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The Savage Depth of Uncertainty

JOHN DOLLAR By Marianne Wiggins, New York and London: Harper & Row, 214 pp. $17.95

MARIANNE WIGGINS, unfortunately, writes with the vivid pen of a poet, making the revolting pictures she conveys difficult to erase from one's memory.

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But her novel needs to be noticed, or rather the importance of its theme needs to be understood.

Perhaps a statement by her husband, Salman Rushdie, explains it best.

Discussing his own controversial book, ``The Satanic Verses,'' he calls doubt ``the central condition of a human being in the 20th century.''

In an interview (broadcast by Britain's Bandung File and printed in the Guardian newspaper) he goes on to claim that, ``One of the things that has happened to us in the 20th century as a human race is to learn how certainty crumbles in your hand. We cannot anymore have a fixed certain view of anything - the table that we're sitting next to, the ground beneath our feet, the laws of science, are full of doubt now. Everything we know is pervaded by doubt now and not by certainty. And that is the basis of the great artistic movement known as Modernism.''

He calls this way of looking at the world, ``the most important new contribution'' to the ``way in which the human race discusses itself.''

This sense of the death of certainty pervades ``John Dollar,'' giving it a strange, dreamlike quality. It tells, for instance, of an Indian immigrant who finds England to be a land where no laws, no customs, no standards exist for her, and of the empire-era British, who try to impose an English logic on their life in Burma. All of them float in a directionless limbo.

The dreadful climax concerns eight little girls marooned on a desert island, who, before you can say ``Robinson Crusoe,'' descend deeper and deeper into savagery, finally practicing - if you can imagine it (better not try) - something worse than cannibalism. Out of chaos emerges a vicious mis-order, surely a terrible warning against throwing out the old certainties before we glimpse the new.

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What have you done to us, Marianne Wiggins? Obviously you have something to tell us through this allegory, but did you have to take us down to such depths?

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