In outline, this is rather familiar, unpromising material: poor neurotic little rich girl, from an Upper East Side orthodox Jewish family, kvetches about her parents in relentlessly confessional prose. But that's where convention ends, and one of the most unusual voices in contemporary fiction begins. Not even a novel by most standards, Merkin's debut organizes itself through the controlling consciousness of its narrator, Hannah Lehmann, a 26-year-old self-described shlump who is haunted by an obsession with her past. At the center of her ""black thoughts, doubt, and malice,"" is her family, ""a kind of closed system,"" difficult to ""penetrate from the outside."" So instead she circles and circles around it, providing snapshots, vignettes, seemingly random insights and images, as well as an ""emotional geography."" A truly Proustian effort to conquer time, her painful, humiliating, and self-pitying narrative nevertheless burnishes some indelible portraits in the reader's memory. The siblings: two sisters and three brothers in constant, frenzied rivalry for the affection and attention that comes mainly from a staff of servants. Their number include the kind but inaccessible Negroes--the cook, the laundress, the chauffeur--and the cruel European nurse whose vicious spankings in the past provide Hannah the eroticized model for her present S&M encounters. There's her father, busy all the time at the work Hannah doesn't bother to learn about. But it's the tyrannical influence of her German-born mother that Hannah is trying most to escape. A woman toughened by ""war and death and loss,"" she is the ultimate object of Hannah's divided self, driven by love and hate. The book progresses by such contraries--victim/victimizer, pleasure/pain--but also with a ""wit deflecting anxiety."" It's hard not to think that, having gotten this always elegant and intellectual, but at times infuriatingly self-involved, book out of her system, Merkin just may well write a truly great one next time out.