Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Collectors

By Katherine Catmull

OCTOBER 25, 1999: 

Collectors: A Novel by Paul Griner (Random House), $19.95 hard

A collector desires the unattainable, or at least the rare -- the most limited edition possible. So "'death is always a draw,'" explains a character in Paul Griner's eerie new psychological thriller. "'Collectors like nothing better.'" Collectors, the novel, is spare, elegant, and disturbing -- indeed, so spare, so full of lacunae, that its very emptiness creates a chill psychological breeze.

In the novel's curious and artful opening paragraph, Griner seems to begin writing from the point of view of a woman named Claudia, but slides instead into Jean's eyes. This effect is never commented on, and never repeated in the book, but its strange aftertaste lingers.

The opening paragraph is also a fore-echo of the motif of mirrors and doubling that winds throughout this novel. Claudia and Jean are cousins whose obsessive childhood friendship (they called each other She and Me) was forcibly ended after a fiery catastrophe. Years later, at Claudia's wedding, Jean meets the enigmatic Steven, who becomes her new obsession.

Jean believes she is now bored by Claudia, and the two are no longer close. But it is Claudia who arranges for Jean to meet Steven. And when Jean practices a negotiation technique in a mirror so that she can hide her real feelings, she discovers that "The trick was a second voice in her head, midway in register between her own voice and Claudia's, background to her other thoughts, repeating the same three words, over and over. It's a lie, it's a lie, it's a lie."

Then, late in the novel, without comment from Jean or the writer, Jean cuts and bleaches her long dark hair to mimic Claudia's new style. This absence of intrusive authorial comment -- or indeed any authorial or narrative comment at all -- is one of the novel's most effective and eeriest qualities. Is Jean's relationship with Steven a reliving of her obsessive childhood friendship with Claudia? Does the fire that ended that childhood symbiosis find its mirror-reversed image in Jean's ungovernable attraction to Steven, the obsessive sailor? Griner's hand is light -- he offers intriguing possibilities, but never answers.

As Jean and Steven's relationship circles inward, becoming darker and more intense, the warnings from Jean's dotty neighbor grow comparably more intense, and the sense of unease grows. Jean does not heed Mrs. Olsen's anxiously clipped newspaper articles about the dire fate of women who sleep with the window open. But as she moves into ever-deeper water with Steven, she seems to be responding to a more terrible warning in Mrs. Olsen's lonely, pointless life.

Both for Jean and for the reader, the necessary climax of Jean and Steven's story looms more vivid and inevitable as the book nears its (rather abrupt) end. But in Paul Griner's skillful, elegant telling, you still watch, appalled and fascinated, as Jean walks the edge of that cliff.

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