Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Cure for Chronic Abstraction: Travel

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Cure for Chronic Abstraction: Travel

Article excerpt

THE LAKE By Daniel Villasenor Viking

312 pp., $24.95

When poets write prose, listen up. The best know how to make language - and readers - work overtime.

Daniel Villasenor's first novel, "The Lake," can barely contain its ambition. It's a beautifully wrought novel about trying to escape the abstractions of language. That's a paradoxical challenge for a writer to tackle.

The hero of this quest is a brilliant young philosopher, one of those professional graduate students trapped in the eddy of his dissertation, subsisting on enormous intellectuality and a tiny university stipend. We meet Zach the day he can endure the harrowing emptiness of philosophical abstraction no more. He's grown self- conscious to the point of watching the sun move across the floor of his room. Thinking about thinking about thinking has driven him mad:

"When he went to lie down in the road it was early September and already the first molted leaves of the season were awash and clumped in the street rivulets and the air was woozy already with that sharp autumnal afterdark cold which feels on the summer's throat like a handheld knife chafing on a wire."

After he's arrested and admitted to a psychiatric ward, Zach meets an irreverent doctor who takes a personal interest in his case. When he chooses to take patients, which is increasingly rare, Dr. Lazar still practices that old-fashioned brand of psychology now retired by a host of more profitable psychotropic drugs.

For two months, he comes to Zach's room with a thermos of forbidden hot chocolate and listens to the young man talk about Aristotle, Hegel, Kant, Heidegger, and Nietzsche. Finally, one night, he cuts him off midsentence and tells him to shut up.

"You are not sick," he yells at him. "You are not a philosopher. You are dying for things. For the feel of things. Philosophy ... is your prefabricated shopping mall from which you pick a little Aristotle from this shop, a little Hume from there, some Kant in Women's Apparel, some Rousseau in Sporting Goods, and you sit

there in this little buffered eatery of your own making and adjudicate and calibrate and expiate the world's verse. …

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