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^ ¦Stí eme'ws^kL The Infinite Plan by Isabel AUende Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden HarperCollins, 1993, 382 pp., $23 No one who reads The Infinite Plan will doubt Isabel Allende's ability to conceive a story on a grand scale, or to narrate it with abundant flourishes . Allende's fourth novel, her first to be set in the United States, is the story of the many vicissitudes in the life of West Coast lawyer, Gregory Reeves. Reeves is the son of an itinerant painter and evangelist, who preaches his own personal vision of the order of the universe—an order he calls The Infinite Plan. When the elder Reeves becomes ill, his family is taken in by Hispanic followers in a Los Angeles barrio, where Gregory and his sister grow up impoverished, speaking with Spanish accents. This early experience affects Gregory Reeves both positively and negatively as he pursues love and builds his legal career: while he covets wealth and prestige for himself, he remains compassionate to the poor—especially the poor of other races and ethnic groups. In her previous fiction (including her 1981 best-seller, The House of the Spirits), Allende has often employed the fantastic elements of magical realism. By comparison, The Infinite Plan is plainly realistic. It is 208 · The Missouri Review ambitious in its attempt to show the combined influence of large cultural forces and unique personal circumstances on an individual life. The problem with the novel is Allende's tendency to fall back on clichés, both in delineating her characters, and in creating the events that happen to them. The hyperbole and caricature of Magical Realism, in which characters tend to become archetypes (the virgin, the inventor , the lover) don't play well in the more delicate world of realism. This is a book chock full of occurrences and potentially interesting people; but in the back of the reader 's mind, the question is always lurking: "Haven't I seen this before in a television miniseries?" It is a shame, because the novel begins on a promising note, and there is promise, too, in the characters of Gregory Reeves and his dynamic woman friend, Carmen Morales. The book is, however, wonderfully translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. How I Came West and Why I Stayed by AUson Baker Chronicle Books, 1993, 182 pp., $9.95 This is Alison Baker's first collection of stories and they are weird and wonderful. Baker writes about the kind of people we encounter at the grocery store or in the park—people we see, remark upon, and grow curious about. She takes these innocuous oddballs—people who are remarkable in ways you're dying to put your finger on but can't—and relates their stories in wild detail, concentrating on those aspects of life that for some inexplicable reason, go unnoticed. Baker is careful and crafty, letting her characters tell their own stories. She doesn't turn Clearwater and Latissimus, Siamese twins in the first grade, into freaks. She is never reckless or silly when showing us the motivations of her narrators (for example, the woman on a quest for the cheerleaders with team spirit who run wild in the rugged mountains of Montana). She's truthful and not afraid to employ the humor that often lies in dark and foreboding territory. These thirteen stories do not bore readers with microscopic examinations of personal problems. Reading them, we are encouraged to imagine what life can be like, not stew over how it is. We are not asked to ponder. Rather, we are told to get out there, open our eyes, and be adventurers. Vox by Nicholson Baker Vintage, 1993, 166 pp., $8 (paperback reissue) This short novel consists entirely of a long-distance telephone conversation between a man and a woman who have found each other through ads in skin magazines. The talk is almost all about sex, with a number of contemporary twists. For one thing, the talked-about sex is mainly of the safest sort: masturbation . There is no mention of contraception , or jealousy, or any of the other messy problems of sex. Also, as might be expected from Baker 's previous novel, The...


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