CLEA & ZEUS DIVORCE By Emily Prager Vintage Contemporaries. 259 pp. $6.95
Emily Prager's frenetic first novel is just the antidote for those in search of something to read beyond adolescent Angst or minimal realism. In "Clea & Zeus Divorce," there are no depressingly generic narrators or fashionable young literary brat-packers in evidence.
Instead, Prager has provided a highly wrought apocalyptic fantasy, cloaked in surreal trappings, that sheds more light on the workings of day-to-day relationships than all the intimate survival manuals extant.
Prager has quite a pedigree. She studied anthropology, acted in a daytime soap opera and wrote for National Lampoon, which brought her into the orbit of "Saturday Night Live" folk like Tom Davis and Michael O'Donoghue. She later contributed to "Titters," the women's humor anthology put together by Deanne Stillman and Ann Beatty. Of late, Prager has been a columnist for The Village Voice and writes the "View From the Top" column for Penthouse.
Prager's writing owes a lot to other notable magazine writers of the '60s such as Hunter Thompson, Joan Didion and Tom Wolfe. She also has an affinity for self-consciously outrageous and clever writing and tends to veer too close to cutesiness. Her strings show at times and she often strains to transform reality. The novel is an entertaining mix of metafiction, Preston Sturges comedy and Cassandra myth, with added primers on Rhodesian history, nuclear war and leprosy, plus a nod to Firbank's colonial humor and Durrell's "Alexandria Quartet."
Clea and Zeus are not gods, though their adoring fans worship them as such. Both have magical qualities. Clea is, among other things, a juggler. Zeus can dance and maintains a large collection of toy boats with which he re-creates famous naval battles. After 10 years together, the celebrity couple is getting divorced, primarily because of events that take place in a series of parallel flashbacks throughout the book. Both have strayed. The fact that their divorce will be played out live on stage as a TV special is a wonderful conceit. And Prager at her core is a TV brat. She contrasts the idealized reenacted life at every turn with the objectivity of the flashbacks. The irony being that "the camera can lie." It's a little like watching the Loud family self-destruct.
The supporting characters are mostly comic book creations -- a Chinese poet, a Xhosa witch doctor, camouflaged bodyguards known as the Seven Golden Lieutenants, Thomas De Quincey (who supplies Zeus' opium habit), Jerry the two-bit psychic, "the puppet woman" (an apparent roasting -- literally -- of Tama Janowitz) -- plus Clea's mother, the armadillo taxidermist who ends up living her life out in a Hawaiian leper colony, and Zeus' mother, who dons blackface and shoots him during the Rhodesian uprisings. This crew is in turn supported by a fantastic collection of minor grunts and harried TV executives, any of whom could fit comfortably into "Zoomar," Ernie Kovacs' zany 1957 novel about network life.
Prager is best when it comes to details. The actual nuts and bolts of relationships, backstage life, the couple's first outing to the Pyramids are all handled deftly with utmost suspension. She's also capable of a poetic love scene -- "such unutterable pleasure it moved them first to goose bumps then to tears" -- while simultaneously mocking such sentimentality: "You mean love can't make the insane sane or health the halt and the lame? Or make man want to live and strive for a better tomorrow?"
Clea's fear that an atomic conflagration will preempt their broadcast leads her to create a bunker in Upstate New York, turn every waiting room into a war room, and provide radiation suits for each member of the cast and crew including the cat. She thrives on a utopian vision of a new life with Zeus after the blast that wipes out past transgressions. " 'It's impossible Clea,' Zeus said softly, gently. 'It can't be done. You can't wipe out the past. It's like a Siamese twin. You cut it off and you both die.' "
By the time Clea's dire vision is actualized in the last chapter the reader will be gasping for breath, glad that the roller-coaster ride is over. The end result is surprising, a bit forced at times, but always offbeat and amusing.
The reviewer, author of "I'm in Love With the Morton Salt Girl," edits Gargoyle magazine from his home in Bethesda.