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Fuzzy Logic

Two promising writers debut collections; one is maddeningly elusive but the other stumbles through a diffuse plot to enlightenment.

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"If you're one of those people who feels he deserves a straight story," a rich, good-looking, thirtyish sex weirdo declares in David Schickler's new book, Kissing in Manhattan, "like I have some duty to enlighten or clarify, then go fuck yourself." As luck would have it, I happen to be one of those people: What's the point of reading fiction if enlightenment and clarification aren't in the offing? While I enjoyed Schickler's polished and hotly anticipated debut, I felt screwed by the time I finished it. Ravished, on the other hand, is how you'll feel at the end of Emma Richler's first collection, a book that bears a superficial resemblance to Schickler's. Both are concerned with the way fragile people make connections with one another, and both, essentially, are collections of loosely interwoven stories revolving around a single group of characters. (Schickler's are the mostly good-looking, single, love-starved thirtysomething residents of a fabulous prewar building called the Preemption; Richler's are the members of the decidedly Salingeresque Weiss family, intensely observed by the mentally unstable middle sister, Jemima.)

But any similarities end there. As elaborately imaginative as Schickler's stories are, they're not particularly enlightening about anything but their own cleverness. However everyday her themes and diffuse her narrative (there's no action or plot, and you sometimes wonder whether it's you or she who's lost the thread), Richler gets beyond little-girl-lost clichés and creates something striking and original.

You can certainly see why Schickler has gotten so much buzz. Though it's true that his fictional territory is a minefield of clichés -- if I had a dime for every fictional debut whose punch line was "All those weights you lift, all those miles you run, all those movies you see. It isn't right. It's lonely," I could retire and buy a penthouse in the Preemption myself -- Schickler has a wild, out-of-left-field dramatic imagination that's really fresh. The way his characters take you, as well as one another, by surprise is terrific fun. In "The Smoker," the story that got Schickler so much attention in the first place, a solitary young high-school English teacher accepts a dinner invitation from the parents of a brilliant, seductive female student whom he secretly longs for, only to find that she and they have decided that he should marry the girl.

He ends up agreeing with them.

Schickler's baroque plotlines and the weirdly unsettling details here (the "Preemption"; the fact that people eat in restaurants where you can only order things like Noodles or Shoots or Vodka, with no brand names or other attributes) give Kissing in Manhattan the feel of an urban erotic fable. Often, the surprises the author concocts for his characters remind you that whatever we frazzled and spent city dwellers say about love, we've developed remarkable resources for resisting it. In "Checkers and Donna," a woman named Donna wants to find a man who will crush himself into her "and never apologize"; she balks, naturally, when she meets a guy, Checkers, who does just that. "You're going the traditional flirting route," he tells her disdainfully two minutes into their blind date, and things go downhill from there. Until, that is, she has a last-minute change of heart just as she's running away from Checkers, and smiles at him. You know they're going to be okay.

Pretty much all of the stories here end with a seeing-the-light-and-smiling moment: Estranged sons are reconciled with their fathers, ugly guy gets to have sex with beauteous heiress, shootings end not with death but with bedside redemptions, and so on. For all the inventiveness of the situations this author creates, there's something predictable at the heart of these stories -- and, ultimately, something quite pat. This is the kind of book in which the nice, nice-looking shy guy gets the dishy, secretly sensitive girl at the end. "This isn't a movie," someone tells Donna before her blind date, "this is real life." Oh? In a book that purports to be a daring new vision of love and life in the city, it's not clear that Schickler isn't the one who's gone the traditional route here. Like a lot of young writers who set out to give us the lowdown on urban romance, he's ended up subscribing to the same clichés he set out to expose. It's about as daring as . . . Noodles.

If Kissing in Manhattan is all outsides -- all plot mechanics and descriptions of things -- Sister Crazy is all insides, like its hypersensitive narrator. A lot of Richler's book is liable to give you déjà vu -- the narrator is yet another Girl, Interrupted, and the neurotically precise, tremulously childlike tone is a bit daughter-of-Holden Caulfield ("The spooky thing is, I have to watch the same film again and again because I have this fear that it changes when I am not looking"). Yet from small and familiar things, this author has managed to create something new and moving.

The pleasures of Sister Crazy are the pleasures afforded by an authorial sensibility so alert to the minutiae of family life that you often have the uncanny feeling you're eavesdropping on, rather than reading about, these characters. Jemima Weiss may be crazy, but she's not stupid: It would be hard to find a more acute portrait of the strange, private ways in which children think about parents -- as cowboys, say, which is bizarrely yet somehow rightly how Jem thinks of her Jewish sportswriter dad -- and of the strange currents that swirl around siblings. (It's fairly clear that Jem is in love with her curly-headed brother Jude, and the incestuous currents are all the more powerful for being handled matter-of-factly here; weirdly, it's not a big deal.) And despite the way that everyday things tremble with menace for Jem, there's a lot of wacky, really smart humor: Her analysis of Un homme et une femme, which she likes to watch because the homme reminds her of Jude, will make you laugh out loud.

Some of this book is repetitive, and there's no obvious narrative destination point, and yet the layers of stories and insights have a cumulative power. By the last lines, in which Jem imagines her family as passengers on a train that she can only watch as it whizzes past, you feel -- as you should by the end of a novel or collection of stories -- that something important has happened: not to the characters but to you. That, perhaps, you've been given some clarity and insight. "No one should have to see in such gory detail," Jem writes at one point; maybe so, but you can only be glad that she does.

Kissing in Manhattan
By David Schickler
Dial Press; 274 pages; $21.95.
Sister Crazy
By Emma Richler
Pantheon; 216 pages; $22.


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