Picks and Pans Review: Sphinx

updated 02/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/02/1987 AT 01:00 AM EST

by D.M. Thomas

The author of the best-selling The White Hotel has now written the engrossing third volume of a series of novels that includes Ararat and Swallow. These books are "improvised." That is, they are not conventional novels, plotted in any familiar way. Sphinx opens with the script of a television drama set in Russia. It is called Isadora's Scarf, and the long red cloth, which strangled the dancer Isadora Duncan to death when it caught in the spokes of a car wheel, returns again and again as a motif of violent death. The second section of the novel is told in a more straightforward manner, but one of the central characters is a famous "improviser," a skilled poet-storyteller who can recite a long narrative on any subject on the spur of the moment. It is these improvisers, often trying to outdo each other, who contributed to Ararat and Swallow. They give Thomas an opportunity to fold in stories within stories, to play with the idea of what is reality and what is fiction. When one improviser is asked if he doesn't think it's slightly immoral to mix reality and fiction, the man is indignant: "The trouble with most novels was precisely that they were fiction; in the final analysis, one knew they weren't true, and therefore they were boringly irrelevant." Thomas mixes fact and fiction, beautiful dreams and hideous nightmares, sweetness and violence, prose and poetry. The result is spellbinding. He creates a Russia where everything is "confused, shapeless, turbulent, ghostly." Even the vaguest of his half-presented images—fractured mirrors of characters and events that are not what they seem—linger in a reader's mind long after the last page is turned. (Viking, $17.95)

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