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[whitespace] Cover Illustration Ibsen's head, Bettman/CORBIS; hunter's body, Culver Pictures; horse hooves, © Robert Maier/Animals from the cover of 'The Biographer's Tale'

Life Sentences

The narrator of A.S. Byatt's peculiar new novel, 'The Biographer's Tale,' would prefer not to be

By Valerie Ross

THERE IS a tale longing to be told in A.S. Byatt's new novel, The Biographer's Tale (Knopf, cloth, $24). We catch glimpses of it here and there, through the densely layered fragments of her narrative, but only at the very end do we sense the full possibility of what we have been missing.

The Biographer's Tale is almost the story of a disillusioned graduate student of literary theory (Phineas Nanson) who discovers meaning in life by choosing to become a biographer instead of a critic. But the book really isn't about that at all. This is merely the posture our narrator affects, for almost the entirety of the novel. Since the form of the book is that of a research journal, interspersed with personal reflection, the reader follows Phineas along his anxious, self-effacing quest for the reality of things, in flight from the world of postmodern deconstruction in which even the notion of an individual self is unstable. This seems to be Byatt's quest as well, but she turns out to be almost as trapped as our narrator is in the glare of postmodern literary politics. When Phineas lights upon a project--a biography of another enigmatic biographer--he (and Byatt) appear to be on the path to stability, reality and an interesting plot line. But that would be much too easy.

As Phineas' life becomes just another frame in a series of interconnected and framed narratives, his pose crumbles and his biographical research unravels. He does his best to fend life off with repeated forays into his research, but life--in the form of two archetypally different women--prevails in the end.

Until then, in our longing for Phineas to become a full-blooded character instead of the thinly outlined bundle of neuroses who has embraced biography in a desire to avoid living or writing about his own life, Byatt's readers are forced to wade with him through seemingly endless yet random lists of taxonomical arcana, a cache of unrelated documents produced by several different historical figures (Linneaus, Galton and Ibsen), the fictional contents of a box of uncatalogued index cards and an array of vague yet compelling peripheral characters.

By the end of the novel, the reader has been educated in the following extraordinary subjects and more, whether we wanted to be or not: Shamanic traditions in Lapland, floral taxonomy, mating habits of Turkish bees, the early stages of photographic composite technology, world travel by intellectual themes, environmental politics, the snuff film industry and Henrik Ibsen's personal problems.

Postmodern Poetry

THIS IS ALL fine and to be expected, since A.S. Byatt is an author for eccentrics, scholars, connoisseurs and critics. Her wide-ranging thirst for obscure knowledge, tinged with a fascination for the occult, the kinky and the macabre, lures her trusting readers into strange and magical worlds, while testing their devotion and fortitude every step of the way. Because Byatt is herself a scholar and a critic, her novels and short stories tend to be experimentally self-conscious constructions, aware at every turn of the theoretical discourses she is participating in as well as those by which her work will be measured. For the first time in her oeuvre, this academic self-consciousness (which is delightfully diffused throughout the romance and intrigue in her bestselling novel Possession) has become a form of paranoia in The Biographer's Tale.

Phineas never lets us forget, even for a page, that he is struggling as a writer, that what he is attempting to do is break every rule he learned in graduate school and that this manuscript is out of control. He is often as bored or baffled as we are by the strange assemblage of information he shares with us. He is also conflicted over the question of who exactly his audience is, repeatedly muttering phrases like, "As if anyone will ever read this anyway."

This, as one can imagine, puts the reader in a very strange position. One doesn't need to be a scholar of literary theory to understand The Biographer's Tale, but it helps. Phineas is an unreliable narrator raised to exponential, tortuous degrees, precisely because he is aware of his unreliability and the ambivalence of his desires as a narrator. He is constantly reworking his sentences, his metaphors and his tone for his imagined audience, which ironically invests the reader with a similarly awkward self-consciousness: couldn't he stop thinking about us and just get on with his story?

This, however, is ultimately a question for Byatt, and as with all her intricately crafted stories and novels, we can be sure that whatever is going on with this peculiar narrative, she strategically intended it to be that way.

What her strategy seems to be aiming at here is much larger than the sum of its parts, without (thankfully) the sprawl and ranting excess of her last novel, Babel Tower. When writers reach Byatt's stature (she was a member of the board that selected the much-contested Modern Library list of the best novels of the 20th century), the public seems to demand that their work speaks to or at least responds to the prevailing concerns of the day. Byatt does this with a vengeance. She gives us back more of the world, its frail beauty, its cruelty, its uncanny interconnections and bizarre ruptures, in vivid eloquent language and in much more detail than we may have bargained for.

It is these details--the golden hairs on the skin of a beloved; the fissures of a cancer patient's bones revealed in the violet light of an X-ray film--that add up to more than a mere biography could ever capture. A.S. Byatt helps her narrator find, and in the process gives back to us, the poetry of life.

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From the March 14-21, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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