"The unreal is exactly like the real, only more sincere," posits the nameless narrator of Lance Olsen's sixth novel, Girl Imagined by Chance. The narrator and his wife Andrea have become regional vagabonds of sorts, moving from suburban New Jersey to the woods of Northern Idaho. He describes their move from the familiar to the utterly foreign as "an easy decision," that their arty careers and childless lives have made it simple to change everything in a "liquid pulse of anticipation." After transplanting themselves into a cabin located 200 miles from anywhere, the couple's only means of communication with the outside world is through telephone and the postal system. The couple's only remaining family--Andrea's half-senile grandmother--is perfectly lucid on one front: she wants to be a great-grandmother.

To placate "Grannam," Andrea telephones to tell her that she is pregnant, despite the fact that she is incapable of bearing children. In this single moment, the couple figuratively conceives a child when no literal being exists. With Grannam naturally thrilled (and mailing large checks to show it), there's no turning back. They download and manipulate ultrasound images from the internet, call friends with The News, and embark on birthing a concept-child--"Genia" who exists only in lies, digitally-altered photographs, and fragments of whatever bits of parenting culture the couple has gleaned from their fieldtrips to playgrounds and shopping malls.

Olsen nimbly juxtaposes this plot against a montage of 12 photographs, whose subjects may or may not be Girl's principal characters. Each "chapter" of the novel begins with a photograph, followed immediately by a meditation on the nature of representation and reproduction. This play between image/text and fiction/criticism leaves both Olsen and his narrator on deliberately shaky ground, and it's precisely this tension which saves the novel from becoming another by-product of the Oprah-ization of literary fiction in the United States. TREVOR DODGE