ALICE'S NECK by Barbara Novak


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A first novel from an art historian (Barnard College; Nature and Culture: American Landscape Painting), this seriocomic chronicle of a Harvard student's slide into madness is indeed a painterly effort: balanced, finely wrought--but, finally, nearly as flat as a canvas. It's Lewis Carroll's Alice whose neck Novak pays nod to in the title, and to whom she frequently compares her heroine, a grad student in art history with ""blue eyes, long straight blonde hair""--and, critical to her illness, ""the ethnic name"" of Anna Bernstein. For like Alice, poor little Jewish Anna finds herself, at Harvard, a stranger in a strange land--in this case, one whose inhabitants sport heritages deeply alien to hers. At novel's opening, Anna is already in the madhouse because of an identity crisis caught at Harvard; Novak builds her tale by laying brief accounts of Anna's therapy side-by-side long flashbacks detailing Anna's decay. At Harvard, Anna runs into trouble at once: she takes three lovers, two prime bets for maximum damage: art professor Victor Allingame, descendant of Cotton Mather, who beds her as a proper Wasp's ""dessert"" after Thanksgiving dinner; and painter/scholar Kurt Hahn, with whom she falls in love but whose German ancestry (she meets a Nazi grandfather in a chilling scene at Kurt's Nebraska home) just doesn't gel with Anna's Jewish upbringing. Torn between love and blood, Anna isn't helped even by the care of third lover Andrew Hanson as she attends seances trying to contact her dead mother, agonizes over her Judaic roots, spends days on end at the library hunting for a clue to selfhood (in time tangling up with the puzzle of how God could allow the Holocaust), and, finally, slits her wrists to drain out the blood that ties her to six million victims. Novak is an elegant stylist, adept at portraying a tortured soul with mind and emotions at war; but her uneasy mix of comedy and pathos indicates a failure to commit fully to her subject, as does a narrative that often distances through an intrusive formal voice (""Anna Bernstein has long identified with Effie for reasons that, as we know, are still hard to decipher""--etc.). So, a promising debut, but one too arch for its own good.

Pub Date: Oct. 22nd, 1987
Publisher: Ticknor & Fields/Houghton Mifflin