A HOST OF DEBUTS

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First novels are usually publishers' unwanted mail: commercially unpromising bundles of print that are accepted grudgingly, paid for in peanuts and advertised sparsely, if at all. The mystery is why any first novels are ever published and why there are any first novelists willing to go through the ordeal of writing them. In spite of the many obstacles, first novels continue to appear. The question for readers is knowing which ones to try. Here is a look at six of them that we think, while not perfect, are worth your time.

A SURVIVOR'S TALE

Fugitive Pieces

Anne Michaels takes some audacious risks in Fugitive Pieces (Knopf; 294 pages; $23), not the least of them being a brief introductory passage that reveals her novel's conclusion. "Poet Jakob Beer, who was also a translator of posthumous writing from the war, was struck and killed by a car in Athens in the spring of 1993, at age sixty. His wife had been standing with him on the sidewalk; she survived her husband by two days. They had no children."

From this bleak beginning, Michaels plunges into this fictional poet's memories, which he set down in two notebooks in the months before his death. These recollections begin with the event, more than a half-century earlier, that changed his life: the night the Nazi soldiers came to his parents' house in their Polish village. Jakob, then seven, was still small enough to fit into the hiding place behind a wall, but his sister Bella, 15, was not. The aging poet remembers what happened next with understated anguish: "The burst door. Wood ripped from hinges, cracking like ice under the shouts. Noises never heard before, torn from my father's mouth. Then silence. My mother had been sewing a button on my shirt. She kept her buttons in a chipped saucer. I heard the rim of the saucer in circles on the floor. I heard the spray of buttons, little white teeth."

This extraordinarily compressed passage, appearing early in the novel, sets the tone for much that follows. Michaels not only creates an imaginary poet, she also examines the ways in which a poetic imagination can arise out of horror. That Jakob survives at all is a miracle. After days of hiding, he is finally driven by hunger to risk his fate by approaching a stranger. "I screamed into the silence the only phrase I knew in more than one language, I screamed it in Polish and German and Yiddish, thumping my fists on my own chest: dirty Jew, dirty Jew, dirty Jew."

Instead of being shot, he is rescued by Athos Roussos, a Greek geologist working on a nearby archaeological project. Athos smuggles the boy out of Poland back to Athos' ancestral island. Although the Nazis arrive there too, Jakob later realizes that he, having experienced the worst, was also spared much more of the same. "While I was living with Athos on Zakynthos, learning Greek and English, learning geology, geography, and poetry, Jews were filling the corners and cracks of Europe, every available space...I didn't know that while I was on Zakynthos, a Jew could be purchased for a quart of brandy, perhaps four pounds of sugar, cigarettes."

With such knowledge, and haunted by the memory of the sister he lost, how will Jakob Beer develop into a distinguished poet and, late in his life, a husband besottedly in love with his young wife? These are the questions that Fugitive Pieces addresses through Jakob's own words: "I try to set down the past in the cramped space of a prayer."

He succeeds, and credit goes to Anne Michaels, who created him. The author, 38, a Canadian poet who has published two volumes of verse, will try the patience of readers who expect brisk forward momentum in their novels. Her prose does not race; it hovers, insinuating its way in and around timeless mysteries. Jakob Beer never lived, but thanks to Michaels, he does now.

SLACK ON THE ROAD

The Beach

An eerie echo of Jack Kerouac's rambunctious 1957 novel, On the Road, begins to sound about halfway through The Beach (Riverhead; 371 pages; $23.95), by British writer Alex Garland, 27. The reason it takes half of Garland's moody tale for Kerouac's ghost to tap the reader on the shoulder is that the feel of the two novels could not be more different. On the Road was loony, funny, electric; The Beach is listless, pallid, drifting without object.

Each novel, in its style, captures the style of its generation, and can be read by bemused elders as a shrewd caricature of disaffected post-childhood wanderers desperate to avoid adulthood. Garland's characters are young European and American backpackers who circle like dead leaves in an eddy through the guesthouses of Southeast Asia: this month Lombok, next week or next month or in another life, Loh Liang or Zanskar. Garland writes as they travel, without emotion or opinion or allegiance. His narrator is an affectless young Englishman named Richard, who, in Thailand, comes upon a hand-drawn map that seems to locate a dimly-rumored and supposedly unreachable island beach unknown to tourists or authorities. With a young French couple, flaccid Etienne and wanly beautiful Francoise, he manages to find this Eden, whose legendary sands can be arrived at only by jumping from the top of a high waterfall.

The three jump--a dreamlike scene of letting go--and discover a commune of becalmed, largely indistinguishable migrants much like themselves. Weeks go by without exhilaration or despair. The beach dwellers fish, steal a little marijuana from an illicit plantation and work on their tans. Eventually, perhaps because everyone has read Lord of the Flies, things fall apart nastily. But even this calamity, which involves blood and dead people (the pot growers lose patience), does not touch the survivors. They grab sandals and rucksacks and move on. Richard reports all this a year later from London, where he is tethered to an unspecified job. His tone is one of mild regret, which seems to be the author's view as well, though that's hard to say. If Garland is aware that he has written satire, he gives no sign of it. --By John Skow

ANIMAL INSTINCTS

Lives of the Monster Dogs

Here's a strange fable--if it has talking animals, it must be a fable--that clanks awkwardly in its mechanics but leaves a melancholy stillness as it is put back on the shelf. Kirsten Bakis' supposition in Lives of the Monster Dogs (Farrar Straus & Giroux; 291 pages; $23) is that in the year 2008, a tribe of large dogs, surgically and genetically altered, with prosthetic hands and voice boxes and with the intelligence of humans, arrives in Manhattan. The dogs walk erect, using canes, and wear costumes patterned after military uniforms and ball gowns of 19th century Prussia.

