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The Center of American Fiction

UCCS American literature course brings three more luminaries to the Springs



Editor's note: This is the second in a series of articles on contemporary American fiction by women authors, who will be speaking at UCCS the Springs in upcoming weeks.

Visiting from Brooklyn last week to speak at UCCS on her first novel, Lightning Field, author Dana Spiotta offered a Vietnam story -- more accurately, a paparazzi story -- over dinner at Colorado Springs' Saigon Caf.

In 1979, Spiotta recalled, when she was about 12, she and her film-business family were guests aboard Francis Ford Coppola's yacht at the Cannes Film Festival for the premiere of Apocalypse Now.

Once on shore, Spiotta said, she was trampled by shutter-clicking paparazzi snapping candids of Coppola. None other than Roman Polanski helped her to her feet, which drew a playful parental admonition: "Oh, you are too old for Roman Polanski."

The second of six authors to visit UCCS as part of a course on American fiction by women, Spiotta has a fine eye for detail.

Lightning Field is a cultural snapshot of life in Los Angeles as lived by two characters, Mina (rhymes with Tina) Delano and her friend and employer, Lorene Baker, an upscale restaurateur. Unhappily married to her screenwriter husband, Mina has lovers on the side. Lorene, successful but lonely, limits her intimate contact to paid physical therapy sessions.

The jump-cuts and screenplay-style character interactions fit an L.A. story. Moral ambiguity and Sex and the Citystyle candor abound. But, notwithstanding an accurate portrayal of our obsessive consumerism, Lightning Field is limited to the story of its characters, entertaining more than it instructs.

A book that offers more of a message is Talking in the Dark, a collection of eight short stories by Laura Glen Louis, who will visit UCCS on March 11. The stories are powerful and well crafted, featuring mostly Asian-American characters.

"People who do questionable things are interesting," Louis said by phone from her Bay Area residence. "I don't think people are black and white."

The complex motivations for human behavior are best illustrated in her story, "Fur," anthologized in The Best American Short Stories of 1994, guest-edited by Tobias Wolff.

Visiting Colorado Springs from New York on April 8 will be Jenny McPhee, author of The Center of Things.

Speaking by phone from her office at Columbia University, McPhee commented on the inevitable comparison to her father, John McPhee, the 1999 Pulitzer Prize winner (Annals of the Former World) and famed writer for The New Yorker.

"He's been writing forever," McPhee said, "so it is something I am ... used to. ... On one hand he is an extraordinary help to me. ... On the other hand that's a tough act to follow.... It was not easy to get published. I still send out my stories and get regularly rejected."

The Center of Things tells the story of self-conscious, over-tall, and partly deaf Marie Brown, a tabloid writer for New York's fictional Gotham City Star. Nora Mars, "the [fictive] 1960s glamour queen and actress," who formed "Marie's teenage idea of female perfection," has slipped into a coma and hasn't long to live. Nora's obituary is Marie's ticket out of obscurity. She looks for scandal and finds it by interviewing Nora's third ex-husband, Rex, and her reclusive sister, Maud Blake.

McPhee's writing is at times heavy-handed and harlequin, but the novel works quite well overall. The book asks which tool brings us closer to discovering "the center of things" -- quantum physics or tabloid news? Indeed, we are asked to ponder whether there is a center at all.

-- Andrew Gorgey

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