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Exploring strange urban landscapes

Two novels of city life, When Butterflies Kiss and The Savage Girl, offer unique perspectives on alienation, culture and the estrangement men and women feel _ both in relation to one another and to themselves _ at the dawning of the 21st century.

WHEN BUTTERFLIES KISS,

by Sekou, Kiini Ibura Salaam, Elizabeth Clara Brown, T'kalla, Natasha Tarpley, Korby Marks, Shange, Kim Green, Mariahadessa Ekere Tallie and Leticia Benson (Silver Lion Press, $13.95 paperback, 200 pp)

When Butterflies Kiss is a rare species: a "collaborative novel," according to the publisher, written by 10 writers. Other such efforts include Naked Came the Stranger, written by 20 writers under the pen name "Penelope Ashe" published by Dell Books in 1969 and Naked Came the Manatee, a mystery spoof written by 13 writers who included Carl Hiaasen, Elmore Leonard and Dave Barry, among others published by Ballantine in 1998. The former was originally written as a joke to prove that any erotic novel would sell no matter how badly written.

But what's fascinating about When Butterflies Kiss, whose authors each wrote one chapter, is how good it is. The voices of these 10 African-American writers mix well, rarely seeming like anything other than one voice. In some cases, a particular author _ perhaps realizing his or her limitations with respect to the main character, Dante, a poet on a journey of sexual and self-discovery _ might focus on one or another secondary character. But the result is compelling. Perhaps more than any other novel _ you never quite know what will happen next and yet, no matter what happens, it has a logic of its own.

We meet Dante in a prologue written by Sekou, the mastermind of the project who also writes the final chapter. He is a city dweller experiencing nightmares, picking up women for casual sex, but also a thinker who is yearning for something more. The palpable sense of the city in which he lives _ an unnamed place that could easily be anywhere in the metropolitan northeastern United States _ cracks through the prose with the richness of its sights and sounds, in settings that range from jasmine tea shops to a local strip club. This is a world where casual encounters are the norm, but sometimes it's your best friends who know you the least and strangers who reveal you the most.

THE SAVAGE GIRL

by Alex Shakar (HarperCollins, $26, 275 pp)

The Savage Girl is a fascinating debut novel which could only be the product of one mind. It's also one of those rare books that is both at once highly literate and highly readable. A page-turner of a tale set in the imaginary Middle City _ an American city centered around a live volcano, no less _ that seems at once familiar and completely alien.

Shakar's heroine is Ursula Van Urden, an almost-30 would-be artist who comes to Middle City to tend to her schizophrenic sister, Ivy. Ivy is in an insane asylum following a widely publicized incident in which she slashed her face and body, covered it in war paint, and walked naked through the streets. From the moment she arrives, Ursula is aware that she is here not only to save her sister but also, possibly, herself. She takes a job as a "trendspotter" with Tomorrow Ltd, a company owned by Ivy's boyfriend, Chas Lacouture, and begins a journey of self-discovery that takes readers through a fascinating, fantastic world of marketing theories and practices that seem like science fiction but which, one suspects, are not.

Ursula learns her job well, spotting immediately a "savage girl" in the park who wears clothes made of skins from animals she skins herself, who hunts and eats her own meat, who sleeps on the street. The essence of this girl will become the basis for an ad campaign for a new product, Litewater, from General Foods; an artificial form of water that passes through the body unabsorbed (thereby, no bloating). The image of the savage girl haunts Ursula and Shakar's tale, finding resonance in Ivy's delusion (which may not be a delusion) that she is a cave woman who was kidnapped from the past by agents of the future who are using her body to take control of the present world.

But it is Shakar's rants on society, via Lacouture, that fascinate the most. "Our culture is becoming so saturated with ironic doubt that it's beginning to doubt its own mode of doubting," he observes. "Truths are no longer absolute; they're shifting, temporary, whatever serves the purpose of the moment." But, and perhaps ironically, Ursula does not find this to be the case. In the end, she does find a truth she can depend on, one that does not shift. And that is the "paradessence" _ a marketing term, we learn, that means "paradoxical essence" _ of The Savage Girl: It at once exposes both the superficiality of modern city life and its potential as a catalyst for deeper meaning.

Mindi Dickstein lives in New Jersey and is currently writing lyrics for the Broadway-bound musical, Little Women.

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