The daring premise of Martha Cooley's second novel, Thirty-Three Swoons, will no doubt excite readers who incline toward realism leavened with a touch of high-concept fantasy. Cooley's hook is this: She invents an "incorporeal double," a collaborator or doppelgänger for the early-twentieth-century Russian theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold; and she imagines that this spirit character intercedes in the mental life of a contemporary New Yorker named Camilla Archer, manipulating her dreams in what amounts to a kind of invasive, aestheticized psychotherapy. Why should Meyerhold's double be interested in Camilla? What does it mean for a double or "alternate self" to be transferred through space and time from one person to another—in this case from an artistic luminary executed by Stalin in 1940 to a relatively ordinary woman who runs a theater memorabilia shop in Greenwich Village?

Cooley dangles these tantalizing questions throughout her novel, promising
to explore their emotional or existential dimensions. Early on, Meyerhold's double suggests that he is drawn to Camilla partly because she loves theater; partly because her deceased father and Meyerhold were brief acquaintances in Paris; and partly because Camilla is in "considerable distress"—she has made peace neither with the recent, sudden death of her cousin, Eve, nor with a series of older losses, including that of her brilliant but inattentive father. She is thus ripe, in the doppelgänger's words, for "oneiric intervention." For his part, Meyerhold's double is "swimming in" remorse, having failed, years earlier, to save the director from Stalin's purges. By prodding Camilla's subconscious, he believes, he can atone for past inadequacies: "I'd seen Vsevolod Meyerhold lose his way, egregiously. Now Camilla Archer wasn't going to lose hers; not if I had anything to do with it."

Unfortunately, this purported mission, so central to the plot and character of the double, never quite rings true. It makes sense, certainly, that the double suffered acute grief as a result of Meyerhold's arrest and torture, and later faced something akin to survivor guilt (a major theme, incidentally, of Cooley's first novel, The Archivist [1998]). But it strains credence to accept that after sixty years of frustrated searching, the doppelgänger believes that he has found another perfect partner—"the receptor to whom [Meyerhold's] energies might at last be fruitfully transmitted"—and that that person is Camilla Archer. (Question to Cooley: Why posit an ideal receptor in this way, putting pressure on what could otherwise be a more playful and evanescent linkage, more Meyerholdian in spirit?) The explicit, heavy-handed comparisons between Camilla's mental "prison cell" and Meyerhold's actual one are regrettable as well; surely a figure who bore witness to Stalin's purges would not easily recast the Moscow jail as a pop-psychological metaphor.

Cooley speculates, at various points, on the ontological status of the double. She suggests that he may represent some aspect of Camilla's subconscious; or he may function as a more literal spirit presence—"a kind of baton passed from one mind to another." "Think of me as real," the double says, in the book's first sentence. "Whether or not I am is unimportant, an idle theoretical question." Readers who take this as a wink, however, and look forward to an intellectually provocative follow-through, will likely be disappointed.

The double's intercession consists of a series of mildly surreal, theatrical dreams, in which Camilla's father, Jordan, plays a central and cryptic role. In one dream, Jordan, who worked as a perfume chemist, appears in a tux, white gloves, and greasepaint to juggle empty flasks on a stage. "Apparently I can have one or the other—scent or bottle—but not both," he declares. In another, he asks his daughter to mix a bittersweet potion for him, then ride with him "in a small sailboat . . . across the gray sea of the table," until they reach a long wooden box, which turns out to be her mother's coffin—and then Jordan's, as well. There is an appealing poetry in some of these concoctions, but too often Cooley undermines the magic by lapsing into explication—belaboring, for instance, the fusion of theatrical and psychological roles: "This is real theater, not just a bit of gymnastics!" the doppelgänger exhorts. "You're each playing a part, remember? You two are in a relationship here."

Some of the most interesting works of new fiction invent a kind of interplay between dream or fantasy and recognizable life. Emerging writers such as Kelly Link, Shelley Jackson, and Samantha Hunt create alternate realities in approaches that are indebted, variously, to science fiction, fantasy, or children's literature. When the work is successful, it is almost always in part because the writer has been guided by an internally consistent, if outlandish, set of rules. Part of the pleasure for readers lies in figuring out how the underlying system works. (In this sense, the fiction may double as a kind of blueprint, or user's manual, to a parallel world.)

Cooley, unfortunately, never commits to a coherent set of rules for her creation. We are told, for instance, that the double first met Camilla shortly after the death of her cousin. Yet later, he offers up a quasi-omniscient picture of Camilla's father and the guilt he felt fifty years earlier when his wife, Camilla's mother, died in labor. Although seemingly slight, such breaches are particularly disruptive to the fantastical conceit, whose contours the reader actively seeks to discern.

Cooley's realism rests on surer ground. The plotlines that twist through Camilla's day-to-day life in Greenwich Village—a walk with her ex-husband; a chat with her best friend, a former mime—are typically lively and fresh. An increasingly fraught familial puzzle—the question of who fathered the child of Camilla's cousin, Eve—also makes for some fast-turning pages. But the new novel still lacks the intense emotional impact of The Archivist. Although both novels deal with painful historical material—protagonists who collect or safeguard old papers or objects; adults neglected as children and misinformed about their parents' lives—the characters in Thirty-Three Swoons are less believably haunted and raw. Their well-developed defense mechanisms can fool even the attentive reader; in the case of Camilla, her "considerable distress"—as perceived by the doppelgänger—is not immediately obvious to readers at all.

One wishes to applaud writers who take on ambitious, genre-bending premises—who willingly compound the challenges both of shaping and of marketing a work of fiction. One hopes to see more courage of this kind. Cooley's conceptual frame may be admirable, but it's almost as if she hasn't realized just how intriguing her premise is—and how many questions the reader will wish she had explored.

 


Amanda Schaffer is a frequent contributor to the online magazine Slate.

 

 
     
     
 
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THIRTY-THREE SWOONS BY
MARTHA COOLEY. NEW YORK: LITTLE, BROWN.
320 PAGES. $24. BUY NOW