A journey into “complexity on the edge of chaos,” shaded by deep-felt despair.

A thoughtful, knowledgeable exposé of half a century of America’s nuclear weapons industry that also makes a surprisingly absorbing first novel about a group of scientists competing for ascendancy at a California Bay Area lab.

By his late 30s, Philip Quine has fairly well squandered the brilliant scientific talent that initially won him his coveted position in J Section, R&D in Advanced Nuclear Concepts at the “Lab,” a think tank of brainy, eager-eyed University of California talent, probably modeled on Lawrence Livermore. Under the charismatic leadership of Leo Highet, a kind of oily p.r. man and prince of darkness whose adoration of Leonardo da Vinci gives him license to reckless arrogance, the Lab, goaded by an early ’90s conservative administration, is pushing to develop the so-called Superbright laser, the jewel in Highet’s wildly extravagant Radiance antimissile defense shield. Quine, cautionary by nature to the point of being unable to commit himself to longtime girlfriend Nan, warns Highet of overstating the laser’s capacity and even writes up an internal whistle-blowing report that eventually becomes the evidence that sinks Highet into scandal. Newly appointed acting director, despite his conflicting romance with Lynn Hamlin, a paralegal at Citizens Against Nuclear Technology, which demonstrates regularly against the Lab, Quine must appease the Department of Energy by switching the Lab’s direction to “dual benefit” and rooting out staggering cases of fraud, theft, and treason. Scholz, a composer of experimental computer music who lives in Berkeley, clearly knows his stuff, and from the inside. His narrative, far from being dry or academic, is densely layered, moving in and out of dizzying double-speak and acronyms, with a roiling display of personalities (the men are the scientists, the women the love interests), such as the emeritus founder of the Lab, Aron Reti, espousing the “cult of the beautiful theory,” and numerous wily senators.

A journey into “complexity on the edge of chaos,” shaded by deep-felt despair.

Pub Date: Feb. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-312-26893-9

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Picador

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2001



The Brat Pack meets The Bacchae in this precious, way-too-long, and utterly unsuspenseful town-and-gown murder tale. A bunch of ever-so-mandarin college kids in a small Vermont school are the eager epigones of an aloof classics professor, and in their exclusivity and snobbishness and eagerness to please their teacher, they are moved to try to enact Dionysian frenzies in the woods. During the only one that actually comes off, a local farmer happens upon them—and they kill him. But the death isn't ruled a murder—and might never have been if one of the gang—a cadging sybarite named Bunny Corcoran—hadn't shown signs of cracking under the secret's weight. And so he too is dispatched. The narrator, a blank-slate Californian named Richard Pepen chronicles the coverup. But if you're thinking remorse-drama, conscience masque, or even semi-trashy who'll-break-first? page-turner, forget it: This is a straight gee-whiz, first-to-have-ever-noticed college novel—"Hampden College, as a body, was always strangely prone to hysteria. Whether from isolation, malice, or simple boredom, people there were far more credulous and excitable than educated people are generally thought to be, and this hermetic, overheated atmosphere made it a thriving black petri dish of melodrama and distortion." First-novelist Tartt goes muzzy when she has to describe human confrontations (the murder, or sex, or even the ping-ponging of fear), and is much more comfortable in transcribing aimless dorm-room paranoia or the TV shows that the malefactors anesthetize themselves with as fate ticks down. By telegraphing the murders, Tartt wants us to be continually horrified at these kids—while inviting us to semi-enjoy their manneristic fetishes and refined tastes. This ersatz-Fitzgerald mix of moralizing and mirror-looking (Jay McInerney shook and poured the shaker first) is very 80's—and in Tartt's strenuous version already seems dated, formulaic. Les Nerds du Mal—and about as deep (if not nearly as involving) as a TV movie.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 1992

ISBN: 1400031702

Page Count: 592

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1992



The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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