Echoing her first novel’s artifice (In the Language of Love, 1996), Schoemperlen uses images culled largely from the 18th and 19th centuries as inspiration for her storytelling, winding up with a string of aborted experiments
It may be inaccurate even to call all 11 pieces here stories, since several are witty, wicked mock pieces of social commentary. The title piece offers ten categories for understanding “the faithful,” defined through reference to such things as innocence, abundance, and hope, and using as illustrations of these qualities engravings of good burgher-citizens leading unremarkable, inane lives. Similarly, a decorative alphabet seems to have been the inspiration of the concluding piece, “Rules of Thumb,” in which the text appended to each letter offers ironic advice on everything from well-being to xenophilia, lampooning those who think too well of themselves to accept the burgher label. Sandwiched between these is more ironic material, ranging from the purely expository “How to Write a Serious Novel about Love” to the more allegorical “Count Your Blessings (A Fairy Tale).” The latter offers the book’s single sop to conventional narrative: A perfect woman, Grace, finds a perfect mate, William, who gives her perfect children but can—t prevent her from sinking ever-more deeply into depression, until an old-fashioned doctor making a house call uses radical surgery to cure her (the cure, obviously, being worse than the affliction). Among the less sustained narrative efforts is “How Deep Is the River?,” a quixotic look at passing trains, each with its cargo of discontented passengers headed in opposite directions in search of the same satisfactions.
While there’s no denying the author’s considerable skill at turning a wry phrase, all the glitter here yields precious little substance. (144 b&w line drawings and half-tones) (Author tour)