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By Marianne Apostolides

BookThug, 93 pages, $18

This excellent, brief, first novel both deters and delights within the first few pages. The language and voicing are infected by unwanted punctuation - dashes and slashes - and by intrusive 20th-century French thought. Let's clear this initial impression out of the way. The author's thorough command of this contemporary consciousness soon overrides any misgivings or biases the reader might have, and we are propelled into the artful fluidity of the novel.

Marianne Apostolides's Swim opens in Greece, at a pool populated by 39-year-old Kat, Kat's teenage daughter, Melina, and a lifeguard, Achilles. The plot hinges on a decision Kat must make regarding her marriage, and it proceeds in accordance to her resolve: "She will swim thirty-nine laps - one for each year of her life - and during this movement through water, unusual, she'll arrive at her decision." Apostolides fulfills this determinant, both in arranging the chapters around sets of laps, and in interpolating the text with a bracketed number for each lap, e. g. "[3]" I mention these details of the novel's structure only because they form part of its beauty.

So Kat swims circuits in the pool and plunges into her past in order to come to a decision. Attempting a kind of auto-analysis, she opens up scenes from her life as if they were texts to be decoded and rewritten. For instance, the gulf that follows a moment of sexual tension with her professor has her uprooting language: "Absence, she considers - ab/ esse, 'away' plus 'to be' - to be away - so simple, it seems, except, she questions - who is away and from what."

Likewise, she revisits the moment her mother tells her of her father's death, parsing what she had heard: "She didn't name the subject - speak the predicate - she uttered, instead, her wet lament - her meaning direct/ immediately conveyed." The novel is, in this way, a linguistic detective story: The residue of words is evidence through which Kat has to sort.

This is also to say that, as much as Swim is a drama of marital failure and familial examination, it is also a self-conscious performance of poetic prose, borrowing sensibilities from both lyric and language poetry. (Not accidentally, the daughter, poolside, is reading a work by U.S. language poet Lyn Hejinian.) Apostolides plays with punctuation, frequently doubling up words and uncoupling the grammar of a sentence: "She was fourteen when it began, if 'it' is disorder/behaviour itself. If, though, 'it' is luscious terror - the 'I' alone, standing, feeling that awful draw toward sex-hunger-speak - that desire toward loss that pools/ fills: if 'it' is that dynamic, then 'begin' was always. Is never."

Out of context, as I have taken this passage, these devices may seem affected, cluttered, obstructive or unkind. However, as with any good writer driven to innovating the form, Apostolides offsets the initial disorienting effect with an accomplished and sure patterning that quickly teaches us how to read in full trust of her. For all of the attention to punctuation, Apostolides hits stride and rhythm, carefully modulated, that usher the reader along.

Everything about this novel is clean and taut: the swimmers, the diction, the mind of Kat - though the latter almost to a fault. Despite entering uncomfortable realms of her past, we are kept at a distance by way of unsentimental, spare prose. The words, even when deployed to the painful and bodily - unpleasant sex, adolescent menstruation, anorexia and bulimia - always stand with purity on the page, black letters on white. This aesthetic of detachment foregrounds the analytic workings of Kat and the language-world in which she's enmeshed. For readers, this aesthetic is a cool breeze in which to be caught, with few pockets of warmth.

Apostolides's contemporary mining of the self, the matter of which is language, falters only once or twice when the entry to one of Kat's recollections seems forced. The rest is handled with assured grace and dynamic lucidity, and gives much trust to the reader's ability to move with Kat between past and present, and through the nuance and harm of words.

Malcolm Sutton is writing his PhD dissertation on two giants of postmodern U.S. fiction.

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