ISSN 1556-4975

OffCourse Literary Journal

 Published by Ricardo and Isabel Nirenberg since 1998


Heiberg’s Twitch, by Robert Wexelblatt.

Reviewed by Sarah White.

(Pelekinesis, 112 Harvard Ave. #65, Claremont, CA 91711, 345pp., $25.00, paper.)


Robert Wexelblatt’s stories are masterfully told. His characters and situations stimulate the reader’s curiosity by posing questions. Some are answered. Others broaden into further mystery.

In the title story, an outsized marine creature washes up on the shore of a remote Scandinavian island. What is it?  A detailed description only reveals what the animal is not:

… approximately seventeen meters in length, predominantly black in color, with eyes set forward on a rounded head at the end of an elongated neck, rather than on the sides, as with whales. Its mouth had three sets of teeth which … were those of a carnivore. Instead of the flukes of a whale its body tapered to a single lateral fin three meters across and shaped something like a manatee’s. It had ... a curiously depressed aperture on the dorsal surface that, though apparently too small for the purpose, might have served as a blow hole. From one unmistakable indication Evastina concluded that the beast had been a male.

Having presented this enigma, the narrative moves to other, more compelling unknowns:  We become less interested in whether the great fish has a name than in whether anything will occur between Evastina, a bright local girl, and Heiberg, the invalid academic she serves as companion, maid, nurse and research assistant. Will the reclusive old man find relief, if not for his failing constitution, at least for his isolation and for the persistent twitching of his eye.  Does the monster’s frozen but “unmistakable” masculinity have any bearing on the human characters’ situation?  A touching last scene doesn’t solve the oceanic mystery but addresses the even greater puzzle of human loneliness.

Wexelblatt’s second story, “The Tale of Pu’i Chu-Wo,” also bears the sign of the question mark.  The tale echoes Kafka and Borges, purporting to come from ancient legend, but almost certainly invented. The supposedly legendary protagonist launches his career by answering a royal riddle, and continues it with exploits in a town called Ku’an (koan?).

The delightful tale of “Edith Février,” is set in present-day Boston. As it opens, an inquiring detective and an eleven-year-old witness to a bank robbery perform a pas de deux of questions and answers:

   “So,” I began, “you saw the robbers?”…
            “Think I’d be bothering you if I didn’t?”
            “How many?”
            “You saw them coming out of the bank?”
            “Sure. Wasn’t here when they went in.”
             “Moving pretty fast, weren’t they?”
            ”Wouldn’t you be?”

The duet-duel between policeman and boy is augmented by another between the boy and his teacher, Sister Rose Emelda. Challenged by her vocabulary assignment (“use encumbered, anxieties, meander, oblivious, etc. in a sentence”) the sixth grader responds by using all her words in a single labyrinthine period: Edith Février, lonely but encumbered by few anxieties, meandered through the Jardin des Tuileries, oblivious of the disporting children… Paul’s exploit impresses the detective, infuriates the sister, and deeply amuses the reader.

Wexelblatt furnishes occasional clues to his own narrative art.  Here, in Urbs Fabula Sine Argumentum Est (“The City is a Novel Without a Plot”) we find the account of a young photographer’s weekly telephone ritual:

When his parents called each Sunday, he gave short answers to their questions, sometimes told them a joke. It was an art to reassure while disclosing nothing; it had taken him years to perfect it.

The author describes a character for whom an artful rationing of information is a necessary skill. Like a fiction-writer, he knows the whole plot but decides how much, and in what order, it should be revealed.  Wexelblatt apparently wants us to seek and find knowledge while retaining a sense of all we cannot know. Behind the witty prose, I hear a Montaigne whispering Que sais-je? and a  Hamlet reminding Horatio of limits to our philosophies.

Two of Wexelblatt’s fourteen stories show characters engaging in the ritual of questioning the universe itself. In one tale, “Lar,” this oracular quest is presented playfully.  In “The Withdrawal of Wawanu,” the practice has tragic implications.

“Lar” is narrated in a comically deadpan voice by a high-school boy living alone with his father.  The Latin lar designates a household god, and we are told matter-of-factly that the father has mounted on the wall outside the bathroom a cage containing such a deity:         

He was rather chubby and thoroughly bald; he looked like a grocer in an exotic robe. The god stared over my head straight at the opposite wall on which nothing ever happened. I thought he must be terribly bored. Even I could see he was fashioned out of clay, not badly made but still of clay. Father would give the god a nod on his way into the bathroom and another on the way out…”Where’s your god?” I asked my friend Victor the first time I was permitted to visit his house

The narrator finds that, while Lar can’t change the weather, or the results of football games, or grades on a test one hasn’t studied for, he is a god worth passing down through generations, if only for his gifts as a writer of nonsense verse:

Endure the weather, bear the news;

forget the Church but clean the pews,

“The Withdrawal of Wawanu” closes this rewarding story-collection with a tour de force of multi-leveled invention. Another instance of fictional erudition, it begins with what might be taken as a straightforward anthropological field report, but five minutes of Googling reveals that the names of its supposed Amazonian tribes are not associated with South America at all, but with India and Sri Lanka.  Thus, as the cultures in the story are imaginary, the author is free to do what he likes with them. What he likes is to engage two young warriors in a trial by ordeal with spears to determine which one deserves a particular young woman and which one is a criminal kidnapper. The ordeal is based on an idea that the world has been set in balance by some power who can be counted on to uphold truth and justice, a view that the author contradicts by the tragic outcome of the trial. One of the rivals’ spears lands in his opponent’s stomach:

Rarapuna took three hours to die, three hours of excruciating pain and incomprehensible dishonor.

Every sign points to the fact that justice according to the Arapoi has, through the action of demons, drastically miscarried.  This complex tale involves another duel between the sanctimonious Helen Henshaw, guide to a group of North Americans on an eco-tour, and Sebastian Grillo, a cynical, unkempt Hispanic landowner who seems to be a refugee from a Conrad story (or possibly from Pinocchioil grillo parlante was the original Jiminy Cricket!)  Grillo identifies himself and all the white visitors as demons. His world-view is as dark as Ms. Henshaw’s is uselessly high-minded. Tale-teller Wexelblatt gives Grillo the last word. It’s another question: ¿Quién sabe?


See Sarah White's and Robert Wexelblatt's short stories in this issue.

Return to Offcourse Index.