September 20, 1998
Marianne Wiggins's new novel features a lot of bad weather.
First Chapter: 'Almost Heaven'
By GARY KRIST
By Marianne Wiggins.
213 pp. New York:
Crown Publishers. $22.
uman relationships, like other complex systems (weather, traffic, the stock market), are notoriously difficult to forecast. All of them involve too many tangled variables to allow anything but rough predictions. A sudden high-pressure zone on the outskirts of a friendship, a surprise pothole on an otherwise smooth road through marriage, a slight dip in a lover's interest rate -- any of these can overturn the entire system, altering its character in unforeseen ways. As a result, a process that is theoretically understandable -- like the course of love -- often appears to us an utter mystery. As with lightning or a market crash, passion develops through hidden chains of causality, so we never know exactly where or when it's going to strike.
Marianne Wiggins has obviously done a lot of thinking about complex systems, in particular about the esoteric workings of desire and their similarity to those of the weather. Her new novel, ''Almost Heaven,'' bristles with meteorological imagery -- from heat waves to hailstorms to torrential rain -- all of it related to the emotional lives of her characters. In fact, it's one of the book's many excesses that her main characters need only feel the first stirrings of distress or yearning for some equivalent atmospheric disturbance to loom suddenly on the horizon. And given the turbulent circumstances in which she's put her characters, the weather they generate is almost always heavy. Readers may want hip boots and a sturdy umbrella.
The novel opens with Holden Garfield, a foreign correspondent for Newsweek magazine, returning to Washington after an eight-year stint in Europe. Though still in his 20's, he suffers from an older man's disease: he's burned out, emotionally exhausted, at the ''end of the ride.'' Having witnessed the horrors of the Balkan war, including the crucifixion of a Muslim baby, he's desperate to purge tragedies from his mind and start over. But he's barely out of customs when he runs into a different kind of tragedy, involving the sister of his closest friend and mentor. Melanie Page, a middle-aged beauty described as ''the original soccer mom,'' has just seen her husband and four children die (killed by a tornado). Now she's hospitalized in Richmond, suffering from an ''involuntary differentiating forgetfulness.'' She can't remember ever having a husband and children, let alone losing them.
In short: She can't remember; he can't forget. Cold front meets warm front. Sounds like a storm brewing.
Sure enough, when Holden turns up at the hospital in Richmond, passion strikes out of nowhere (her beauty ''hits him like lightning''). Though the two have never met, they find themselves instantly and mysteriously drawn to each other. Quicker than you can say ''occluded air mass,'' Holden has Melanie checked out of the hospital. With her psychiatrist's tacit (and outrageously unprofessional) approval, the two are heading cross-country in a sleeper van, searching for Melanie's brother. And although Holden recognizes that what this disturbed woman needs is ''friendship, help, compassion and support, not a quick feel'' or quick sex ''in a Kmart parking lot,'' the two are clawing at each other before they even get west of the Appalachians.
Wiggins, the author of the highly praised novel ''John Dollar,'' is obviously a writer of substantial gifts, but with ''Almost Heaven'' she's produced a work crippled by ponderousness and melodrama. Such an overwrought story, with its unfortunate echoes of soap opera (the amnesia element doesn't help), would be difficult to make credible and appealing under any circumstances. But Wiggins seems intentionally to make her task harder. For a start, Holden, the central consciousness of the book, is a distinctly unpleasant character -- cynical, nasty to strangers, displaying no real sense of how monstrously irresponsible his actions would be in anything like real life. Far too much of the book consists of his obnoxious internal monologue, which often begins in gratuitous sarcasm before degenerating into self-pity: ''What's this statue of George Washington trying to tell him? Think of me when you put on a wig?
''Think of my wooden teeth and remember to floss?
''Think of me before catching pneumonia? . . .
''Think of the memory of me outlasting my lifetime while you're going to die unmissed unremembered and unloved you stupid schmuck.''
But Holden is only part of the problem. One may justifiably ask (while we're in rhetorical-question mode) why Wiggins burdens her story line with so many bizarre anomalies. Why include an obtrusively implausible scene in which a man is struck by lightning in an airplane? Why make repeated reference to a minor character's botched breast-enhancement surgery? Why fill the narrative with so many funny names -- Kanga and Pooh, Small Gray, Dr. Alexander Graham (ring a bell)? For that matter, why give the protagonist a moniker so similar to that of J. D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield?
Just as perplexing is the book's over-the-top prose. One would think that a light hand might be advisable for dishing out such superheated material. But Wiggins exercises little restraint. While there are flashes of fine writing (at one moment, contemplating Melanie's blankness, Holden ''feels its presence like the chill reach of darkness at the entrance of a vast uncharted cave''), the novel more often succumbs to a kind of aggressive grandiosity. It is full of wild, abstract arias on everything from memory to mourning, often ending with empty sentence fragments like: ''From sorrow to love. From forgetfulness into eternity.'' And the writing about sex frequently crosses the line between poetry and porridge: ''In her eyes while they are making love he sees a thing he's never seen before, something fundamentally thrilling, the Look of something that exists beyond Time -- the Look of innocence. Of the eternal. Emptiness. Of everything and nothing.'' (And, yes, the earth does move at least once.)
It's a pity that in warming to her subject of love's ability to erase the past, Wiggins herself seems to have forgotten some of the laws of good writing. But her novel displays enough intelligence and sophistication to suggest that this heavy-handedness may be a temporary aberration. Granted, writers are as unpredictable as any other complex system, but I'm hoping for clearer skies in her next book.
Gary Krist's most recent book is ''Bad Chemistry,'' a novel.
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