A COLLECTION OF BEAUTIES AT THE HEIGHT OF THEIR POPULARITY
by Whitney Otto (Random House, $23.95) Third Place Books, 17171 Bothell Way N.E., 366-3333 7 p.m. Mon., April 8
WHILE waiting for a marriage license at San Francisco's City Hall, a quartet of bohemian twentysomethings in Whitney Otto's A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity notice the "Real People" around them. The four friends—a transgendered singer, two women who've managed to elude commitment of any kind, and an Iranian-born Frenchman who's marrying one of the women only so he can get a green card—remark how, unlike themselves, these ordinary folks "'look as though they are exhausted each night. Like they have responsibilities and are trying to get somewhere. . . . '"
Destination isn't a concern of the many characters who inhabit Portland author Otto's fourth novel, nor is sleep, as these denizens of early-1980s San Francisco amble through life as if in middream. Otto emphasizes this roaming metaphor by titling her book, along with each of its 12 chapters, after 18th- and 19th-century Japanese woodblock prints that depict the legendary "Floating World," a warless Japan the natives enjoyed from 1615-1868 by, according to 17th-century Osaka writer Asai Ryoi, "living only in the moment, turning our full attention to the pleasures of the moon, sun, the cherry blossoms, and the maple leaves, singing songs, drinking wine. . . . "
As she did for the female protagonists of her 1990 best seller How to Make an American Quilt, Otto connects her quirkily named (Elodie, Coco, Piroux) and sometimes indistinguishable characters through a string of related stories. These people "are North Beach or Castro or the Mission," not the moneyed, more conservative Marina or Pacific Heights. College-educated, they crave words—either through books or intelligent talk—"in direct proportion to the mindlessness of their jobs." They split apartments or inhabit studios "so small that even a modest dinner party is out of the question." Rather than marry, produce offspring, and root in suburbia, they romance like-lifestyled souls, puff on joints, and mix at parties, art galleries, and their central watering dive, the Youki Singe Tea Room.
Although Otto's sweeping claims about a generation ring grandiose (Is it really necessary to link Reagan-era adults with the Lost Generation?), she does capture a distinctly urban species—more animated than the slacker, less snide than the hipster—whose carefree existence, though occasionally lonely or lacking, seems noble compared to the selfish excesses of '80s yuppies, '90s dot-commers, and the next riche to arrive.
THESE WHIMSICAL, ornately crafted tales of unrequited amour, city people's small-town origins, and ramblings about San Francisco charm thoroughly, but the reader occasionally wants to wag a finger at the author. Despite its unraveling in the gay capital of America during the transition from disco to AIDS, the novel never fleshes out its few queer characters. Also discomforting is that though the text reads like a story collection, its tales lack climax and would deflate if left alone. But like her protagonists, Otto dodges responsibility, wisely alluding to the centuries-old Japanese pillow book to imply that her novel isn't attempting much more than that medium, "where the owner can record the events of the day, observations, and anecdotes. Love. Little bits of daily life." Even with its flaws, A Collection of Beauties at the Height of Their Popularity maintains its loveliness (and receives aesthetic assistance from reproductions of woodblock prints). The book radiates with what it portrays—those charged years of early, unburdened adulthood that so quickly fade.