"Paisley Girl" by Fran Gordon

In an inventive and funny first novel, a terminally hip young heroine bears the blemishes of what may be a terminal disease.

Published October 15, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Who doesn't love a plucky young heroine? The eponymous but otherwise nameless narrator of Fran Gordon's first novel, "Paisley Girl," pulls you in immediately with her sassy, poetic desperation: "Word has spread of my body, painted in the grotesque but of a shape more pleasing than that of any cafeteria-fed college girl." She has been hospitalized with an immune-system disease that whorls her skin with paisley-shaped bruises, baffles her doctors and threatens to kill her.

The biopsies, injections and medical-student stares that constitute treatment seem at least as bad as the disease that resists it. When she refuses a bone-marrow transplant ("One out of ten bone marrow transplants ends in death. I suspect that, as usual, I'll be in the minority"), the hospital discharges her. Armed with her ex-boyfriend's credit card, body-concealing clothing to cover her markings and a stash of antihistamines to stem her internal bleeding, she flees to the island of Barbados in search of either healing or destruction on her own terms.

The volume's frontispiece reproduces a grainy medical photograph -- a woman's naked torso and arms tattooed by paisley swirls -- attributed to "the archives of Dr. Stanley B. Burns." Whether real or invented, this artifact both lends verisimilitude to the disease (later named as mast-cell leukemia) and warns us of the possible element of prurience in our interest. In the tradition of anatomical illustration, the photograph invites a voyeuristic gaze while apparently rebuking it: Cloth veils the subject's head and her body below the hips, but these coverings dehumanize just as much as they protect.

In fact, though, Gordon isn't that interested in the etiology of the disease, or even in her protagonist's experience of disfigurement. Instead she uses the heroine's physical disintegration as the dramatic occasion for an internal journey of self-discovery that parallels the exotic journey to Barbados. The novel most vividly evokes the alienation not of terminal illness but of hipness, the diasporic culture to which the heroine belongs -- a world of rock musicians, transsexuals, club kids and slumming college girls living on their wits and their looks.

Before her illness, we learn in flashbacks, the narrator was a rock 'n' roll groupie who "puffed with UB40 and ate dinner with B.B. King." She met her Brit-rock boyfriend, Crash, backstage at a Steve Winwood concert and fled college and the United States to follow him and his band, Cultural Exhaust. The insider cool of these scenes comes mostly -- a little tiresomely -- from rapid name-dropping. Our heroine dresses in Vivienne Westwood and Katharine Hamnett (not, as Gordon has it, Katherine Hammet -- if you're name-dropping to be cool, you should at least get the names right), parties with Mick Jagger's nanny and skewers Madonna, for whom Cultural Exhaust opens on an American tour: "She reproached me with a smile she made by biting down hard; her magenta lips formed a sine wave -- the high, a sneer -- the low, condescension."

More gripping, touching and pleasingly eccentric are her encounters with the non- and infamous: Gil, the streetwise hospital orderly who loses his job for sharing his joints and his jaded philosophy ("Disease  Ain't nothin' so ordinary"); the transvestite hookers in Barbados, who give her a "crash course" in hyperbolic femininity; the Papaya Queen, a matriarchal old sandwich seller on the island beaches. Drugs, pharmaceutical and street, saturate the novel: One of the most unexpectedly hilarious episodes is the narrator's climactic misbegotten trip from Barbados to Trinidad as a courier for a dealer named Monarch.

These scenes can't help but invoke the tired convention by which innocent white people travel to exotic third-world settings to imbibe wisdom from dark natives. On the whole, though, Gordon treats the Barbadian setting and characters with a respect and affection that bring them to life. Yet the narrator's own personality, despite the mordancy and poetry of her voice, remains somewhat blurred. The plot is episodic -- what tension there is comes from our uncertainty over her odds for survival -- and it's hard to see, by the end, what she has learned from her experiences. Nevertheless, if the arrival is anticlimactic, the journey is vivid, inventive and often very funny.

By Laura Morgan Green

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