Eclipse Fever

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Walter Abish has always worked within carefully defined, self-imposed limits: the extreme yet oddly extravagant formalism of ALPHABETICAL AFRICA, the sheer perfection of HOW GERMAN IS IT, winner of the PEN/Faulkner prize. The very titles of his works underscore this preoccupation: DUEL SITE, “The English Garden,” MINDS MEET, IN THE FUTURE PERFECT, NINETY-NINE: THE NEW MEANING. At first glance, Abish’s latest novel represents something of a departure from his characteristic sense of stylistic and formal restraint: longer, more leisurely in its development, more accessible (as suggested by Abish’s switching publishers, from New Direction to Knopf). Yet for all these differences, ECLIPSE FEVER evidences Abish’s unusual (which is to say unusual) degree of artistic control and narrative gamesmanship, qualities that have made him one of contemporary literature’s most interesting figures.

The plot of ECLIPSE FEVER is playfully convoluted, a virtual parody of connectedness. Alejandro, a Mexican critic, sees off his wife, Mercedes, who flies to the United States both to teach and to resume her affair with Jurad, a (Jewish?) writer. Meanwhile, Jurad’s (former) friend Preston Hollier, head of Eden Enterprises, arrives in Mexico to further business interests which include installing an elevator in the Pyramid of the Sun around which he plans to build a retirement community for Americans. Hollier’s wife Rita takes up with Alejandro’s friend, Francisco, at the very villa (now owned by Hollier) where Alejandro and Francisco once catalogued a collection of pre-Columbia artifacts, including a codex which reports the Spanish conquest from the Indian side. It is this same artifact which Emilio (aka Jesus) tries to sell after meeting Jurad’s daughter Bonny (aka Buddy), who tires of her father’s interest in Mercedes and ends up in Mexico waiting for the eclipse.

The plots multiply and teasingly and self-consciously intertwine in a mock mystery far more postmodern than portentous. Yet for all its playfulness, ECLIPSE FEVER raises a variety of serious questions about hegemony—culturally, economically, socially, sexually, and, yes, narratively considered. A highly literary and entirely successful performance, a south-of-the-border version of THE GREAT GATSBY by way of DON QUIXOTE, LOLITA, and THE TREASURE OF SIERRA MADRE (among others), ECLIPSE FEVER is ultimately but never reductively about writing and reading, about the making of stories, including histories, about ownership and control, about the many faces of conquest and eclipse.