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Imagination runs wild in Boyd's world

English writer William Boyd has my vote for writing one of the five best novels of the past 10 years, "Any Human Heart." Boyd is also a first-rate short story writer, and his latest volume, "Fascination," contains a writer's dozen -- 14 stories, all seized with imagination.

One normally thinks of seized in an intransitive sense, meaning to freeze up, as in the case of a car's engine. But seized has another meaning in Boyd's sense: possessed or taken by force. Boyd's creative ability run rings around reality in "Fascination."

In "The View from Yves Hill," Yves Ivan Hill, an elderly novelist, interiorizes "perambulation stimulates the imagination, I find." Later in the same story Hill writes: "I know why I became a novelist: only in fiction is everything about other people explained. Only in our fictions is everything sure and certain."

Of course, it often isn't. But that's not the point. The mystery of being human is what triggers the novelist's explanation.

The title story is perhaps the only offering that one could use for the name of the collection. "Fascination" is about a writer, Edward, who can't hold a steady job. Edward is married but doesn't think of his marital obligations often enough. He's a bit of an SOB with pretentious thoughts about nature while his life falls to pieces. When he returns home from a failed tryst, his wife and baby are out for a walk.

He says, "I pour myself two inches of vodka and fill the glass with ice cubes and brace myself for the row that will surely come."

Other stories have offbeat titles, such as "Adult Video," suggestive of something not in evidence; "Varengeville," too foreign-sounding; "Notebook No. 9," too academic; "A Haunting," too Jack Nicholson-like. All are not suitable for titling purposes.

My favorites from the selection are "Varengeville" and "Incandescence." In "Varengeville," a young boy, Oliver Feverill, lives during the summer with his mother in France, at the Chateau Les Pruniers. Oliver is sent daily by his mother on a bike ride. Mother, an aspiring actress (Oliver's father is a director of films away on a shoot), entertains a male friend, Lucien, in Oliver's absence.

On his travels, Oliver meets an elderly painter who stares at the sea more than he paints. "Incandescence" is notable for its wonderful use of variable point of view and admirable writing. Alexander Tobias is a young Brit who has made a ton of money and is invited back for a weekend to Marchmont, the country home of his old flame, Anna Montrose and her husband, Richard Rory Montrose. Alexander Tobias stops his car as he approaches the Marchmont estate.

The burning lake. That's what comes to me about that weekend -- the image of the sun on the lake, blinding me. The lake seemed on fire, as if it were burning with a low, sulfurous heat. It was a hot lemon color -- the water, I mean -- and wraiths of steam were weaving from the surface. I stopped the car -- it was that arresting -- and stepped out to check that I wasn't hallucinating.

One finds that Alexander is being set up by Anna and her husband. He has been purposefully spotted in Harrods and asked back to the estate to be set up and have his money taken from him.

Alexander pleads with Anna: "Divorce him," he said. "I beg you: he's scum, a worthless liar -- he's bleeding this family dry."

All this is to no avail. Anna is part of the scam. Disgusted but with money intact, Alexander drives back to London in "gathering darkness."

So much for the burning lake.

Michael D. Langan is a frequent News book reviewer.




By William Boyd, above

Knopf, 277 pages, $24

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