Breaking the Waves

Atlantis, if it ever existed, was already an "impassable barrier of mud" by the time Plato described it; in elegant if unintentional mimicry, more modern resurrections of the myth get mired in a swamp of data and mysticism. Brooks Hansen seems aware of this danger. His latest novel, Perlman's Ordeal, set in 1906 London, tiptoes around the morass for a good long while, withholding the dread name-Atlantis!-until the two-thirds mark. But the threat of deluge hangs over it all: the loss of control over bodies and minds, over knowledge and art. Unfortunately, when the crash-of emotions, of temperaments-comes, as it must, the writing collapses, and characters are drained of any charm.

For a single memorable week, Dr. August Perlman, hypnotherapist and music aficionado, finds his world shaken by the brilliant, enchanting Madame Helena Barrett and "Nina," the split personality of his patient, 12-year-old hydrophobic Sylvie Blum. Smitten with Madame Helena, sister and soul mate of the late composer Alexander Barrett, the normally fastidious Perlman breaks doctor-patient confidentiality and allows her to meet his young charge. Nina's regal airs and fantastic stories-redolent of a doomed kingdom-captivate Helena, while the doctor's professionalism rapidly erodes.

More compelling than this hypnotic triangle is the dead Barrett, who resembles Nabokov's Sebastian Knight: both are half Russian, half English artists of genius, whose spirits hover about the margins. Hansen ingeniously has the dead man's music (via player piano) suffuse the parlor theatrics at the Barrett household, so that the dead hands of the past score-at times almost determine-the action of the benighted mortals.

Details

Perlman's Ordeal
By Brooks Hansen
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 329 pp., $24
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Before an audience of skeptics and Theosophist fellow travelers, Nina and Barrett's thespian uncle dramatize a key episode in her tale. Hansen dwells on this and the quasi-séance that follows, indulging an admixture of wafty dialogue and twice-told lore. But the reader, like one of Perlman's patients, may begin to feel very drowsy. Hansen's fin-de-siècle interests-classical music, hypnosis, Atlantis-are interesting, but his workmanlike prose drowns out any frisson. Perlman's Ordeal is, unfortunately, a wash.

 
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