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Eclipse Fever.

With a more defined narrative line than Alphabetical Africa or How German Is It, Walter Abish's latest novel continues his traditional tendency to limit place, time, and major characters. Much like another contemporary American fictionist, Don DeLillo, Abish finds more than enough strangeness in the unrolling of ordinary days to replace the density and complexity sought in modernistic novels.

The time is roughly 1994, a year of solar eclipse, and the place is Mexico, though both are opened up through personal histories, older popular music, and the presence of North American interests. It is perhaps useful to know that Abish does not visit his locations before writing, because his novels do not "describe" setting so much as evoke "being there," much as film, for all its photographic realism, often evokes no more than a kind of scene in which to locate people. Point of view cross-cuts among characters, most of whom are of the intellectual-social elite, plus one dropout child who is freelancing in border regions with a series of criminal hustlers. The "fever" that grips them all has less to do with a propitious alignment of planets than with ambition, desire, consequent conflicts, and a disquieting lassitude that occurs when the game seems hardly worth the trouble. After a point, the reader too loses a measure of interest in the characters - with the exception of the wandering Bonny, who seems a child refugee from a Joyce Carol Oates story.

A list of events certainly supports melodramatic dust-cover prose: drugs, smuggling pre-Columbian artifacts, rape, disrupted marriages, affairs, shifting alliances. To posit such a description, to read such a description on a dust cover, suggests realistic fiction, with characters enmeshed and involving. But characters pass in front of one another, eclipse one another, so regularly and so quickly that the movement, the plot, is more than the characters. Often the narrative movement is simply played against other texts, in the form of Brechtian section headings and bits of overheard or "read" discourse. Yet, unlike How German Is It, the plot and the language have too few openings outward, too little self-referentiality to initiate a postmodern ludic reading. The dispassionate narrative voice removes characters from an illusion of uniqueness in their suffering, so that Alejandro, the most persistent character, becomes a series of familiar guises: the Abandoned Husband, the Insecure Academic, the Victim Interrogated.

Eclipse Fever is most assuredly not another baffling, multireferential, intertextual game of fiction. It is strangely realistic, and, as such, raises issues of two societies (North American and Mexican), of minority Indian culture, of the morals of intelligent and cultured elites, of historical consciousness; it also creates characters who behave more or less consistently and suffer consequences accordingly. But the novel preserves the postmodernist tendency to foreground surface movement over depth: issues and characters in plot conflicts are barely defined before a point-of-view shift or a sectional break frames and juxtaposes them - without, however, much in the way of interfacing reference that invites rereading. Well crafted and carefully written, with leavening irony, Eclipse Fever strikes one as creating the sort of naturalism possible in the post-modern moment.

W. M. Hagen Oklahoma Baptist University
COPYRIGHT 1995 University of Oklahoma
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Author:Hagen, W.M.
Publication:World Literature Today
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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