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It's hellaciously strange (not to mention the merest trifle strained), but 40-year-old aspiring-thespian Liz Morgan - historian, biographer and translator Erika Rummel's principal protagonist in her oddly compelling novelistic debut, Playing Naomi - still believes in miraculous professional transformations as well as unlikely love-at-first-sight alterations when it comes to romantic regenerations (involving near-cliché temptations occupying centre-stage of torrid Harlequeen persuasions).

Morgan, relentlessly tenacious - albeit admirably bodacious - tackles each audition or dullicious diner-hostess (read: rent-paying) get-together with gusto, a fact which may explain why the faded middle-ancient finds herself lost in the role of dog-walker for one pill-popping scene-stopping melodramarama prima diva, the titular Naomi (Baum), five years her senior.

The celebrated agoraphobic is genetically incapable of suffering fools gladly, despite pining for love long gone or tolerating obdurate throngs hungrily satisfying their appetites for each morsel of a steady diet of down-and-dirty driviata invariably attaching itself to the flame-haired literary celebrity best-known for "East West Connection."

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Rummel's meta-textual legerdemain features prominently in her imaginatively artful work, since she co-opts many of its hefty chunks for Playing Naomi, a postmodern conceit successfully deployed because it comprises essential elements surrounding a compelling back-story far too gripping for readers to even consider skipping it:

"This is a true story - not the complete and unabridged truth, which never makes sense, but something more coherent and pared down to human understanding. ... I write of Nora in the third person because she is not me. She is fashioned from unreliable memories. She lives in the past. I live in the present. I am no longer the woman in the story. I'm no longer Nora."

Naturally, neither Baum nor Morgan stays static in Rummel's seamless narrative - which depends as much upon Ibsen's A Doll's House as it does upon the original Penelope-Odysseus pas de deux while conscripting integral elements of Flaubert's Madame Bovary or, perhaps most tellingly, Margaret Atwood's 2007 theatrical adaptation of The Penelopiad.

Morgan, doggedly chasing that perfect part - while simultaneously play-acting a therapeutic listening post who, in her spare time, dejectedly traverses LA's Hollywood Hills and San Vicente Valleys - that will boost her stalled vocation, accepts an assignment impersonating the recluse for a one-time public appearance on a TV talk show called Hillman's Circle.

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Baum cannot endure the idea of participating in such raw spectacle; however, because she desperately seeks reconnection with another guest on the show, installation-artist Miro Bogdan, who, readers soon discover, began life as the bastard son she'd relinquished to his Bulgarian father some 15 years earlier, decides to hire Morgan for what looks to be the defining presentation of her suddenly blindingly illuminated stage-lit existence.

Does Baum know her abandoned child harbours a deadly obsessive hatred which, if all proceeds according to plan, will culminate in Liz Morgan's murder? Of course not. On set, Morgan delivers the performance of her illusion-driven life and, in so doing, attracts the gobsmacked attention of the talk-show host.

Meanwhile, back at the branch, will the aging novelist's terminally self-destructive son, avenging the apparent suicide of his inconsolably betrayed step-mother, succeed with his perfectly plotted "death-in-life" show within a show? Does the host, Hillman, know more than he permits the supporting cast to see? How in the hell does the third guest invited to participate in this specific segment of the program, gay rights activist and Holocaust Memories creator Rebecca Rifkin, figure in its mise-en-scène ?

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Stay tuned or, better still, take a stab at Playing Naomi. "The thrill will carry over into the show," plus, as any fool knows, Spectaculorum procedere debet.

Contributing reviewer Judith Fitzgerald lives in Northern Ontario's Almaguin Highlands. She is currently completing her 30th work, a poetry collection provisionally titled Rogue Lightning, slated for 2010 release.

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