THE STAR CAFE & Other Stories

By Mary Caponegro

Scribner's. 180 pp. $17.95

Whether by accident or design, most short-story collections display a consistency of tone, style and world view. Characters and incidents change from story to story, but the writer's voice unifies classic collections and most young writers strive to achieve a similarly recognizable style.

But there are others who prefer to play the ventriloquist, deploying a variety of voices and styles so that their collections more closely resemble an anthology by various hands. This is more daring commercially and aesthetically; commercially, because the writer refrains from creating a recognizable and marketable style, and aesthetically, because the writer must start from square one with each story, like a musician learning to play a new instrument for every composition. Last year's "Girl With Curious Hair" by David Foster Wallace was one such collection, and Mary Caponegro's first collection of short fiction is another.

Short "fiction" is more apt than short "stories" because Caponegro avoids the well-trod path of the well-made story for the yellow-brick road of Borgesian ficciones. For example, the first of her four fictions, "Tales From the Next Village," reads like a translation of an 18th-century collection of Chinese folk tales, parables of the dangers inherent in the quest for spiritual and/or erotic illumination. Some of these are cautionary tales exemplifying pronouncements from the "I Ching," and all have the porcelain beauty of a Ming vase. The title story, like the rest of the stories in "The Star Cafe," has a contemporary setting but a similar dreamy exoticism: A woman preparing for sleep goes downstairs to investigate a strange sound, enters the small cafe from which the sound originates, and enters into a series of erotic interludes with the cafe owner. The story moves effortlessly from realism into surrealism, myth, dream and sexuality.

"Materia Prima" also moves from realism to allegory -- here the myth of the phoenix filtered through Jungian interpretations of alchemical symbolism -- to chart a young woman's attempt to defend her memories and selfhood against her dismissive parents. This fiction is formally the most daring: It alternates between slightly inflated narrative and naive transcriptions of the girl's earliest memories, interrupted by quotations from ornithology textbooks on flight and bird songs. The concluding 13 pages of this long story are presented in play form as the mother witnesses the girl's phoenixlike annihilation and rebirth. The conclusion is reminiscent of the second part of Goethe's "Faust": pure symbol and myth, all realism left far behind as the girl discovers the powers of the imagination and the continuity of past, present and future.

The final and longest story, the novella-length "Sebastian," is another psychodrama where the quotidian opens a portal onto eternity. The voice Caponegro assumes here is that of the title character, an Englishman living in America and engaged to an engaging artist named Sarah. The story recalls Nicholson Baker's novels in that the most mundane incident can lead, by way of brilliant chains of association, to an encyclopedic range of subjects. Faced with a "back in ten" sign at a gas station, Sebastian progresses during the next few hours through a maze of incidents and memories, an increasingly complicated and bizarre series of narrative events and Aristotelian meditations on difference: between England and America, classic and modern art, formal and vernacular language, and (as always in this book) between men and women and the "intricate disturbing eros" that unites them. The mastery with which Caponegro imposes one fuguelike meditation atop another -- with images from one illuminating another, all grounded on a formal "Stations of the Cross" progression and enlivened with Sarah's wit -- is truly impressive.

As in the other stories, the enfolding complications and increasing irrealism can be difficult to follow; Caponegro takes a great number of risks and asks much of her readers. But this reader would have it no other way and can report that "The Star Cafe" brilliantly fulfills the writing task Sebastian contemplates: "In any event, it will, it would, be impressive. Something talked about, written about; something not everyone could read. Yet not impenetrable."

The reviewer is associate editor of the Review of Contemporary Fiction.