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Love (Dis)Connection

John Burnham Schwartz's new novel has plenty of psychological insight, but the central love story leaves a lot to be desired; Chinese writer Da Chen sets out for a new life in the West.

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The interesting thing about erotic obsession is that the obsessors tend to be a great deal more fascinating than their beloveds. This is particularly true when it comes to literary lovers: You suspect that ten minutes in Dante's presence would be sheer (as it were) heaven, whereas even five with his beloved Beatrice would probably bore you into a coma. Ditto for everyone from Gustave von Aschenbach in "Death in Venice" to Humbert Humbert in Lolita. What's fascinating to us is not the object (whose allure is always a projection of something inside the lover) but the subject, the obsession itself. (Which is, after all, a hugely magnified version of what romantic love is: just plain crazy.) It's no accident that novels about obsession are generally told from the point of view of the lovers. Do you really care what little Tadzio thought of the strange guy who kept following him around Venice?

John Burnham Schwartz's third novel wants to be about such an obsession. Claire Marvel follows the glum career of one Julian Rose. It starts on a rainy day in 1985 when, as a nondescript Harvard political-science grad student, Julian literally runs into the beautiful, moody art historian Claire. From then on, he's unable to think of anything else. The bulk of the novel is meant to convey how the thought of her derails the next decade and a half of his life, during which the "invisible threads" that connect them are strained by an exhausting series of false starts, breakups, passionate reunions, and marriages to other people. Some of the deflections are comic (Claire runs off with Julian's Reagan-worshiping, Beltway-insider thesis adviser), but most are tragic, like Claire's climactic flight to an isolated French hamlet where the two had enjoyed an idyll years before.

And yet all the heavy breathing doesn't really affect you. In the grand tradition of obsessor-obsessee novels, Claire is a cipher, consisting of not much but a "refined nose," full lips, long brown hair, and moods that are less intriguing than wearying. The disaster here is that Julian is equally dull from first to last. (In this bildungsroman, there's not a whole lotta bildung going on.) Schwartz's previous book, Reservation Road, about a young father's search for the hit-and-run driver who killed his son, ventured boldly if not always convincingly into some interesting psychological spaces. Not surprisingly, the best thing in the new book is the delicately observed relationship between the dour hero and his dour textbook-editor father. ("What bound our love," Julian realizes at one point, "were not our successes but our failures.") The problem here is that every relationship in Claire Marvel -- between Julian and his parents, between Julian and the Machiavellian thesis adviser, between Julian and a troubled student at the prep school where he ends up teaching -- turns out to be more textured, more authentic, than the one the book's supposed to be about.

Indeed, instead of penetrating to the heart of the connection between drab Julian and the sulky, impetuous Claire, Schwartz ends up writing around it. There are some flashbacks clearly meant to provide sudden glimpses of the characters' inner lives and neuroses, but they're awkwardly inserted and feel worked-up rather than organic. (Julian and Claire always seem to be just around the corner from a family vacation home where a beloved pet traumatically died.) And there are lots of compensatory adjectives; it would be hard to find a recent novel that offers more overwrought verbiage. Claire's yellow umbrella is a "thin sunlike carapace," the lovers' arms are "silent benedictions," red wax is like "an old prostitute's lipsticked mouth," and winter daylight "is as scarce as wartime rations." This is deeply, deeply phony writing. I doubt Schwartz, who's in his thirties, has ever laid eyes -- or anything else, for that matter -- on an old prostitute's lipsticked mouth, let alone on a wartime ration. "Wartime rations" in particular suggests how much of this book is secondhand, recycled from forties Hollywood weepies.

This is unfortunate, because the author is capable of producing telling effects. There's a wonderful description of Julian's childhood home on the Upper West Side, lined with old textbooks "long since revised, their figures and theories and declarations no longer sound"; that tells you more about the failed aspirations of Rose père than 320 pages of slavering over Claire's liquid beauty. By the end of the book, when Claire has disappeared and Julian conveniently finds the diaries she's left behind (note to book editors: Please stop allowing authors to do this!), you just don't care about the revelations they may or may not contain. It's odd but typical of this book and its star-crossed lovers that these final pages provide an ending but no climax. "Sometimes," Claire's best friend tells Julian, early on in the affair, "watching you two fail to connect makes me want to scream." Readers are likely to feel the same way.

Schwartz's debut novel, bicycle days, was about an American discovering himself in the Far East; Da Chen's absorbing and moving new memoir, Sounds of the River, is about a Chinese boy desperately making his way West. Da's previous book, Colors of the Mountain, deserved its acclaim. The author's tale of growing up rather precariously during the Cultural Revolution -- as the descendant of landowners, he and his family were constantly humiliated and often in peril -- was smoothly written and beautifully observed.

The new memoir picks up where the earlier one left off, as Da leaves his little village of Yellow Stone for Beijing and a university degree in English. The ensuing narrative is as irresistible as it is familiar: a lonely hero, armed with talent and no money, trying to make it in the big city. What makes this vivid coming-of-age story so worthy is not so much the lively and amusing anecdotes of university or city life (at one point, Da uses Sidney Sheldon to teach English; at another, a professor solemnly instructs his English students in the correct usages of fuck) or the often lush descriptions of life in Beijing (the "trees sang greenly their Western melody") but a bracingly wry self-awareness that gives traction to a story that could be cloying but is instead funny, exciting, and moving. In the final pages, when Da departs from Yellow Stone once more, this time for Nebraska and "a big school named Union in a big city named for a bigger-than-life, slave-freeing president," he has tears in his eyes; chances are that you will, too.

Claire Marvel
By John Burnham Schwartz.
Doubleday; 320 pages; $25.
Sounds of the River
By Da Chen.
HarperCollins; 336 pages; $25.95.

Photograph by Dasha Wright Ewing.


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