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Short Takes

By Amanda Heller
Globe Correspondent / February 21, 2010

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SAVAGE LANDS
By Clare Clark
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 416 pp., $25

p> In “Savage Lands” the historical novelist Clare Clark turns her gaze to the rank, mosquito-infested French colony of Louisiana in the early 1700s.

To entice its handful of disheartened pioneers into staying on, Louis XIV dispatches a ship bearing two dozen respectable young women to become their wives. The pearl among them is Elisabeth Savaret. Anticipating only misery, she is astonished when she catches the eye of a swashbuckling soldier, Jean-Claude Babelon, a man fit not just to serve but to love passionately. More chastely, she also catches the eye of his brooding young protégé, Auguste Guichard, who has lived among Native Americans, learning their language and their ways. We foresee betrayals and are not disappointed.

On first beholding her new homeland amid the bayous and cypress swamps, Elisabeth is overwhelmed by its “shameless fecundity.” Much the same can be said of Clark’s dense, feverish prose. She evokes vividly, indeed relentlessly, the exotic setting, the toil and privation of life beyond civilization, and she deserves credit for the intensive research that enables her to do so. But her erudition keeps upstaging her tale of love and treachery, subordinating the gothic to the pedantic.

JEALOUSY: The Other Life of Catherine M.
By Catherine Millet
Translated, from the French, by Helen Stevenson
Grove Press, 192 pp., $23

The French art critic Catherine Millet shocked the bourgeoisie with “The Sexual Life of Catherine M.” (2002), the exhibitionistic memoir of her liberated relationship with the writer Jacques Henric. In this sequel it is Millet who is shocked to find herself behaving like a wronged housewife.

What upset her about Henric’s sexual freelancing was not that it violated the rules of fidelity and exclusivity, for they had no such rules. What Henric was violating were the natural laws that, to Millet’s mind, put her at the center of their erotic universe. She could accept the carnality of his relationships with other women; in fact she found such thoughts stimulating, in a masochistic sort of way. What undid her was the evidence of actual love in his love affairs - the artfully posed photos, the artfully expressed diary confessions - left lying around for her to trip over. What unhinged her was the fear that the pornographic epic she had created of her life was being reduced to farce.

Millet makes heavy philosophical weather of her discovery that playing with fire can lead to burns. Those in search of high-toned titillation will find easier reading elsewhere, but nothing more quintessentially French.

EVERYTHING HERE IS THE BEST THING EVER
By Justin Taylor
Harper, 208 pp., paperback, $13.99

These short fictions by Justin Taylor give such a convincing account of the rough crossing of young adulthood that they practically induce seasickness. For his youthful protagonists, identity - emotional, intellectual, sexual - is unstable, constantly in motion.

“In My Heart I Am Already Gone” ends with a freeze frame of a family situation about to turn rancid, as the slacker narrator is caught surreptitiously indulging a creepy obsession with his teenage cousin. In the seriocomic “The New Life,” a high school boy goes to desperate lengths to ingratiate himself with a pair of forbiddingly cool classmates.

Evidently the Great Recession has lasted long enough to spawn its own literature.

One of Taylor’s most accomplished stories is also one of the more conventional ones, a Philip Roth-like piece in which a young man with many opinions but no prospects has to move back home. But home itself has moved, creating simmering domestic unrest.

If the collection can be faulted for anything, it is for a uniformity of affect, the posturings of a prematurely jaded generation. But at observing and interpreting that affect, Taylor is remarkably skilled.

Amanda Heller is a critic and editor who lives in Newton.