In Elizabeth Tallent's novel "Museum Pieces," a father looks at his 13-year-old daughter and notices a gap between her two front teeth.
"He will get her braces," Peter Barnes thinks. "It will mean just a little scrimping, a little foresight. There is too much sloppiness around, too many new-age parents who don't even get their kids vaccinated against polio, believing, or pretending to believe, that brown rice is sufficient protection."
Peter has devoted his life to repairing the results of sloppiness. An archeologist, he spends his days in the basement of a Santa Fe museum where he slowly fits together the shattered fragments of prehistoric southwestern pots and bowls. He also lives in the basement, sleeping on a ragged mattress in a dusty corner, unable to begin the search for a real apartment now that he and his wife Clarissa have separated.
Tallent peoples her novel with such characters. Clarissa is a painter, Peter's girlfriend a former dancer, his daughter Tara a teen-ager, with a teen-ager's acute anguish over the implications of every word and gesture. Like the author, who writes a prose of crystalline precision, they are drawn to clarity in their work, but are surrounded by the accumulated mess of lived lives: fractured marriages, the wound left when the wrong name is whispered during love, cigarettes, troubled friends and former husbands.
And in the midst of this, they must attempt to be, or become, adults, to form attachments a little more reliable than the belief in brown rice. Tara writes letters riddled with exclamation points and words like "gross" to a friend's older brother attending a military academy, asking, "Do you remember me?" and then tearing the letter into tiny scraps. Peter visits the deserted canyon where he dreams of building a house, studying the fine lengths of string between thin posts that mark the outline of the imagined adobe walls. Clarissa joins her therapist and another "client" in a hot tub for a talk about men, rids herself of her lover and paints delicate still lifes.
This is Tallent's first novel. She has been until now a short-story writer, and "Museum Pieces" is reminiscent of the stories in her 1983 collection, "In Constant Flight." The novel shares a certain stillness with the stories, an underlying unease that reveals itself through narrow fissures in the polished surface. Victims of the losses endemic to life, wary of themselves and each other, her characters are the kind of people who turn in bed and watch the person next to them sleep.
"It seems to him that the three of them could no more have been awkward with each other than three dragonflies," Peter thinks, remembering his family before his wife asked him to leave it. "Now there are hitches, attenuations, gaps, flaws, fallings away."
Tallent charts her characters' growth with images of intermingled violence and beauty that make her more than just another geographer of the tortured landscape of the family, circa 1985. Her style may be better suited to shorter forms, where her searing images in the midst of bleached restraint propel the reader through the story. Here, spread out over more than 200 pages, the spareness sometimes verges on seeming slight, but Tallent always catches herself and the reader just in time with piercing moments that justify her method.
When Clarissa's eye is injured in a car accident, Peter sees the metal fragment imbedded in her iris, "held in a penumbra of rust. The rust has radiated outward from the fragment the way, in a newly halved peach, the pit seems to have stained the surrounding flesh."
There is the same alien beauty in a strand of hair seen under a microscope. The hair came from Clarissa's mother, found on a sweater after she died. Clarissa, still shattered by the death, "studied it for a long time. At that magnification, there was no longer anything human about the hair; it had nothing to do with her mother. It was a dazzling line of fracture in the dark viewing screen."
When Peter can finally tell his new lover that "if a bird flew in the window carrying only one strand of your hair, I'd know it was you," he is finally beginning to revive, to shed his mourning for his broken marriage. But such bravado, Tallent knows, is only possible when love is still new and optimistic, before the carelessness sets in.