True, it won’t make ISIS’s holiday reading list, and it will offend cultural-relativist pieties. Still, though clunky and...

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The controversial pan-European bestseller arrives in English.

Houellebecq’s (The Map and the Territory, 2012, etc.) newest antihero is a literature professor whose specialty is a writer few Americans and not so many modern French readers know: the pseudonymous J.-K. Huysmans, who wrote the definitive decadent novel, Au rebours, way back in the pre-Proustian, post-impressionist day. That Huysmans turns up less than a dozen words into the narrative is an important cue, for François is decadent, too, in the same sense that an overripe cantaloupe is, sliding irreversibly into decay and rot. So are the careerist academics around him, and so are his students, the females among whom he gladly sleeps with when he’s not filling his eyes with pornography. Houellebecq’s book was implicated in the Charlie Hebdo murders of Jan. 7, the day it was published in France, as an insult to Islam, and indeed Houellebecq paints with the widest brush: in order to fend off a challenge from the right, France’s ruling Socialist Party comes to an accommodation with a strict Islamist political faction that accordingly rises to power and immediately fires all professors who aren’t Muslim and fundamentally inclined—but rewards converts with multiple veiled wives and salaries triple what the generous French welfare state had already been paying. Adieu Huysmans, bienvenu Al-Fatiha. Houellebecq isn’t patently anti-Islamic so much as anti-everyone, a fierce moralist of an Orwellian bent—and this book shares more than a few points with Nineteen Eighty-Four—who finds us all wanting. About the only morally clean character in the book is forced out early on: “But what am I going to do in Israel?” she asks. “I don’t speak a word of Hebrew. France is my country.” Not anymore, Houellebecq seems to be saying, because of our softness, complacency, and the usual venalities.

True, it won’t make ISIS’s holiday reading list, and it will offend cultural-relativist pieties. Still, though clunky and obvious, it’s well worth reading as a modern work of littérature engagée.

Pub Date: Oct. 20, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-374-27157-2

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: July 29, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2015

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A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

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  • New York Times Bestseller

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THE OVERSTORY

Powers’ (Orfeo, 2014, etc.) 12th novel is a masterpiece of operatic proportions, involving nine central characters and more than half a century of American life.

In this work, Powers takes on the subject of nature, or our relationship to nature, as filtered through the lens of environmental activism, although at its heart the book is after more existential concerns. As is the case with much of Powers’ fiction, it takes shape slowly—first in a pastiche of narratives establishing the characters (a psychologist, an undergraduate who died briefly but was revived, a paraplegic computer game designer, a homeless vet), and then in the kaleidoscopic ways these individuals come together and break apart. “We all travel the Milky Way together, trees and men,” Powers writes, quoting the naturalist John Muir. “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” The idea is important because what Powers means to explore is a sense of how we become who we are, individually and collectively, and our responsibility to the planet and to ourselves. Nick, for instance, continues a project begun by his grandfather to take repeated photographs of a single chestnut tree, “one a month for seventy-six years.” Pat, a visionary botanist, discovers how trees communicate with one another only to be discredited and then, a generation later, reaffirmed. What links the characters is survival—the survival of both trees and human beings. The bulk of the action unfolds during the timber wars of the late 1990s, as the characters coalesce on the Pacific coast to save old-growth sequoia from logging concerns. For Powers, however, political or environmental activism becomes a filter through which to consider the connectedness of all things—not only the human lives he portrays in often painfully intricate dimensions, but also the biosphere, both virtual and natural. “The world starts here,” Powers insists. “This is the merest beginning. Life can do anything. You have no idea.”

A magnificent achievement: a novel that is, by turns, both optimistic and fatalistic, idealistic without being naïve.

Pub Date: April 3, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-393-63552-2

Page Count: 512

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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

THE HANDMAID'S TALE

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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