Clark Blaise is hardly a new writer; he is the author of two well-received collections of short stories and (in collaboration with his novelist wife Bharati Mukherjee) a book of nonfiction: "Days and Nights in Calcutta." He is, moreover, a writer of considerable skill; his characters emerge vividly from the page and some of them are likely to evoke in the sensitive reader little shocks of self-recognition. His landscapes vary from the swamps, alligators and mosquitoes of central Florida to the slums and downwardly-mobile suburbs of a large northern industrial city, and they are set down on paper with the special truth available only to one who has been there, one who is bringing the reader along on a return visit.
"Lunar Attractions" is, nonetheless, the author's first published novel, and it has many of the stigmata, a few of the problems associated with such a venture.
The subject is that of coming of age in America, the hero a boy who doesn't quite fit the patterns established by society. We see a lot of first novels on this subject, of course, and we would see more except that so many remain unpublished. At 5, David Greenwood is already "a shy, sensitive, arrogant little boy," proud of the fact that he has already learned to write before starting school. He begins to suspect that the world was designed for other people, that he is destined to be an outcast of sorts, on his first day of school when a teacher tells him that "Left-handedness is not permitted.... It is spoiled and spiteful behavior."
Thus begins his alienation from a society sometimes dull, sometimes incomprehensible, his separation from the alien creatures whom an accident of time and geography have made his playmates and peers. The rest of the book deals largely with his efforts to come to terms with society -- at best only a partial success.
David lives more in the mind than in the somewhat awkward body that makes him usually the last one chosen in team games. He is ridden with fantasies and anxieties, dreams of power balancing the stark fear that he simply doesn't belong. His early life is a series of small disasters (but large in a child's awareness) which result chiefly from his lack of social ease, his failure to interpret properly the rules that are evidently established but nowhere written down. He tries to learn how people should act from movies and later from television, but with predictable results: The real world remains largely inscrutable, a place that harbors potentially terrible secrets.
In its basic orientation, this is all fairly standard material for a "sensitive first novel," the story of one whose proud, awful destiny it will be to become a writer. But there is a refreshing difference from the tons of partly similar manuscripts that fill the slush piles of publishing houses. David Greenwood is a real, three-dimensional human being from his early childhood, he lives in a context of family and environment that is absorbing and totally convincing, and the things that happen to him are believable.
What is not convincing, at least in some details, is the novel's structure. The end is inconclusive, all questions unanswered and new questions still being raised, almost as though the author had simply run out of paper. This may be a reflection of life (questions are, in fact, unresolved when a boy reaches 18 and is about to enter college), but it leaves a curious dissatisfaction when it is encountered in a work of art.
Earlier, there are two episodes that seem out of place in the novel's texture, though both are cleverly and rather thoroughly stitched in. Both are intrusions of crime into a world that is otherwise not exactly cozy but small-scaled and domestic: the murder of a high-school student and an attempt to extort $10,000 from David's father. These came from another world entirely, as though the author momentarily had lost confidence in the interest of his material and decided to add something more highly spiced, and perhaps in recognition of their irrelevance, he leaves these episodes incomplete. It is almost as though a few characters from a Raymond Chandler novel had wandered into Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a young man" and then begun to wonder what they were doing there.
These flaws are small and not fatal -- similar problems can be found, for example, in "Huckleberry Finn" -- but they may be signs that Clark Blaise had some problems making the transition from the short story to the novel. But for most of its length, "Lunar Attractions" indicates that he has such problems well in hand.