BOOK REVIEW / The word is worth a thousand pictures: 'Eclipse Fever' - Walter Abish: Faber, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the more asinine arguments advanced during the recent 'death of fiction' debate was that of Gilbert Adair, who opined that in the production of 'artemes' - key artistic ideas which graft themselves, as motifs, onto the lives of the mass - literary fiction has become notably defunct. In the 20th century, Adair asks us to believe, the torn shower curtain in Psycho has trumped any potential literary artemes from the off.

Walter Abish is a writer who hatches artemes the way a frog spawns - with apparent ease and in great quantities. He is also a writer who takes from film and renders unto it. In three slimmish works of fiction, some poetry and now this relatively chunky novel, he peers into the lens of the projector as it spews out imagery. Thematically, he has circled around the core of the United States, though at a careful distance - like Kafka, who wrote Amerika without visiting the country.

In Abish's earlier Minds Meet the central character, Marcel, opts for extra-literary retirement in Alberquerque. With Eclipse Fever, Abish goes further south still, to Mexico itself, using a traditional narrative lens to focus his thematic beam to a scintillating point. Alejandro, the hero, is at the tip of a pyramid of deracination. He is doubly compromised, having betrayed the American financier Preston Hollier in one of the shuffles of the corrupt tarot that constitute the auspicatory game of Mexican politics, and also lost both his critical and sexual integrity to Jurud, the American novelist who has been screwing Alejandro's wife Mercedes. Mercedes also happens to be Jurud's Spanish translator.

Alejandro may faintly despise the work of Jurud, a New York Jewish intellectual, but this doesn't stop him agreeing to fete Jurud on his forthcoming trip to Mexico. By the same token Franciso, Alejandro's best friend, cannot resist a commission to 'write something favourable' about Preston Hollier's plan to put a lift in the Pyramid of the Sun. Meanwhile, Jurud's daughter Bonny, a 16-year-old runaway, experiences both the US and Mexico at a more visceral level. Her tangent takes her from a fundamentalist motel-owner, via a Hassidic Felasha to the Yucatan. Here, sick in her hotel room, she witnesses the eclipse of the novel's title on CNN.

Alejandro is like a quicksilver bead of self-consciousness moving through the historical self-forgetting of the 20th century. He has never visited the US, but has built up a picture of its magnificent ordinariness entirely from film. Nevertheless, when he summons up an image of his own cuckolded self, it is the cretinous husband in Chabrol's Le Femme Infidele that Alejandro seizes on: 'Idiot, idiot, he kept repeating. The epithet an expression of his chagrin, aimed at what he had not explored.'

There is nothing arch about the way Abish intrudes such allusions into his work. When Bunuel's use of two actresses to play the same character in That Obscure Object of Desire makes its appearance here as the substance of an argument between Alejandro and his best friend Franciso, it is greeted by the reader as an old acquaintance. In Eclipse Fever film is eaten up by life and then expelled in little farts of recollection.

Throughout the novel Alejandro's identity folds in on itself. So does his memory, and so do the very sub-clauses that Abish rivets together with his functionalist punctutation. Speech here is always reported in the historical present. Parentheses are abandoned - this is the realm of the interjection - where dashes intersperse the banal, the ridiculous - and the profound.

For Abish, language is still freighted with the technical taint of the Tractatus. Words are so many little pictures, each corresponding to another reality. Emotion cannot be fixed by them - it can only well up between them. It is a mark of a great cinematographer that when you leave the cinema you find yourself cutting, panning, tracking and composing in the same manner. How much more heady is the impact of a novelist who can do this at the level of ideas?

But Abish, unlike a populist film maker, doesn't simply produce snapshots to be passed among the mass. He tears treasured portraits from our culture's family album and thrusts them into his cunning slide carousel. Clicking from one page to the next, we reflect not on the death of literary fiction but on its vitality.

(Photograph omitted)