THE SONG OF THE EARTH  by Hugh Nissenson


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After 16 years, Nissenson returns with a futuristic tale that lacks the charm of his extraordinary Tree of Life (1985) but still has the compelling interest typical in Nissenson.

American artist John Firth Baker is born in 2037, genetically engineered so that, as his art-historian mother fervently wishes, he’ll have “the lust of the eyes” and be brilliant in manual art (not mere “digital,” mind you). The engineering has been done by American scientist Frederick Rust Plowman at the Ozaki Metamorphic Institute of Kyoto: a place chosen in order to evade the strictures of the “Created Equal Act,” a US law passed in 2030 prohibiting “the artificial alteration of genetically determined traits in humins except for reasons of health.” With this wry twist on today’s reproductive preoccupations, Nissenson gets his story moving—in an America where “womin” and “humin” are spelled, well, that way; all but the poor live in “keeps” (whole towns sealed off from the insufferably hot, dust-driven weather); and global warming is turning the avenues of Manhattan into canals. The story of Baker’s short life is told through pieces of diary, excerpts from an interview in The International Review of Manual Art, and snippets of monologue from various people who knew him—including the sleazy guru Billy Lee Mookerjee, a leader in the Gaian religion whom the infatuated young Baker follows, serving Billy as a “sheila” and even growing breasts (as a “he-she”) to prove his fidelity to the earth-principle. But the religion stifles—even forbids—Baker’s work as an artist, and only after he wrenches himself away from Billy Lee does his career flourish and fame come quickly, though bringing a lamentable end to the young genius.

Not a story that will move readers, though a cool fascination awaits them on every page. And then there are Nissenson’s pictures, 34 line drawings scattered throughout, so brilliant that it seems the book were made to illustrate them, not vice-versa.

Pub Date: May 11th, 2001
ISBN: 1-56512-298-4
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: Algonquin
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 2001