From the erudite Markson (Wittgenstein's Mistress, 1990, not reviewed; etc.): a terse, modernist novel implying that history is over, the arts finished—yet offering extended, Beckett- like pleasures. ``Reader'' is the speaker here, and he speaks about ``Protagonist.'' Plot and event? ``Someone nodded hello to Reader on the street yesterday'' pretty much takes care of the action side of things. More crucially, Reader declares that ``I am growing older. I have been in hospitals,'' and asks, ``Do I wish to put certain things down?'' Indeed he does: and the remainder of the book consists of Reader's aphoristic recollections of a lifetime of—well, reading. As these ``memories'' accumulate, Reader does have other questions—whether, as novelist, he should have ``Protagonist'' live on a beach or beside a cemetery (and if a cemetery, who is the woman Protagonist sees coming there each day to mourn?). Other questions include the familiar ``What is a novel in any case?'' Reader conjectures that he's creating ``in some peculiar way. . . an autobiography,'' and asks whether it's ``Nonlinear? Discontinuous? Collage-like?'' (Answers: Yes, yes, and yes.) ``Protagonist has come to this place because he had no life back there at all,'' explains Reader as he continues with his indefatigable, funny, often terribly wrenching tapestry of facts both known and obscure (``Vachel Lindsay committed suicide by drinking Lysol''), quotations homely and exotic (``O lente, lente currite, noctis equi!''), opinions of all literary sorts (``On the evidence, Shakespeare's small Latin was plainly more than that''), and assertions in a continuing refrain ``Arnold Toynbee was an anti-Semite''). A novel, in all, for the ultra-readerly only, though in its own way often deeply melancholy, suggestive, and moving. ``Nothing bores me more than political novels and the literature of social intent, Nabokov said'' is followed by ``Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.'' Nabokov speaks for Markson's aesthetic aims, while Shakespeare synopsizes the personal wistfulness and deep sorrow permeating this remarkable book.

Pub Date: Oct. 31, 1996

ISBN: 1-56478-132-1

Page Count: 193

Publisher: Dalkey Archive

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 1996

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Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.


The time is the not-so-distant future, when the US's spiraling social freedoms have finally called down a reaction, an Iranian-style repressive "monotheocracy" calling itself the Republic of Gilead—a Bible-thumping, racist, capital-punishing, and misogynistic rule that would do away with pleasure altogether were it not for one thing: that the Gileadan women, pure and true (as opposed to all the nonbelieving women, those who've ever been adulterous or married more than once), are found rarely fertile.

Thus are drafted a whole class of "handmaids," whose function is to bear the children of the elite, to be fecund or else (else being certain death, sent out to be toxic-waste removers on outlying islands). The narrative frame for Atwood's dystopian vision is the hopeless private testimony of one of these surrogate mothers, Offred ("of" plus the name of her male protector). Lying cradled by the body of the barren wife, being meanwhile serviced by the husband, Offred's "ceremony" must be successful—if she does not want to join the ranks of the other disappeared (which include her mother, her husband—dead—and small daughter, all taken away during the years of revolt). One Of her only human conduits is a gradually developing affair with her master's chauffeur—something that's balanced more than offset, though, by the master's hypocritically un-Puritan use of her as a kind of B-girl at private parties held by the ruling men in a spirit of nostalgia and lust. This latter relationship, edging into real need (the master's), is very effectively done; it highlights the handmaid's (read Everywoman's) eternal exploitation, profane or sacred ("We are two-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices"). Atwood, to her credit, creates a chillingly specific, imaginable night-mare. The book is short on characterization—this is Atwood, never a warm writer, at her steeliest—and long on cynicism—it's got none of the human credibility of a work such as Walker Percy's Love In The Ruins. But the scariness is visceral, a world that's like a dangerous and even fatal grid, an electrified fence.

Tinny perhaps, but still a minutely rendered and impressively steady feminist vision of apocalypse.

Pub Date: Feb. 17, 1985

ISBN: 038549081X

Page Count: -

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Sept. 16, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 1985

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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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