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Going Out in Style

The late Wendy Wasserstein's first and only novel, Elements of Style, is the last of the baby-boom chronicles.

Elements of Style is playwright Wendy Wasserstein's first and only novel. Its publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, is promoting the book as a madcap satire of contemporary urban life. Abby Weintraub's dust jacket design makes the tome look like a package from Henri Bendel's or some smart boutique on Madison; the bright pink, gray, and white ribbon-and-bow design ought to appeal to the ever-famished "chick-lit" market. And, indeed, this is the most upbeat of the literary depictions of America's post-9/11 trauma that's vying for readers' attention this summer; but what's inside that chipper packaging is hardly a cloudless day at the beach.

Until January, when she died from complications of lymphoma, Wasserstein played Boswell to the Baby Boomers of the Ivy League. In her best work, she isolated concerns of the late 20th century Zeitgeist, dramatizing them in ways that tickled her audiences and also moved them to tears. Like her final play, Third, Wasserstein's novel is set just after the attacks on the World Trade Center. Taking Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence as a model, the author follows a handful of New York tastemakers through a period of profound social change in their city. Each character is beset, in his or her own way, by panic, malaise, and an unaccustomed sense of vulnerability, all attributable to recent tragic events. But Wasserstein's fictional Manhattan is very different from Wharton's. As depicted in Elements of Style and in her 2000 play Old Money, the high society of the new millennium is readily conquered by riches, beauty, and celebrity. Its moral center is up for grabs.

Like most of Wasserstein's plays, Elements of Style is a mixture of drama and comedy. In the novel, however, the anger gurgling under the surface of the author's stage works erupts in a post-9/11 incident of cataclysmic violence, an "American Kristallnacht" that claims many lives and rends the fabric of Manhattan's haut monde. Yet, throughout the book, the author gives her characters bright, funny dialogue that owes a good deal to the theatrical humorists who influenced her playwriting, especially Kaufman and Hart, Philip Barry, and Neil Simon.

In theory, Wasserstein's fizzy, urbane humor should be incongruous with the carnage and dark themes but, for the most part, the combination is effective. Wasserstein lacks the satirist's steel heart and icy gaze, yet she revels in the lunacy of the world she's portraying: socialites carrying Fendi gas masks and packages of Cipro; bloodthirsty competition for admission to the Amherst of pre-schools and the Dartmouth of kindergartens; and so on. She also tweaks the fanciful names that pretentious people tend to give their offspring, such as Dutch Barakiva, Sea Bernstein, Yale Franklin, Persimmon McCarthy, Savoy Navez, Triumph Trump and, best of all, Real Chen.

Relying on the craft that she learned as a playwright, Wasserstein built her novel from brief, well-shaped scenes in which her characters' motivations are always explicable; but she was so conscientious about thematic clarity that, at times, the storytelling feels contrived. In certain instances, she created overly schematic contrasts between characters, some of whom seem above all to be the embodiment of ideas -- for instance, Samantha Acton and Francesca ("Frankie") Weissman, who are alumnae of the same posh school, moving in the same circles and romantically involved, to a greater or lesser degree, with the same man.

Samantha, descended from Wharton's Old New York, embodies the self-absorption common among members of her social stratum: their obsession with "style" and projecting the proper image. Attempting to combat post-9/11 depression, she goes slumming in the beau monde of New York's nouveaux riches and collides -- figuratively and literally -- with the most determined of the city's social climbers. (To explain further would spoil one of the many surprises in Wasserstein's plot.) Frankie, on the other hand, is "substance" personified. A pediatrician whose practice embraces both fashionable Manhattan and indigents who live north of 96th Street, she is the book's moral center. Ultimately, though, Frankie steps out of the pack of Upper East Side friends to become Wasserstein's protagonist.

The novel's title, of course, comes from The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White. In Wasserstein's denouement, Frankie gleans an insight about Samantha and her ilk from a famous directive in Strunk and White's guide to composition: "omit needless words." Thinking analogically about that phrase, Frankie realizes that uncritical veneration of style leads Samantha and her kind to develop brilliant façades at the expense of genuine character, to become -- in a phrase from Matthew's Gospel -- "whited sepulchres," elegant but empty. That in itself is hardly a revelation to the reader; but Frankie's larger search for the grail of integrity and authenticity makes her, in the end, the most complex character in all of Wasserstein's published work.

The often touching mix of solemnity, horror, and jest found in Elements of Style should have been a promising transition for its author from theater to commercial fiction. Viewing the book as the cap to her Baby Boom chronicles, one can only wonder where Wasserstein's darkening humor and warm heart might have taken her hereafter in a career that ought still to be in mid-flight.


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