By Robert Anderson. Ballantine Books. 384 pages. $24.95.
I'll be frank: another morbid promenade over the well-trampled ground of Sylvia Plath's suicide isn't my idea of a good time. After the many existing biographies, memoirs, studies, and at least one novelization -- all topped off with the strictly decorative cherry of last year's Gwyneth Paltrow biopic -- can there possibly be anything new to say? Isn't this whole affair becoming a bit, well, obsessive and ghoulish? If we put a penny in a jar each time someone refers to Plath's death, and remove a penny each time someone refers to her poetry, does anyone truly believe we will ever empty that jar?
These are some of the questions that buzz in my head as I crack open Robert Anderson's new novel about Plath's death, Little Fugue (named after a poem she wrote in 1962). The first chapter does little to allay my skepticism. Plath has always been a powerful magnet for other writers' self-dramatics; true to form, the first few pages here are overwrought: "She is a fire that has burned low of its own severity. She lies in her grave now, still awake." At this point, I am considering joining her. Then, something totally unexpected happens: Little Fugue grabs me and holds on.
It can be a delightful thing to be proven wrong. And was I ever wrong about this spellbinding book. It's only a fraction of Anderson's achievement in his first novel that he manages to breathe life into the tired old story of Sylvia and Ted (Hughes, the poet she married) and Assia (Wevill, the woman he left her for). He succeeds, in part, by inserting Robert: a fictional New Yorker who shares the author's name and his interest in Plath and Hughes. 'Their poems forged my identity," he confides; "They ruined my life." Adding Robert to the mix means annexing another whole world to the same old saw. Until universes start colliding near the end of the novel, he acts on a separate stage from the historical characters.
While Sylvia sidles up to death in London in 1963, Robert witnesses it for the first time on a high school basketball court in Manhattan. While Ted grows rich off Sylvia's work in later years, Robert takes in the Revolution as dress-rehearsed in the student-seized halls of Columbia University. Elegiac, absurd and hilarious, the takeover sequence embroiders memorably upon cultural history.
Other secondary stories in the novel are equally strong: for instance, Ted's father's grim tales of Gallipoli and Assia's chilling memories of growing up in Palestine, a war-nurse at 15. John and Yoko, Merv Griffin, and Tanaquil LeClercq all put in colorful appearances; Anderson has the chutzpah to put words in these cultural icons' mouths, with weird but electric results. The audacious streak in his imagination is what makes his novel run.
Restoring the mythologized figures of Sylvia and Ted to the history from which they've been kidnapped means, for Anderson, understanding the cultural conditions of their abduction. His diagnosis suggests furtive lines of influence between the mass killing of modern warfare -- up to and including 9 / 11 -- and the hypnotic power exerted by Plath's intensely private death. It's a dubious theory. Luckily, successful art has never required expert historical analysis, and the dazzling Little Fugue doesn't need to win its case to make its mark.
Laura Demanski is a writer living in Chicago.