We watched. . . the long low horizon of fire, and we feared so that we undressed and waded into the water. . . and we...


BIRTHPLACE: Moving Into Nearness

We watched. . . the long low horizon of fire, and we feared so that we undressed and waded into the water. . . and we breathed above the gentle water in the lagoon as in the west fire, white fire, bloomed upon mountains of red horror. . . the western sky become the ground of inferences we did not know how to make."" In other words: nuclear holocaust-- some time in the 21st century. So, in the aftermath, on a Caribbean isle called Primavera, a family from Baltimore creates a society of manners by writing letters to themselves that arrive or do not arrive, overlapping in time, creating ""probabilities in the present that guide them into that future where the letters await them."" These letter-writers are Aurelia the doctor, Olivia the film-maker, Oliver the papermaker and poet-manquÉ, Olivia's husband Orlando, Delenda Kinh the mysterious Mayan visionary, the dictatorial great-grandfather Kwant, the gentle old grandfather Salatheil. And, in letters about and to one another (or to unseen grandchild Octavio), they describe a ""converse"" domain largely made from scratch: paper, money, sex, burial rituals, marriages, births and deaths. But, since the letters are so haphazardly delivered (if at all), the effect is one of pleating, of tides--a suspension of roles and rules so that the truth is always shifting. Life, in fact, comes to resemble an insulated ""party"": ""I suppose that we are the party that we are attending, yet it seems other than us, more than us, our morality seems to be to do what we can to keep the party going. No one is ever first to arrive, and no one is ever last to leave."" The Tempest, of course, comes to mind here--the names, the island, the laboratory of intimacy--and Wilson (Why I Don't Write Like Franz Kafka) wields a stirringly grave, musical prose as if in homage to Prospero. Unfortunately, however, until its limpidly elegiac second part, this is an unforthcoming book indeed, one that's lacily constructed around mandarin intellectual setpieces: the characters are kept so far back that the nature of their individual relationships is hazy; it takes a while to appreciate the particular webs between addressers and addressees. Still, if hardly hospitable, Wilson's first novel is elusive, elegant, inquisitively shaped by the author's startlingly wide range of curiosity and abundantly fine language: a haunting, difficult book withal--the sort that begs for (and will richly reward) a second reading.

Pub Date: May 15, 1982


Page Count: -

Publisher: North Point

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1982