Email this review


Milwaukee in the year 2013--not a lucky number, as it happens. The ""greenhouse effect"" elaborated in James' first novel (Greenhouse, 1984) continues to change the climate, producing worldwide famine and, in the US, the secession of six more states (including Milwaukee) from the federal system. Run by an old-fashioned conservationist whose slogan is ""Think Small,"" ""Fritzland"" becomes a utopia beckoning to thousands of refugees from south of the Rio Grande Wall--though ""utopia"" can only be a relative term in a world so badly managed that it seems, as James says, that ""God never got his MBA degree."" The hip jokes and Orwellian warnings don't make for a profound blend here. There's a jokey cruelty in the exposition that is hipper, more self-conscious than the emery life dishes out. Parodying recent fiction's extensive use of the parable of Schroedinger's cat, for instance, James posits the strange case of Dr. Fechner's cat. During the 19th century, it seems, Fechner reasoned that he could boil a cat without the cat's noticing, if he only increased the temperature by imperceptible degrees. The point: ""If the quality of life of a society degrades slowly enough, no one notices . . . It is only when people have lived a long time or have read too much history, that is, people who have some kind of yardstick embedded in their minds, that differences will be great enough to notice. If things go to hell slowly, and the slope is well-greased with the oil of uncritical optimism, no one will be the wiser."" The style seems to aim at the pyrotechnic, but it's really more slapdash and repetitive; and we are taught early on not to expect much in the way of characterization or a story line. This leaves only the author's Fechnerian ""message"" as the novel's centerpiece--and that bad-news message, whatever troth it may hold, is delivered, unfortunately, with facile glee, unalloyed either with pity or fear for humanity, as Orwell's certainly was. Smugness is probably the worst sin a satirist can commit; yet James seems committed to it here. All in all: there's more than one way to skin a cat, and James' way is little more than rancor and spite.

Pub Date: April 25th, 1986
Publisher: Donald Fine