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The Aesthetics of Impermanence
By Margaret Black

A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity: A Novel
By Whitney Otto Random House, 83 pages, $23.95

Whitney Otto doubtless cleaned up financially with the huge popular success of her first novel, How to Make an American Quilt, especially after that truly sappy movie came out. But this author actually deserves a more discriminating and demanding readership than the clutch of sentimentalists who’ve made her rich. In the novels that followed her initial success—Now You See Her and The Passion Dream Book—Otto adventured with form and ideas in ways that reveal her serious interest in her art as well as her pocketbook. She has now published A Collection of Beauties, a loosely connected novel that uses 18th-century Japanese posters to structure deceptively simple stories about a group of intelligent but feckless thirtysomethings living in San Francisco in the 1980s. It’s a brilliant stroke, and by having the past and the present comment on each other, Otto does a beautiful job of illuminating both worlds.

Japanese artist Utamaro and others like him have made many Americans familiar with ukiyo-e—the sketches and color prints of urban scenes, courtesans, and performers in the “floating world,” the entertainment world of Edo, Japan’s capital from the 17th to the 19th century. Suffused with a profound awareness of the impermanence of things, this culture placed an enormous value on beauty, art, and taste, as it pursued its obsessions with theater, poetry, music, dance, clothing, and, of course, sex. Each print that Otto selects has an attached commentary that further illuminates the story she tells about San Francisco, and all the San Francisco stories ultimately interconnect to draw a portrait of her contemporary floating world.

The central observer of this fog- shrouded scene is Elodie Parker, a regular at the Youki Singe Tea Room, a strange little side room in a North Beach bar where all the members of her world congregate. When she’s there, Elodie writes in her “pillow book,” a miscellany of thoughts, lists, and observations based on the famous Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Like Sei Shonagon, a lady-in-waiting to the Japanese empress more than a thousand years ago, Elodie makes lists, of “Rare Things” (“A perfect apartment. Two people, who meet in a converted church and fall in love.”) or of “Things That Have Lost Their Power” (“The possibility of disaster. The love you thought would save you.”). The items in these lists all refer to stories in the novel.

Elodie uses the pillow book to comment on the denizens of the Youki Singe, their lives and characters. All the women are beautiful, even if Jelly is singled out as being “something of a spectacular beauty.” All have jobs, but none use their university educations. “They are unmistakable on the street, in cafés where they read voraciously, converse, and shop (almost reflexively) for the next pretty thing.” Roy, their supplier of pot and cocaine, “is neither sinister nor extraordinary in any way,” but a “sunny fellow with smart girlfriends.” Micha Toluca, a young man “so stunning that few could turn their eyes from him,” takes up graffiti-type painting because he thinks it will put him on the right occupational track, only to fall in love with serious painting because of Rothko.

But mostly Elodie sketches the women and their love stories. Lenny courts Coco because Coco resembles a famous old painter in her youth. Jelly loves the exiled Iranian Pirouz and marries him so he can get a green card and stay to love Raphaella. But Raphaella actually loves Kit who secretly loves Jelly. Elodie herself loves an older married man. As he begins to tire of her, she knows “the body cannot remain new or unknown, but the mind can constantly change.” Since change “is the root of sexual interest,” she reengages her lover’s attention by writing a continuing story (based clearly on an idealized self) “about a girl who has no possessions, no home, no regular job. She is cool and proud. She often has sex in order to have a place to stay, though she is not a prostitute. She is like a tayu, a courtesan of Edo Japan, with her elegant finery, musical gifts, artistic ambitions, perfectly calligraphed poems.” Elodie keeps the story installments, along with her pillow book, at the bar of the Youki Singe.

The two devices—the pillow book and ukiyo-e—though from distinctly different and widely distant periods in Japanese history, both work. In large part this is because Sei Shonagon’s world shares many of the same preoccupations—aesthetics, love, impermanence—with the Edo world, and with Elodie’s world as well. In their aimlessness, Otto’s characters will inevitably call to mind Douglas Coupland’s Gen-X slackers working at their McJobs. But Otto’s people are definitely a rung or two higher on the financial ladder, and they are much more interesting aesthetically. Otto evokes a stylish, attractive, but ultimately melancholy world inhabited by unfocused yet likeable people who secretly yearn for permanence and meaning.


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