a writer and editor in Tempe, Ariz.