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A Rosellen Brown Reader.

"I make large narrative gestures," says Rosellen Brown in an that closes the recently issued Rosellen Brown Reader. "They vault me into lives in order to do what I really want: to examine characters and write as beautifully as I can." Those gestures have been not only large but deep, her characters examined with a tender but scientifically scrupulous eye. In her first novel, The Autobiography of My Mother, grown alternated between the points of view of an alienated mother-daughter pair, the mother a Holocaust survivor, seemingly cold, relentless and remote; the daughter rebelliously askew, as open and angry as her mother is guarded. The emotional debate between them is argued chapter by chapter, but on the very last page of the book a granddaughter dies, retrospectively throwing into question all that has come before. In Tender Merries, a man is at least partially responsible for a boating accident that causes his wife's paralysis. In Civil Wars, the lives of an activist married couple who may have stayed in Mississippi too long are changed forever by a car accident that leaves them guardians of a supremely bigoted, fundamentalist nephew and niece. "The cataclysmic is reflected on but rarely seen," says Brown in that same interview, "and it is assimilated, finally almost without motion, in tiny increments."

Brown's particular skill is her ability to lead us through each of those tiny, knifelike increments while slowly burdening us with the realization that no one of us is ever wholly divorced from any other. Actions are never separate. Blame circulates, looking for a place to land, and can find none. Although her writing often concerns family tragedy, it is neither confessional nor parochial but exploratory. Brown's families are metaphors for the Laocoon knot of relatedness, the institution of the family itself a great dramatic setup. What if this thing you say you hate were your own child, your mother, your husband? Can you ever be sure where you leave off and they begin?

Her view of family is also laceratingly ironic - far from being a fortress against chaos or a correct constellation of preferences and urges, it's the place where the worst crimes are committed and everything thing eventually comes home to roost. It's the ultimate No Exit situation, fraught with terror, mortal pain and ambivalence, a hotbed of loves too small or too consuming; and, most poignantly, a structure with relatively little power against interior and exterior forces far larger than itself. Brown's families are leaky rowboats on turbulent seas; no matter how hard the crew pulls, they're always sinking. Again and again, Brown shows us the moment when they realize just how big the approaching wave really is. Her sorrowful use of domestic relations exploded into generational relevance when Brown situated it in a family that mirrored the tangled factions of an age. The magnificence of Civil Wars, published in 1984, was the way it lobbed a bomb, disguised as two bereft children, into the already uneasy liberal living room, a bomb on which the sentence was scribbled: They are us.

This pull toward Otherness, its complications and consequences, has been at the center of Brown's work from her early poetry on through her discovery of a more or less permanent home in prose. Streetgames: A Neighborhood, a collection of short stories first published in 1974 and now reissued by Milkweed, has a multiple subject, a single racially and economically mixed block in Brooklyn. One after another, with diction that owes something to Grace Paley, Brown attempts different perspectives, almost always from inside their most intimate, most vulnerable moments: a welfare mother mourning the death of her lover; a single, white French teacher wheeling her newly adopted African-American baby through an African-American neighborhood; a middle-aged social worker undergoing a dialogue of self and soul as answers to a fantasy questionnaire.

Throughout this early collection, as well as in the career-spanning set of essays, poetry and short stories in the Reader, one feels the force of an imagination that is essentially moral - not moralizing but utterly engaged with the process of imagining what the world might look like from a perspective other than one's own, or what one's own perspective might be in the face of disaster.

When Brown began writing novels, she heightened the irony and raised the stakes by foreshortening her field of vision to the small, intensely charged space between blood relatives. She turned from the Otherness of the world at large to the Otherness within one's own family or oneself that can only be revealed by a great shearing-away of expectations. But there's a risk built in to this approach, which mirrors a problem endemic to family itself - the danger of falling endlessly inward, of believing that the microcosmic is enough and of forfeiting any interest in humanity as a whole. Family is one good metaphor for the human condition but it isn't, after all, the only one. And there are places where the social order and the personal one are profoundly at odds, where to choose one is to sacrifice the other.
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Author:D'Erasmo, Stacey
Publication:The Nation
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 28, 1992
Previous Article:Home Fires: An Intimate Portrait of One Middle-Class Family in Postwar America.
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