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A strangely contradictory first novel (following McCormack's story collection, Inspecting the Vaults, 1987--not reviewed)--academic and unsettling, spare and horrific--concerning narrator Ezra Stevenson's discoveries about a gruesome crime and its effects on the Mackenzie family. Ezra's acquaintance with the Mackenzies begins when his grandfather returns from a life abroad and tells him, just before he dies, the story of how the mysterious Dr. Mackenzie killed his wife and tried to dispose of her body by sewing up her hands and feet in the abdomens of their four children. Each of the children, Ezra later learns, went on to a bizarre and interlinked fate. Amos was captured by African tribesmen who returned him to the soil as a garden of sprouting plants. Rachel cut her throat out of schizoid jealousy for her own love affair. Esther beheaded herself after accidentally killing her partner, a performer whose body she pierced with skewers. And Zachary immolated himself on a pyre of his own unsuccessful books. The mystery of Ezra's fascination with these revelations--which come to him unbidden and gradually possess him--is solved in a predictably self-reflexive but undeniably effective ending: his friend Donald Cromarty, whom he's asked to help in his research on the Mackenzies, meets him at the Paradise Motel, informs him that no confirmation of any of the stories exists, and announces that all the Mackenzies--and Ezra as well--are nonexistent, leaving Ezra as emptied of his identity as the Mackenzies had sought to be. Mannered, overingenious, but hauntingly powerful as well. Like Borges, McCormack invokes the tropes of plot and character only to reach beyond them.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1989
Publisher: Viking