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JULY 5, 1999: 

Couples and Loneliness by Nan Goldin (Korinsha, paper, $35)

Goldin has been making intimate, sometimes disturbing images of herself and her friends for 25 years. Taken as a whole, her body of work is a narrative of sex, friendship, change, death and survival. The scope of it was made clear by the Whitney's retrospective a couple of years ago, and Couples and Loneliness, a new survey of her work since the 1970s, attempts on a smaller scale to do the same.

Like any diarist (her own word for what she does), Goldin straddles the line between reportage and narcissism. The uneasy balance is part of what makes her photography so fascinating. It's also the source of a critical backlash almost inevitable in the case of an artist whose work is so influential that imitations of it appear everywhere from music videos to advertising spreads in Vogue. (It's not currently fashionable to admire her work, only to borrow from it.) Couples and Loneliness affords a nice look at how Goldin's concerns have evolved: from the purely autobiographical (as in her best known work, the early-'80s document, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency) to the amazing, painterly landscapes of recent years. Still, the shift from relentless self-portraiture toward a greater curiosity about the larger world -- from garish nighttime lighting to real sunlight -- is not as radical as it might look. Even her landscapes are photographic diary entries. Dizzyingly tilted, out of focus, and often suffused with cyans, reds or greens of blinding saturation, they make you as aware of the camera, and the eye behind it, as of the water, sunsets or greenery that are their ostensible subjects.

Couples and Loneliness is a good, generous introduction to Nan Goldin. If the choice of pictures offers few surprises to anyone familiar with her work, the fact is you can look at some of these images over and over; familiarity makes them richer. Korinsha's reproductions are fine, and Goldin's few, brief comments, scattered among the pages of photographs, are enjoyable. Like the best of her photographs, they are candid, straightforward and unexpectedly modest.

-- Jeffrey Lee

England, England by Julian Barnes (Alfred A. Knopf, hardcover, $23)

It's a great, sitcom-worthy premise: An amusement park duplicates all of England's tourist attractions in miniature and eventually replaces the real thing in the minds of the world. Unfortunately, the writer gets so hung up on the sexual proclivities of the characters that the original concept gets lost. I honestly cannot remember whether the park ultimately succeeds or fails.

The first 26 pages contain a poignant, self-contained story about childhood and loss. The little story, however, does absolutely nothing to explain the monstrous heroine of the book. Martha, the star of every young man's nightmare and wet dream, is motivated by a predatory sexuality and lust for power that would be a credit to any high school creative writing class. Guys, this is not what we mean when we ask for stronger female characters. It takes more than a gloss of financial and political climbing to move a blow-up doll into humanity.

But Martha is not the novel's biggest problem. She may not be believeable, well-rounded or sympathetic, but she is entertaining. The thing that makes the middle section of this book so endless and tedious is all the talking. We know, ad nauseam, the aesthetic assumptions and viewpoint of every character at every plot turn. Before acting, they all stand around and theorize for a while. Unlike the beginning, the end is flat and predictable. Fantasy women tend not to age well, so this one ends up gray-haired, sexless and boring. Oh well, she had her fun.

This book has lots of cleverness and plenty of intellectual posturing, but zero depth. The author has won some awards; I hope that fact hasn't taken him out of the reach of a good editor. There is some excellent writing here, in the opening section and later on, when sex and philosophy step aside for -- surprise, surprise! -- a story. Maybe author Julian Barnes will manage to lose the speeches in his next effort. In the meantime, borrow this one from the library and skip the dull bits.

-- Dorothy Cole

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