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An equally elusive father and son

Memoir makes ambiguous effort at discovery

The Face of a Naked Lady: An Omaha Family Mystery
By Michael Rips
Houghton Mifflin, 192 pp., $24

It's a commonplace -- and incomplete besides -- to call a memoir a window on the past. The light strikes it so that while the view is revealed there's also a kind of pentimento, an elusive, unstable reflection of the writer's face.

Michael Rips's recollections of his father and his Omaha childhood in ''The Face of a Naked Lady" turn things around. It's his own face that is mainly shown; the past, ostensibly the subject, becomes the ghostly, unstable apparition. We read a memoir, in other words, that is less window than mirror, with the occasional unsettling distortions of mirrors hung in a fun house.

Rips introduces himself as an unsettled young man, a haunter of New York coffeehouses, a philosophical seeker; his hero, France's Talmudic phenomenologist, the late Emmanuel Levinas. He recalls as far back as childhood a compulsion to disappear. A temporary episode of double vision led him to speculate that if Two is really One, why couldn't One -- his mournful young self -- be None? (Bits of Levinas, Husserl, and Heidegger show up here and there to cheerlead such ruminations.)

The spirit of None hovers over the memoir. If the reality of the past is questionable, then it is there to be constructed as much as revealed. (A convenient fit with the it-all-starts-with-me school of young postmodern writers.) The scenes, incidents, and stories in ''The Face of a Naked Lady" do indeed seem to drift among the real, the surreal, and a willed dreaming that nibbles here and there at a waking truth.

Michael comes from a well-to-do Jewish family in Omaha. Nick, his father, inherited a prosperous optical manufacturing business; he was Republican, seemingly conventional, and domestically content. Going through his things after his death, Michael finds a portfolio containing a series of Nick's drawings of a nude black woman. This sets off a search, ostensibly for the woman -- could she have been his father's mistress? are there children? -- but in fact for the unquiet man behind the quiet father; and, seemingly, for the son of this unquiet man.

Except that the search lacks the intensity of discovery; it more closely resembles whatever would be discovery's surrogate in a universe where nothing is real enough truly to be discovered, Michael himself perhaps least of all.

The author conducts more or less conventional investigating, talking to relatives and old friends of his father's, and summoning up his own recollections. Something of a portrait emerges. There is a wild root or two beneath both sides of the family. His mother's grandfather was mixed up with the mob -- Nicky Arnstein once dandled her on his lap -- and his father's grandparents ran a hotel that was mainly a brothel.

Before Nick settled into the paternal business founded by his grandfather's respectable son-in-law, he was something of a tearaway with short-lived literary ambitions. Toward his children he was amiably distant, though coming out with an occasional startlement, evidence perhaps of a concealed unconventionality. The portrait is mildly suggestive but not a lot more than that. What the author seems to be after here is not resolution but sustained ambiguity, not so much the result of his not very vigorous search as, virtually, its purpose.

Such ambiguity, which can seem like preening, is ginned up by a succession of phantasmagoric-sounding devices and asides. A black detective produces six naked black women for Michael's inspection; they all sit down for a meal. The detective suggests using a brain machine, whatever that may be, to extract the memories of one of Nick's old friends who is now in a vegetative coma.

Riffling through his own memories, many unrelated to the search, Michael tells of a friend who has sex with a chicken while wringing its neck; later, at dinner, Michael warns an indignant fellow guest against the contents of the chicken tetrazzini. He tells of a decaying corpse that pops through the ceiling of a coffee shop, of an optical factory worker who straps an artificial penis onto his boot to attract women at dances.

These are grotesques; they strain our credulity, not because they may not be true but because the author presses us neither for belief, nor even for a suspension of disbelief. He is leading us not into memory but away from it, converting a world into an alternate world he arranges by retreating into himself. He has conducted an archeological dig for artifacts of a culture from which he seeks not understanding but strangeness.

Long before Rips concludes his mannered, sometimes well-written journey, the quest for the black model has become more pretext than vital instigation. ''Mystery" is part of his subtitle, but ''The Face of a Naked Lady" aims at not much more than puzzlement. Existential puzzlement, perhaps, if that helps.

Richard Eder reviews books for several publications.

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