Poet Hustvedt's first novel is unabashedly cerebral, a disturbing and disarming fiction that explores the mysteries of identity. It's a postmodernist puzzle with a queasy eroticism and hints of perversion, and owes much to the work of Beckett, DeLillo, and her husband, Paul Auster. But Hustvedt adds to their explorations in silence and unspeakability her distinctly feminine voice: innocent, intimate, victimized. These four related narratives circle around the life of Iris Vegan, a distraught and hypersensitive graduate student in literature at Columbia. A beautiful, blue-eyed blond from the Midwest, she's continually at the mercy of others, mostly men who shroud themselves in mystery. Iris's first story finds her working as an assistant to a strange writer, a collector of women's discarded objects, who asks her to record her observations so that he may reconstruct their previous owners. After playing this bizarre Scheherazade, Iris is unalterably changed, but not as dramatically as in her second narrative, in which a photographer's portrait of her proves an invasion of her privacy. Her boyfriend at the time admits that cruelty makes him ""feel more alive."" As her personality begins to disintegrate, Iris (in the third piece) admits to minor hallucinations, which land her in the hospital whacked out on Thorazine and tormented by one of her roommates, a withered old woman who also desires her in some strange way. To demonstrate further that ""distortion is part of desire,"" Iris then alters herself, taking on the role of a brutal boy, a role she has adopted from a German novella she co-translates with her professor/lover. Roaming the city in drag, she indulges her fantasies until the much older professor catches her in disguise. In playful ""blindness,"" she loses all sense of self but also turns out to be as mysterious as all her tormentors, so that we wonder, just who is playing with whom? Hustvedt brings her clark urban landscape to life with her camera eye and Iris's tenacious, Midwestern common sense--the perfect balance to all the existential weirdness.