Guided Tours of Hell

Megan Harlan reviews Francine Prose's novel "Guided Tours of Hell".

Published December 23, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

"Isn't there something by definition obscene about guided tours of Hell -- except, of course, if you're Dante?" For the vacationing Americans in these two searing, exquisitely constructed novellas, such packaged excursions include trips to a Nazi concentration camp and Paris' Revolutionary Prison -- where, the protagonists believe, the ghosts of grandiose historical tragedies should render their own insecurities trivial by comparison. Yet both Landau, the middle-aged, mediocre playwright in "Guided Tours of Hell," and Nina, the lovelorn young travel writer in "Three Pigs in Five Days," find the effect to be exactly the opposite. Hell, it seems, truly can be a state of mind, especially for those twisted by such all-too-human failings as vanity, envy, paranoia and self-doubt. Prose -- with her laserlike attention to even the pettiest emotional facet, and tart, truth-baring wit -- is the perfect guide to these muddied, psychological underworlds and the bigger question they inspire: How does self-loathing fit into the grand scheme of life, art, love and death?

Although he is Jewish, Landau -- a New York college professor visiting Prague with the First International Kafka Congress -- can't quite feel moved by the group's visit to a Nazi death camp. He's too busy despising fellow attendee Jiri Krakauer, a writer who survived internment at the same camp. Krakauer is boisterously handsome, life-loving and popular -- qualities Landau covets. "No Survivor Guilt for this guy," grumbles Landau of Krakauer in his snarky, underdog voice, after the latter charms the Congress' "only viable female." More fundamentally, Landau worries: Is his play about Kafka's tedious, mistreated lover, Felice, a waste of paper compared to the life-and-death authenticity of Krakauer's memoirs?

Nina visits Paris in a paranoid, self-reflective haze. Suspecting that her editor and older lover, Leo, has dumped her -- but too intimidated by him to ask -- Nina experiences Paris as international headquarters for women-who-love-too-much. Although physically lost most of the time, Nina finds herself increasingly aware of just how easily emotion can shape reality, and how her feelings for Leo had done just that.

Mimicking the process of traveling, both stories gently meander about, then suddenly blast out of the protagonists' heads into ruthlessly truthful denouements. One character is transformed by the struggle with self-doubt; the other is not. In those cathartic moments, Prose deftly reveals how -- once the distortions of ego are swept aside -- it's the characters' values that shape their markedly different fates.

By Megan Harlan

Megan Harlan's writing has appeared in the New York Times and Entertainment Weekly. She lives in New York City.

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