THE MAGELLAN HOUSE
By John Rolfe Gardiner. Counterpoint. 296 pp. $24
Reality is a slippery concept for the characters who populate The Magellan House, John Rolfe Gardiner's new collection of short fiction. Time after time in these stories, people find themselves confronted with differing and often contradictory versions of reality, each competing for belief, each carrying with it its own interpretation of events. The only constant in such a compromised environment, it would seem, is betrayal -- betrayal by people, by memory, by a character's own complacent or deluded reading of the world. The rule for survival here is thus caveat perceptor -- let the perceiver beware -- because the Marxist on the houseboat next door may not be what he seems, and the friendship offered by a helpful colleague or a politically like-minded neighbor could very well turn out to be a trap.
In "The Head of Farnham Hall," Dr. Helen Custis, the supremely confident head of a posh private girls' school in Pennsylvania, thinks she knows who's been sending death threats to one of the school's most capable students. The obvious culprit is one Claudia Hempel, an awkward, overweight rebel with greasy hair and a tendency to declaim at length upon an obviously fabricated home life in England. But once this difficult girl is accused and sent away, the true perpetrator reveals herself, shattering the headmaster's illusion of competence and control. And even though the wronged girl is hastily and apologetically readmitted, Dr. Custis can never regain full authority over her. Claudia's new sense of power -- the righteousness of the falsely incriminated -- enables her to exact an insidious and very appropriate revenge.
In the best of these stories, the manifold ambiguities and deceptions embedded in such a doggedly unknowable world are held in a kind of tantalizing balance -- we readers may never be certain exactly where the truth of a given situation lies, but we know enough to navigate its complexities. In "The Voyage Out," for instance, we can never be sure precisely what happened aboard the Ellen Reilly, a World War II merchant ship carrying English schoolboys across the Atlantic to escape the German bombings. During the ship's voyage to Canada, one boy mysteriously vanishes. Did he fall overboard one night while performing handstands on the ship's forward rail? Or was he pushed by his cabin mate, a brainy, unpopular boy who had reason to want the arrogant older boy gone? Or did the disappearance have something to do with a shadowy group of Gypsy performers who may or may not have been stowing away on the ship's lower decks? The story ends leaving us confident of nothing -- except that the subsequent social blossoming of the misfit once suspected of his classmate's demise may not be as wholesome and innocuous as his elders believe.
"The Voyage Out" showcases Gardiner at his best, devising a story rife with clandestine possibilities but not so open-ended as to frustrate our attempts to engage the story in a wholehearted way. For some, the experience of reading it may call to mind the perplexities of Akira Kurosawa's film "Rashomon." But a more apt description might be Guildenstern's wonderful summing-up of the modern condition in Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead": "What a fine persecution -- to be kept intrigued without ever quite being enlightened."
Unfortunately, however, the weaker stories in Gardiner's collection overshoot that mark, going beyond the realm of suggestive enigma toward something more like simple vagueness. In "Morse Operator," for example, a Cold War telegrapher finds himself charged with traitorous activities (false accusation is such a persistent motif in the book that it eventually seems like a narrative tic). But the reasons for the telegrapher's betrayal -- and even the circumstances under which it occurs -- remain maddeningly cryptic. Here, as in too many other stories in The Magellan House, Gardiner keeps us at such a distance from his characters' true selves that we can't even begin to judge whether their actions and motivations are genuine. The tantalizing balance between elusiveness and clarity, in other words, is never achieved. At the end of the story, we feel not only unenlightened but unintrigued as well.
To a certain extent, this kind of reader alienation is an occupational hazard in fiction where all perceptions are to be considered unreliable. In order to keep us guessing about what is actually true and who these people really are, Gardiner must often withhold so much information that any real intimacy with the characters is impossible. As a result, our response to these stories often remains decidedly cold -- more abstract than visceral, more intellectual than deeply felt.
Perhaps Gardiner would defend himself by quoting one of his own characters. In "Fugitive Color," a teacher at a Provençal art school rails against her students' simpleminded need for neatly interpretable paintings. To her way of thinking, a work of art whose meaning can be articulated isn't really art. Anything with a solution is just a riddle or a puzzle. "Art," she intones pedantically, "treats mysteries!"
Of course, no one is asking for tidy solutions from a collection of literary short stories; that's what genre whodunits are for. But there is such a thing as an author's being too enamored of ambiguity. And as any Morse operator will tell you, a telegrapher who sends out too many complex signals at once may end up transmitting only noise.
Gary Krist is the author, most recently, of the novel "Extravagance."