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Monologues, mania, and evasions

An unsettling stay in Rome with McGowan's off-center heroine

Duchess of Nothing
By Heather McGowan
Bloomsbury, 216 pp., $23.95

''The tongue was made to hide your thoughts," a Mafia strongman once told an interviewer. Not that it was his intention, but he had come up with the perfect tag for that literary figure, the unreliable narrator.

Few narrators could be less reliable -- her furiously beating tongue churns air -- than the protagonist of Heather McGowan's ''Duchess of Nothing." A duchess, that is, in her airily grandiloquent self-proclamation, and her duchy barely a quivering cobweb.

Bit by bit, in a monologue that drifts back and forth between brilliant glitter and pitiable unhinging, that asserts and withdraws, that plumes itself like a conqueror and molts a trail of bedraggled feathers, we get an approximate story.

McGowan gives her narrator no name, thus conveying the elusive track-covering, the shame that flickers beneath the arrogance. For convenience I will call her ''the woman." Having run away from her older husband, whom she refers to as ''the Bavarian," she lives in Rome with Edmund, a young Italian with a beautiful back of which we hear a great deal, and few other qualities.

Vague and unreliable bits of the narrator's past spill out. She had worked in a bank where, she variously announces, she had felt free and happy, and tyrannized and unhappy. The Bavarian was dull and stodgy; when she lit out for Europe she had taken a wad of his cash with her. Yet far from shaking his dust from her shoes, she holds on to the dust, as it were; nursing a smudgy resentment that he hasn't come after her.

Edmund's 7-year-old brother, or perhaps half brother (also nameless; she calls him ''the boy"), lives with them. Ostensibly the woman makes him the center of her world; in fact he is the mirror she performs to. She feeds him, dresses him, takes him on expeditions, and drills him continually in her skewed and inflated vision of herself and her life.

Edmund is elusive and often absent; the boy is her captive, the dukeling whom she will shape to redeem her failures and disappointments. She complains incessantly about the sacrifices she makes for him, about the trap that Edmund's lovely back has led her into.

''Where I was once my own person now I am simply the slut who boils your milk; that is the sole definition of my life today. Why? Because of beauty. So I will boil your milk every morning until I die spent and shriveled, bones ossified, death passing quite unnoticed."

Her didactic fantasy continues, the child dutifully taking it in. ''That's all, I say leaning and exhaling. That's the lesson. Beauty is fatal, the boy says quietly. If not beauty then love, I say carefully. Love is fatal, the boy amends."

The dialogue grows zanier after Edmund decamps, leaving an envelope of cash. She takes the boy to a trash-filled rise with an undistinguished view of Rome. She hates the famous views; she calls them sluts. (''Slut" is a favorite word; its ostensible contempt, we suspect, masks an abused and abusing self-contempt.)

''We must find beauty where no one has found it," she lectures. ''I wager even Hell is clogged with tour buses. We will arrive in that fiery place expecting to be the first to discover its beauty only to find it echoing with clamors for fried dough."

As their money runs out, the boy begins hesitantly to assert himself. He objects to her extravagances, is dubious about her plan, never carried out, to make a pie, and, worst of all, seeing a line of schoolchildren, announces he wants to live like them. It is betrayal: the first gash in her balloony vision of herself as godlike mentor.

Soon the air has leaked out entirely. Edmund returns to take them to his mother's home, prepares to send his brother to school, and tells the woman he loves her.

It is the ultimate threat and outrage, the latest onslaught from the outside world upon one whose life has been a chain of evasions and whose motto is: ''Wear your misery like an inky cloak. . . . Let it provide safe harbor from the turmoil of everyday joy." She flees, taking with her, of course, a chunk of Edmund's money.

''Negative capability" was Keats's term for the artist's power to create from the irrational, the instinctive, the uncertain. McGowan's woman carries this to a cold extreme where it congeals into negative incapability. ''Cold" may be the reader's principal response, despite the flashes of off-center and dismal brilliance that the author gives her protagonist.

The unreliable-narrator device serves to speak from around dark corners of reality that a straightforward telling can't convey. Used on itself, it has little to convey besides its own unreliability.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

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