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A Tale of Two Ears

Interviewing Matisse By Lily Tuck Alfred A. Knopf $18.00

By Carol J. Margolis

"She died standing up." So begins Interviewing Matisse, a promising first novel by Lily Tuck. From its gripping opening sentence onward, the novel provides a crazy yet satisfying mixture of revelations about death, love, Paris, dogs and, of course, Matisse.

The book records one late-night phone conversation between characters named Lily and Molly that demonstrates the bizarreness beneath their average, middle-class appearances. Molly calls to inform Lily of the death of their mutual friend Inez, who was found standing up, arms outstretched, wearing nothing but a pair of galoshes.

The women talk for five hours, but each remains largely ignorant of what the other is trying to say. In the dual monologues, each woman describes her personal world, only acknowledging the other's words in so far as they relate to her own tales. Their lack of communication reveals their isolation and emptiness. While Molly searches for the transcript of a long-lost interview with Matisse, Lily reminisces about her childhood, her husband and her friends.

Interviewing Matisse is filled with unique, if one-dimensional, characters. Molly, for example, is a Xerox artist, one whose creations are only copies of other people's work. Molly, Lily and their friends are witty, if unfinished, particularly since we only know about them through the anecdotes of the narrators. Because they discuss mutual friends, Molly and Lily never describe anyone fully enough for the reader to grasp their personalities. We are left with tidbits, sufficient to spark interest, but not to relay complete identities.

The rambling dialogue sometimes frustrates the reader, but the abrupt shifts in topics successfully demonstrate the emotional distance between the two women. At one point, Molly describes a friend's dress that is "a layered black chiffon with tiny spaghetti straps and no back to it whatsoever." Lily eagerly seizes the opportunity to tell about a dress of hers that is just like it "only my dress is dark blue with little star shaped gold flecks in it." Lily associates the dress with memories of her and her husband's first encounter, which she gladly relates.

Interviewing Matisse investigates the individual nature of experience. Each woman uses anecdotes from her own past to shape and interpret the telephone conversation. In many ways this preoccupation with their own experiences alienates the women, but it also illustrates that each person necessarily approaches life differently. Tuck may have conveyed this more effectively if Lily and Molly had been less similar--as it is, the two women are nearly interchangeable.

A book that is entirely dialogue risks boring the reader with the lack of action. Tuck avoids this problem by filling the novel with interesting anecdotes, digressions and ironic twists. The reader might occasionally wish that one of the women would have to answer call waiting or otherwise break the tedium, but these moments are rare. For the most part, the reader remains riveted despite the tenuous plot.

When Molly finally recovers her interview with Matisse, she realizes that she had misjudged its content, since "I was just learning how to speak French then...all this time I thought Matisse was talking about his art--well, he wasn't."

Interviewing Matisse, like Molly's conversation with the artist, is not what we expect. But unlike the interview, which is more trivial than Molly had remembered, the novel is richer and more complex than a chat between two shallow women would suggest. Although Tuck never reveals what caused Inez's death, she skillfully demonstrates how Lily and Molly's communication can both isolate and reassure them

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