TV illusions, more Bridget Jones

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Many novels reflect the pernicious influence of television on American society, but few openly acknowledge it. Marjorie Klein's affecting debut, "Test Pattern" (Morrow, 271 pages, $25), goes a step farther, using television's harmful effects as her theme. The year is 1954, and the Palmers of Newport News have just bought their first TV set. There this family's troubles begin.

Ten-year-old Cassie watches as her mother, a frustrated housewife who longs for a glamorous life as a tap dancer, drifts farther away from family obligations as her daily reality fails to meet the glorious expectations promised by the dream worlds of the small screen. In the meantime, Cassie's father, a third-generation shipyard worker, suffers a series of injuries that leave his bosses no choice but to fire him, despite a lifetime of company loyalty.

It's no small coincidence that these parents named their daughter Cassandra, after the ancient Greek prophesier. Late at night, when regularly televised programming has concluded, Cassie studies the test pattern, where she alone is somehow able to view the future. In the TV's black dot she foresees everything from Elvis and the Beatles to the Kennedy assassination, from "Laugh-In" to "Roseanne." This is a somewhat farfetched gimmick, to be sure, yet Klein manages to make it creepily effective.

Klein's more serious achievement, though, is in eliciting true pathos from these doomed parents and their ingenuously spiritual daughter, all of whom are painfully betrayed by the teasing promises of television fantasies. Their contentment stolen, all that remains for them is paranoia and fear. "Sometimes," Cassie admits, "when I watch test-pattern TV, I feel like it's watching me."

Fans of Helen Fielding's 1998 best seller, "Bridget Jones's Diary," will be thrilled by news of a sequel. In "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason" (Penguin Putnam, 338 pages, $24.95), the plucky, neurotic, eternally single heroine continues to juggle daft parents, an on-again-off-again boyfriend, her humiliating job as a junior TV-news producer, and dependencies on alcohol, cigarettes and self-help books.

The original novel's London setting opens up a bit here to include a ski weekend in France, a working trip to Rome and a very funny scene in Thailand where a vacationing Bridget becomes a pawn in a "Midnight Express"-like drug arrest. About as weighty as cappuccino froth, "The Edge of Reason" pretends to be nothing less than it is: a good-natured guilty pleasure.

Kate Wheeler, whose 1993 short-story collection, "Not Where I Started From," won an impressive variety of grants and awards, follows up with an ambitious novel that revisits the earlier book's theme of cultural dislocation. "When Mountains Walked" (Houghton Mifflin, 375 pages, $23) tells two interlocking stories, first of Maggie Goodwin, a young idealist who travels with her husband to a remote village in Peru to set up a medical clinic, there to have a dangerous love affair with the leader of a Shining Path-like revolutionary group; and second of Maggie's own grandmother, who in 1940 left the same Peruvian valley to follow her seismologist husband to India, where she was impregnated by a Hindu priest.

This synopsis makes the plot sound a lot tidier than it actually is, since Wheeler has a deft, nuanced way of making exotic places seem familiar and vice versa, a talent that saves her novel from sinking into multigenerational melodrama.

Two excellent new short-story collections share similar themes of travel and dislocation. "Travel Advisory: Stories of Mexico" (Morrow, 208 pages, $24) by David Lida is a cold-blooded series of literary snapshots whose purpose seems to be to eradicate all romantic misconceptions about contemporary Mexico. In "Bewitched," a cynical American travel writer investigates the subject of witchcraft in a tiny coastal town, yet is blind to every hint of the supernatural surrounding her. "Taxi" is the chilling tale of a Mexico City robbery and murder from the point of view of the bandits, while "Acapulco Gold" chronicles a horrifying day in the life of a street urchin in the famous resort city. At their best, Lida's stories recall the work of Paul Bowles in their penchant for unsentimental myth-blasting.

Belfast-born Carol Azadeh, another first-time writer, covers an equally impressive amount of territory in her first collection, "The Marriage at Antibes" (Carroll & Graf, 214 pages, $22.95). The first and finest tale here, "The Country Road," is the quietly grim story of a tragic Irish childhood that shines with a harder, truer flame than the egregiously overpraised "Angela's Ashes." "A Banal Stain" is set in Lyon, in the house of an ancient grandmother with a Vichy past, while "A Recitation of Nomads" follows two young drifters in Paris and Marrakech as their relationship falls apart.

The title story is a lovely, sophisticated reverie about exile, examining the hopes and doubts of the Muslim wife of a political refugee in an arranged marriage who is trying to make a life for herself in the south of France.

Finally, based on the little-known but true story of the world's first transsexual surgery in the early 1930s, David Ebershoff's "The Danish Girl" (Viking, 270 pages, $24.95) is both sensational and, against all odds, extremely poignant. In Copenhagen, in 1925, Einar Wegener is a successful Danish painter, married to Greta, a California orange-grove heiress who was once Einar's student and who herself aspires to an artistic career.

Slowly, however, with Greta's encouragement, Einar begins to admit that he shares his body with a distinctly feminine personality whom he calls Lili, and slowly Lili takes over until Einar no longer exists. As Einar gives up his painting career, Greta starts making portraits of Lili that become a great success. Eventually the marriage disintegrates as Lili falls in love with a man and travels to Dresden to undergo a series of medical operations that will transform the former Einar unequivocally into a woman.

While it's hard to consider a subject like this without thinking about its cheapened confessional-television reputation, Ebershoff's novel has such a rich sense of atmosphere, and so tactful a respect for its characters' dignity, that it is nearly impossible not to be moved.

Donna Rifkind is a former literary agent and magazine editor whose writing has been published by Commentary, the American Scholar, the New Criterion, the Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Washington Post and the New York Times.

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