From Elkin (The MacGuffin, Pieces of Soap, etc.), three novellas that limn with controlled passion and wry humor the anguish of disjointedness--of not quite catching "the beautiful ruin of the world and the other moving parts of vision." In "Sense of Timing," Schiff, an aging professor of political geography, crippled by a degenerative neurological condition, is abandoned by his wife on the eve of the day he's to give his annual party. As Schiff tries to cope with the physical realities of his situation, he also struggles to understand why his wife left him. Meanwhile, his plans to cancel the party are thwarted by his students, who insist they will take charge. As he watches with increased helplessness their terrifyingly wild goings-on at the party, he realizes that the "continued laughter and cackle was an absolute refutation of his existence"--an affirmation of his utter vulnerability. The second and least successful piece, "Town Crier Exclusive, Confessions of a Princess Manque," is certainly topical--as the ex-fiancÃ‰e of the heir to British throne gives her version of why the marriage was canceled--but the humor is forced and the story hollow. In the title novella, Miller, a middle-aged teacher from an Indiana community college, is to be a fellow for five weeks at a foundation's center in Aries. There, he's given the room that once was Van Gogh's--the room in which the artist cut off his ear. Troubled by the strange food, his fellow academic luminaries, and Van Gogh's pervasive presence, Miller has a nervous breakdown, recovering just in time to see at last with his own "poor unrendering eyes" all the things he hadn't quite appreciated or understood before. All vehicles for Elkin's infectious delight in language, his ability to find a fresh way of looking at everything--from a take-out pizza to a Van Gogh painting--and his sense that life is more often than not a tragic joke.