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A country so small it can accommodate only one citizen at a time; a pair of twins whose secret girlhood world is under threat; a magical pill for a disease that isn't really a disease - these are the offbeat starting points for the three debut novels reviewed below. In all three, the authors sidestep the potential for gimmickry to create fresh and unexpected worlds on the page.
"The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil" by George Saunders; Riverhead ($13)
This first stand-alone novella by George Saunders ("CivilWarLand in Bad Decline") is set in Inner Horner, a country "so small only one Inner Hornerite at a time could fit inside, and the other six Inner Hornerites had to wait their turns to live in their own country while standing very timidly in the surrounding country of Outer Horner."
Both countries are populated with characters who resemble surrealist collages more than human beings. Outer Horner's president, for instance, consists of "a jumble of bellies, white mustaches, military medals, and dignified double chins, all borne magnificently aloft on three thin wobbly legs."
How serious can such a fancifully premised tale be?
Very serious - especially when those seven Inner Hornerites find themselves hounded by a power-hungry Outer Hornerite tax collector named Phil, who sees himself as "his floundering nation's only hope." Phil's hunger for nonexistent revenue is humiliating at first, before becoming a lethal threat to his impoverished victims.
And Phil has willing accomplices helping him. Indeed, the title of Outer Horner's national drinking song - "Large, Large, Large, Beloved Land (If Not the Best, Why So Very Dominant?'') - suggests that Phil's bullying is just a slight exaggeration of traditional Outer Hornerite traits. Given that, Inner Horner seems doomed.
In "The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil," Saunders has sketched a parable about the abuses of power that has an unlikely sting in its whimsy. There may be a total of only seven Inner Hornerites, but one grows so fond of them that, as they're wiped out one by one, their destruction feels like genocide.
"Sketched," however, is the operative word here. "Phil" is almost as easy to read as a comic book (it comes with 14 pages of illustrations). The unusual thing about it is the way its striking imagery and perverse cruelties linger in the mind after you've read it.
"26a" by Diana Evans; Morrow ($23.95)
This marvelously written novel, winner of the Orange Award for New Writers, is rich with both ordinary and extraordinary realities.
Twins Georgia and Bessi Hunter, growing up in London's Neasden neighborhood, occupy a world of their own in the upstairs bedroom they share at 26a Waifer Avenue. Their twin status, they feel, gives them an "extra dimension. The one after sight, sound, smell, touch and taste where the world multiplied and exploded because it was the sum of two people. Bright was twice as bright."
Evans brilliantly captures the imaginative leaps that animate the girls' world, as they tend to their back garden's "apple trees, who were very pregnant now," or feverishly hope that the magic of Princess Diana's wedding on television will act on their parents as "a possible sway against divorce."
At the same time, Evans trains a knowing eye on the rest of the Hunter family, particularly Nigerian mother Ida, who ran away from her home village to Lagos at 17, and her white English husband, Aubrey, who meets Ida in Nigeria and takes her back to England. Rounding out the picture are the twins' older sister, the pragmatic Bel, and baby of the family Kemy, who wishes she was a twin too.
"26a" moves along on two levels, tracing the family's history (including a three-year move to Nigeria) at the same time that it chronicles a gradual split - in experience, in temperament - between Bessi and Georgia. You could scarcely ask for a funnier or sharper account of what it was like to grow up in 1980s and 1990s London, with Michael Jackson and Princess Di as your twin governing cultural presences.
Still, this is the story of a tragedy, of broken links that can't be restored, of a loss that no one fully anticipates. It's a sad and beautiful book by a writer whose unexpected turns of phrases contain the essence of her vision.
"Indecision" by Benjamin Kunkel; Random House ($21.95)
Benjamin Kunkel is this season's literary It Boy, with his first novel drawing lots of critical attention, including front-page treatment in The New York Times Book Review. The fuss seems a bit out of proportion to the merits of this loose, eccentric novel. Still, most of "Indecision" makes for fun reading.
Twenty-eight-year-old narrator Dwight Wilmerding is afflicted with "abulia," the inability to decide anything - or so he's been diagnosed by a friend. This same friend has a remedy to offer: Abulinix, a decision-inducing drug that takes a while to kick in. Until then Dwight is stuck with his usual method of figuring out what to do: the coin toss. And what his latest coin toss decrees is that he leave lower Manhattan to go to Quito to meet an old classmate who, he hopes, might want to become his girlfriend.
He's not even sure where Quito is, and he's already in a relationship. But never mind. Nothing turns out as planned anyway, and the book's plot hardly matters.
The draw here is Dwight's mind, which is a bit like overhearing a Tom Stoppard daydream filtered through an Owen Wilson hey-dude drawl. Affable Dwight feels "pretty neutral" about everything in his life: the dead-end job he just lost, his vanishing trail of girlfriends, his apartment roommates. His only real passion is for reading "deathocentric" (and highly fictional) German philosopher Otto Knittel. But even here he applies himself only sporadically.
The comedy of the book stems from Kunkel's one-liners ("There is no worse preparation for adulthood than having been a child"). Its substance stems from the glimpses it gives of what it's like to come of age (druggily, uncertainly, geographically ignorant) in a post-9/11 world.
Through much of the book, Kunkel makes the most of Dwight's "semi-eloquence," both poking fun at it and using it to voice the anxieties of his generation. In the last chapters, however, after questions of sexual tease have been resolved and the specifics of Dwight's 9/11 experience have been revealed, the book itself goes adrift.
Kunkel is certainly a smart writer - one worth watching as he moves beyond slacker malaise.
(c) 2005, The Seattle Times. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.