August 01, 1988 12:00 PM

by Mary Robison

The title of this brief, taut collection of short stories comes from a litany of admonitions recited by a retarded child in the book’s opening story. “Stand still in line,” she says, “don’t pet strange animals…Whatever Father and Mother tell you, believe them.” Like that child in the ironically named “Seizing Control,” many of Robison’s characters are only tenuously connected to reality. In “For Real,” Boffo the Clown, the host of a TV movie program, is played by a woman who tries to love a man at the station. When he questions her sincerity, she admits she was “aiming at being a better person than I was.” Often appearance and silence conspire against an unassuming protagonist. In “Mirror,” set in a D.C. beauty salon, two young women are intrigued by an apparently mocking message written on the bathroom mirror: “If you’re looking for the future, you’re looking in the right place.” While many of Robison’s stories are concerned with identity and self-awareness, the characters often muddle through a variety of clichéd perspectives, leading to scenes that are flat and uninspiring. Not all of these 11 stories move along as relentlessly as they might, either. What compensates most of the time is that Robison, author of An Amateur’s Guide to the Night, maintains a linguistic simplicity and spare wit that shrink-wrap her work in a bright sort of irony. (Knopf, $15.95)

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