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John L'Heureux, The Handmaid of Desire, Soho Press, $ 23

11:00 PM, Dec 8, 1996 • By SAUL ROSENBERG
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In a passage that neatly captures both the nature and the problem of what is called "postmodern" fiction, a character in a John Barth story muses:

"Another story about a writer writing a story! Another regressus in infinitum! Who doesn't prefer art that at least overtly imitates something other than its own processes?"

Who indeed? The interesting thing about John L'Heureux is that, from the evidence of The Handmaid of Desire, his fourteenth novel, he does and he doesn't. At least that, presumably, is why, in order to mount an attack on the postmodern novel, he has written . . . a postmodern novel.

When Olga Kaminska, en route to take up a temporary position in the English department of an unnamed West Coast university (L'Heureux has taught at Stanford for many years) advertises to us by a casual remark that she can read the mind of the airline stewardess approaching her, we think: telepathy? science fiction? No, she's a witch! A few pages later, the author tips his hand, and it turns out that Olga, the central character in The Handmaid of Desire, knows what the other characters in the novel are thinking, because she is, in fact, the writer of the novel. Aha! we say, a self-reflexive meditation on the nature of writing -- and our heart sinks in apprehension of a couple of hundred pages of selfreferential prose. Our spirits rise soon enough, however, for what follows is a frothy, convoluted farce which, if less thoroughly engaged than Kingsley Amis's 1954 debut, Lucky Jim, or the best of David Lodge, nonetheless catches and skewers precisely the mad solipsist pretensions of humanities academia on the eve of the millennium.

Olga arrives at the university to find her new colleagues in a high state of sexual and professional confusion. The chairman of the English department, Robbie Richter, is having a literary-theory-induced nervous breakdown, which is interfering in complicated ways with Zachary Kurtz's plans to seize control and re-christen the department the Department of Theory and Discourse. Zachary's obsession with his professional schemes is destroying his marriage to Rosalie, but their new baby looks like it might save their relationship -- until it turns out that what it really looks like is Gil Rudin, Zachary's colleague and Rosalie's sometime lover.

Meanwhile, in the realm of the less strictly heterosexual, Peter Peeks, a Californian-bodied, empty-headed undergraduate ("To me, Foucault is a god. I mean, that's really what he is, a god.") is having a fling with the hopeless " post-postmodern" writer Francis Tortorisi. Jealously spying on them is Maddy Barker, who in turn is lusted after by the lesbian Catholic Chicana-studies expert, Concepcion. In a gloriously topsy-turvy twist, Concepcion becomes uncertain of her sexuality -- "Was she really different from a normal gay woman?" -- but her bid for tenure is nevertheless secured when Eleonora Tuke irrefutably proclaims: "She's a Chicana and a lesbian and a good scholar in a minor field . . . but let us not forget that she is a Chicana and she is a lesbian. How many of us can claim that? Am I right? I'm right."

Beyond hopeless, you might think. But it is this generally ghastly crew of literary lunatics Olga intends to sort out, and sort them out she does, directing her characters out of the careful weighing of probability and motive toward the heavens and hells she believes they have earned for themselves.

L'Heureux has a delightfully light touch with the crazies who have taken over the asylum, from Concepcion and her "cell of postChristian feminists" revising the Catholic Angelus prayer to exclude the verses "all about Jesus and therefore irrelevant," to Eleonora Tuke's endless blather about "video acrostics and virtual poetic reality and sound grids" (not to neglect Moo Rudin, whose new "Dick and Jane" for the children of interracial couples, Dirk and Jahine, has just been rapturously received by the publishers). Underneath the sparkling surface, however, L'Heureux is working away quite seriously at his central theme: What has gone wrong with the teaching and writing of literature, and what can we do to fix it?

As far as the first question goes, L'Heureux is quite clear that it is a moral as well as an imaginative failure that has brought us to this unpretty pass, in which all concerned with the business of literature play intellectual games on the sidelines, refusing to step into the arena in which Dickens and Tolstoy struggled -- and conceal that refusal behind a claim that the arena does not really exist, that the power of fiction to illuminate human nature is an illusion.