Sibling Revelry
Time, Monday, May 20, 1974

He didn 't know if he was alive
and the girl was dead
He didn't know if the girl was alive
and he was dead
He didn't know if they both were alive
or both were dead

—T.S. Eliot, Fragment of an Agon


by A.G. Mojtabai
154 pages. Simon & Schuster. $6.95.

IN FAIRY TALES THE PRINCE sometimes saves his skin and pushes the plot forward by turning into a succession of wild creatures. Trapped on a cliff, he may become a magpie and fly away. Blocked by a lake, he is transformed into a silver fish who swims under the window of a disconsolate princess in time to catch the golden ring she drops and be turned into a prince again. Somewhat the same sort of trick is managed in this beautifully controlled first novel.

At the outset, Mundome's principal character seems to be one of those pretentiously arch, self-preoccupied creatures—remotely derived from Dostoevsky's Notes from Underground, and strained through the literary strictures of French neorealism—who infest European fiction. His name is Richard. He is a library archivist in charge of, yes, "fugitive and ephemeral materials." He is also the kind of man who will say, "Things are sometimes what they seem." But before the reader can begin to snarl or groan this incipient literary hedgehog changes into a devoted brother. His pretty sister Meg has just come home after twelve years in a mental hospital, and Richard seems pathetically ready to move heaven and earth to cajole her even one shuffling, painful step back toward the normal world.

Ambiguous Clues. Watching his sister for "signs of wellness," Richard notes, "Meg is now almost feeding herself. When she eats, food splashes over her chin . . . but that only means she's eating with more zest." He desperately tries to find in her crankiest non sequitur some shred of sanity or sense. He does his best to forget that she spends a good deal of time kissing the mirror and dangles the kitten he gave her by its tail.

All this is done with such compression and compassion that the reader continues to identify with Richard even after ambiguous clues bring his reliability as a witness into doubt. When life with Meg drifts too much toward surrealism and subjectivity, Richard's vignettes of life in the library help reassert his point of view. He composes provocative first sentences to imaginary short stories ("On the night of the blackout, Liz and Mike made love but not to each other"). He does a fine interior monologue about the psychiatrist as fortune cookie ("Be cautious yet confidently aggressive").

Richard, in fact, is well past jagged recollections of Meg's ominous girlhood and into an account of her relapse -- which brings a return to the asylum -- before the reader, by now totally in the grip of the author, really admits that Richard the good may in fact be Richard the bad, a brother whose sexual advances perhaps drove Sister Meg insane in the first place. Thereafter, as Meg is re-examined and taken away in a straitjacket, the book erupts with dramatic clues that flare backward and forward through the narrative like thin, ignited trains of gunpowder, creating any number of tantalizing questions. Among them: Did Richard invent Meg? Is Meg the other half of Richard's tormented personality? Did Meg invent Richard? Is there a Richard at all?

There are no answers, of course. Only hints followed by guesses. To those who want it, Mundome gives a new license for chatter about the fluidity of personality. But what the book mostly leaves behind is a rare and pleasant sense of having been taken down the garden path by a master. 

"I was tracked for science in high school," says A.G. Mojtabai (sounds like much to buyee), a 36-year-old New York City librarian, "and in some ways I've had no literary education at all." Her maiden name was Ann Grace Alpher. Eventually she went to Antioch to major in philosophy and math (as well as taking graduate degrees in philosophy and library science at Columbia), but she remembers being put in Slow English at Westfield High School in New Jersey, where she played ticktacktoe.

Shake People Up.  "Because I was in philosophy, Antioch didn't know what kind of job to get me during work periods. They figured the best thing would be as broad a life experience as possible." That included a stint as copyperson for the Cleveland Press, a summer as an assistant in archaeology at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History classifying artifacts ("I loved that") and in a Maryland mental hospital. Afterward, though she had never written anything but occasional poetry, she roughed out a story about psychological doubles. It eventually became the germ of Mundome, but she put it aside for a decade.

After college she met a young Iranian, married him in 1960 and at age 23 was whisked off, first to Teheran, then to Pakistan, where her husband headed the Iranian cultural mission. "I came from a relaxed Jewish family," she recalls. "He came from a relaxed Moslem family. But naturally there were differences. I had two mothers-in-law, for instance. In the Middle East a good woman is not noticed. Her behavior at a party gives no grounds for later conversation among the guests. I tried my best, but it was difficult to be so self-effacing." After four years she returned to the U.S. with her daughter Chitra, 12. Her son is still in Iran with her husband.

The Cohen Library of New York's City College, where she works as a cataloguer, helped give a frame to her book. When she finished, she wrote about it to British Critic A. Alvarez, simply "because he liked and championed some of my favorite poets —Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, Berryman." Alvarez asked to see the manuscript, followed up with detailed criticism, then put Mrs. Mojtabai in touch with an agent and Nan Talese, his editor at Simon & Schuster.

Why did the author start writing fiction? "I guess because it can do what I used to think philosophy ought to do—shake people up. Get them to question basic assumptions about reality." Or, as Richard warns in another connection, "You couldn't be sure. In the meantime, it was best to take nothing for granted."