SMALL CLAIMS by Jill Ciment


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Breezy stories in a quick, comic, telegraphic style that does what it can--and this is necessary most of the time--to cover up a lack of substance. ""Self-Portrait with Vanishing Point"" opens the book with a certain promise when a first-grade girl wants to cry when she realizes that her own artwork is no different from her classmates' (""we'd all seen the world exactly the same way""). Another schoolgirl story (""Astronomy"") is carefully planned with symmetrics and symbols, but the quick-paced and tough-funny tone (mother and daughter are poor but brave) keeps the characters fiat instead of growing with and from them (the gift's mother's hair falls out from too much dying). ""Genetics"" (a girl's series of failed experiments for a Science Fair project) aims again for the funny-serious, and hits at moments, but the characters possess only token sensitivities, leaving both humor and symbols unanchored in feeling; and characters in the title story remain not only two-dimensional, but insensitive and self-serving (a girl steals an idea for a painting from someone else, yet falls into a mania of elevated despair when it doesn't sell; then ""compromises"" herself by painting a pet parrot on commission). ""Money,"" occupying half the book, offers cartoon characters in a fast-forward-paced parable of three young people living in Manhattan: Lena (from out of town, the one with the traveller's checks that the others live off of); Yvette (beautiful and utterly vacuous, with a stock-broker Daddy who won't extend her allowance); and Mike (a handsome sponge, otherwise a cipher). Lena falls in love with Yvette. Mike leaves Yvette when Lena's money runs out. Yvette, pregnant, is in despair ("" 'But I thought,' she cried, 'I thought he loved me' ""). In all: unfocused as satire, unmoving as fiction. Polishing her various kitchen appliances (her father's gifts, in place of money) in order to sell them, Yvette ""explained how surfaces were the most viable commodity we had to pawn."" A person might apply the same observation to this book of dispiritingly callow, slight pieces.

Pub Date: Sept. 1st, 1986
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicholson (10 East 53 St., New York, NY 10022)