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In the Form of a Person.

This brilliant collection of stories introduces a writer who pursues the shocking visitations of madness in genteel society. (The stories remind me of Henry James's ghost stories.) The title alerts us to the underlying unity of the collection. What does "the form of a person" mean? Does it suggest that there is never one "form" of personality? Does it suggest that "form" is incomplete or devious? The epigraph is from Dickinson (another ghostly "form"?): "Our lives are Swiss / So still-so Cool- / Till some odd afternoon / The Alps neglect their Curtains / And we look farther on!" The epigraph underlines the oddity of the title. It implies that the "Alps" are suddenly seen despite our attempts to hide them by "Swiss" (proper) coolness. Mysteries intervene, threaten conventional behavior. The title and the stanza are threatening and ominous.

And the titles of the twelve breathtaking stories are indeed strange: "A Visitation," "The Legs of the Wine," "The Dead Parts Only." These representative titles hint at incomprehensible visions: Can wine have "legs"? Are the "dead parts" only fragments of the entire... what? body? What is a "visitation"? Can we really know "it"?

And the sentences yearn - strain - to see into things, events, reality - to get past outer "forms"; to break through the masks of ordered life. Perhaps the best story in the collection is "A Visitation." The protagonist is a child. She keeps seeing "others" unseen by her nanny or her parents. She walks a thin line between hallucination and epiphany. Is she psychotic? Or is she a young Saint Teresa? The style of the story is circuitous, winding, moving: "And the water, too - that was ugly because she did not like the ridges on it, even though her nanny had said to her, What ridges?' Because according to her - to the child - they were ridges anyone could see, ridges like ribs out there for all the world to see, ribs where there should not have been ribs." What are ridges? Why are they like ribs - the ribs" suggest the presence of a body - in her perception?

Almost every story is an exploration of mysterious forms. The style is always coiling, reaching toward some final meaning, some (un)promised end. Here, for example, is the narrator of "Donkey's Smile" - and isn't this title ambiguous? - telling his listeners that "truth" is never captured without a kind of "disjointed" rhetoric: "The disjointed way in which I must go forward is also a habit of mine for which I ask you to forgive me, I being so well suited, [another form?] as indeed I think I am to a method of discourse quite continuous with my profession. To wit, a person such as I can often benefit by stepping ahead, so to speak - and quite unexpectedly - to the consideration of a word somewhere up ahead in the sentence; or by backstepping, equally unexpectedly, to take a word back and put another in its place."

Pyne is interested in the convolutions of truth - telling - and of perception itself. Thus all of her stories are mysterious; they seem to hide and reveal things, persons, events. They make us wonder whether or not "words" and "worlds" are really here - or elsewhere. [Irving Malin]
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
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Author:Malin, Irving
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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