The Frequency of Souls

Maud Casey reviews "The Frequency of Souls" by Mary Kay Zuravleff

Published June 19, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

Mary Kay Zuravleff's first novel is as smart and endearingly daffy as its boldly-drawn characters. George -- who's so tan and handsome that his daughter calls him "Magazine Man" -- has an expensive haircut, a "lovely, tight-laced" wife "destined to stay at her proper weight" and a fear of his long-dead mother. (In Zuravleff's playful hands, this mother does not stay entirely dead for long.) An engineer at Coldpoint, the refrigerator design company, he's stuck in his routine, dutifully snapping his clip-on tie into place each morning. That routine is broken, however, when a new co-worker named Niagara Spence arrives. Six feet tall and as plain as the homemade dresses she wears like burlap bags, Niagara is also the "muse of his dreams, namesake of his potential vacation spot, eater of his donuts" and a "great big woman who wore electricity around her neck like a charm." Not your run-of-the-mill, engineer's mid-life-crisis dream girl.

The third romantic figure here is electricity. To George, electrical currents are "about as mysterious as a hammer," but Niagara is haunted by the unseen force behind outlets, listening for the dead through a contraption fashioned out of old radios. Zuravleff pumps science into this somewhat old-fashioned story and gives it a peculiar new life. As Niagara's theories unfold, this book becomes a meditation on the mysteries of electricity and death, and on the breadth of our imaginations if we allowed ourselves to pursue our wackiest fantasies. Through the nerdy mouths of these two refrigerator engineers, Zuravleff delivers scientific tidbits disguised as unlikely pillow talk: "Around 700 B.C., some Greek observed that if he rubbed amber with a cloth, it would attract feathers and bits of papers. . . he named the attraction electricity," Niagara says, just before George kisses her clavicle.

Throughout "The Frequency of Souls," Zuravleff's carefully-honed prose has an easy charm. The humor is generally right-on, despite a few sitcom moments, but the slips are rare, and like the best comic novels, this one invites you to seriously entertain its strangest inventions. Suddenly, like George, you begin to ask yourself questions you may have silenced long ago. Why this career? Why this spouse? If I found a big enough satellite dish, could I tune in the voices of the dead?

By Maud Casey

Maud Casey is a fiction writer whose work has appeared in The Threepenny Review. She is a regular contributor to Salon.

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