A journalist, Cleo Pira, befriends the dogs and learns their story. Their transformation began a century before, in the crazed ambition of a German surgeon to develop a race of unstoppable soldiers. This Dr. Frankenstein immigrated to the Canadian wilderness, where he and his successors botched generations of malamutes and Great Danes before the dogs revolted. It is this science fiction that clanks: author Bakis, 29, asks the reader to be literal-minded in accepting the surgical wonders, and then piles up so many that common sense balks. Could prosthetic hands, replacing cut-off paws, ever play Chopin? Could they ever stop hurting?

This pervasive pain, however, may be what makes the author's ending, a skillful interplay of sadness and mystery, work as well as it does. The dogs, who are quite rich, build a large castle, delighting and diverting human residents of New York City. But their tortured bodies are beginning to fall apart. Alone in his apartment, a brilliant German Shepherd named Ludwig von Sacher reverts to dog behavior--scratches on the door, piles of feces on the rug--then recovers enough to write in his journal, "I am alone in the world, a ludicrous animal." So are they all alone, and so they die. This diminuendo is unnoticed, except by the journalist Pira, who notes that the attention of the busy world has drifted elsewhere. --J.S.

WHOSE LIFE IS IT?

Hallucinating Foucault

Several schools of literary theory hold that readers have no business being interested in the private lives of authors; words on a page are utterly distinct from their creators, and the words are what matter. In Hallucinating Foucault (Ecco; 175 pages; $21), Patricia Duncker plays entertaining variations on these arguments and on the relationships between readers and writers.

Her unnamed narrator is a 22-year-old Englishman studying for an advanced degree in French literature at Cambridge. He is working on a thesis about the novels of a writer named Paul Michel, who emerged in the 1960s as "the wild boy of his generation." The narrator is more interested in Michel's cool, classically restrained fiction than in his public role as an outspoken homosexual. In fact, the narrator seems unaware of the fate of the real Paul Michel until his Cambridge girlfriend tells him that Michel was diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic in 1984 and has been held ever since in one or another French mental institution.

Before he quite knows what has hit him, Duncker's hero finds himself in Paris, "having been chosen for reasons I did not understand" to rescue Michel from his captivity. Eventually he succeeds, and then succumbs to the confusion of author with text: "Paul Michel and the hidden drama lived in his texts were utterly and terribly fused."

The definitive novel on the chaotic collision between reader and creator remains Nabokov's Pale Fire. But Duncker, 45, who teaches at a Welsh university, turns Hallucinating Foucault into something more than an academic thriller. And the questions she leaves unanswered are of more than academic interest. --P.G.

ROOTED IN THE PAST

Naming the New World

A black man arrives on a slave ship 300 years ago, knowing one English word: "Nigger." It is, or might as well be, his New World name. But Niger, the river, is his origin, his blood flow, which Calvin Baker, 24, a writer for PEOPLE magazine, traces through generations to the brackish wash of present time. Naming the New World (St. Martin's Press; 118 pages; $18.95) is a writer's gamble, a brief, fast-changing swirl of prose sketches, prose-poetry, and poetry standing naked. Such a recitation--it could be chanted, to drum beats, in an evening--might dissipate in artiness. The view here is that it stands solid and speaks the author's mind.

Baker writes of blood, mixed now with white; slave rebellion; slave capture. "Me, Ezra, and Mamma was all hid in a tunnel behind the wall of the cabin when light flashed between the slits in the board..." A few pages and generations later, a young American black man, well dressed, we assume, money in his pocket, we assume, watches poor blacks in the Caribbean and thinks, "I wanted a connection to these people, wanted to share pots of curried goat and warm lager in Trenchertown because I was one of them." Imagining: "Black people gonna rise up." Knowing sheepishly: "The whole time just an advertising executive on vacation."

Then later, the same man, with real trouble now, not the borrowed kind, makes a jail visit. His junkie brother, guilty of a senseless killing, has managed to kill himself by driving a hypodermic needle into his heart. Rage, love, disgust, self-loathing--there are the beginnings here of a dozen strong novels to come, bound by racial memory of the slave ship: "At night I hear their voices, huddled close to each other. The memories beat louder and louder against my skull. Above it all, I hear the wailing, see the water." --J.S.

OFF TO A FAST START

Necessary Madness

Gloria Burgess, 30, is an american who has recently lost her husband Bill, an English painter, to leukemia. She lives on in London with her admirably behaved eight-year-old son and tries to imagine how she will endure her grief and bereavement. One answer knocks on her apartment door shortly after Bill's death: Jascha Kremsky, a sculptor and an acquaintance of her late husband's and, it turns out, a widower who lost his wife and daughter in a car accident several years earlier.

In other words, not many surprises turn up in Necessary Madness (Putnam; 212 pages; $21.95), a generic weeper with a happy ending. But the novel has enjoyed brisk prepublication chatter, impressive sales of foreign rights and a movie deal thanks to an interesting fact about its author: Jenn Crowell, now a college sophomore, was 17 when she finished the manuscript.

The amazement that anyone so young could write a publishable novel seems slightly condescending, of a piece with the sentiment behind a chauvinistic remark of Samuel Johnson's: "A woman's preaching is like a dog walking on its hinder legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all." In fact, most of Necessary Madness is done very well indeed, at least within the restrictions of its genre. Crowell keeps her plot moving briskly along, and her narrator gets off some good lines. Looking back on her teenage fling with punk fashions, she notes, "I graduated second in my high school class, which meant that I had the distinction of being the school's first purple-haired salutatorian."

But certain passages in the novel, particularly those dealing with the husband's slow death, suggest that Crowell is ready to break free of conventions and find her own way. --P.G.