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THE COLDNESS OF OBJECTS

An intriguing, timely, and terrifying portent of life after Covid-19.

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A gay man questions Britain’s repressive new political regime in this satirical, speculative novel by Cacoyannis, author of Finger of an Angel(2019).

The year is 2030, and 70-year-old Englishman Anthony Pablo Rubens is about to receive an unexpected special delivery that could change the course of his life. It’s a summons informing him that he’s been selected for “Museum Service”—and he doesn’t know exactly what that entails. It turns out to be a scheme introduced by the Government Party, which came to power in the United Kingdom with a landslide victory in 2024 in the wake of a viral pandemic that “exhausted the world.” The Party offered simple and deadly solutions, inciting racial hatred and promising the abolition of a trial by jury. Museum Service, it’s revealed, involves uprooting Anthony’s life—possessions and all—and exhibiting him in a cubicle in the People’s Museum, where party members can observe him going about a daily routine. The narrative flips back half a century to show Anthony as a young man navigating London’s gay scene; one night he has a chance encounter with Joe Devin, who will later become a Government Party minister. The novel also describes Anthony’s loving relationship with his ailing partner, Malcolm, and his closeness to his sister Eunice, whose political leanings echo those of their grandfather, who fought against Franco during the Spanish Civil War. Things become tense when Anthony’s inquisitiveness results in his being labeled a “pedant” by the government and when he learns that Eunice was similarly summoned shortly before her death.

Immediate comparison will be made with the work of George Orwell, whose work is specifically referenced: “Mr Rubens suddenly felt terribly alone, living unloved and unnoticed in a nightmare worse than 1984.” However, this is by no means an ersatz rewrite of a literary classic. Cacoyannis tells a story that feels both fresh and alarming in how it identifies and amplifies concerns of our time, as when it shows life becoming anodyne as a consequence of surveillance: “bioelectric cars whizzed past with hardly a sound, at set speeds that could not be exceeded. Cyclists only cycled in the designated lanes. Smart phones weren’t so smart any more, but threatened to be smart enough to spy.” For the author, love is the antidote to a complicit society rendered indifferent to authoritarian rule. Cacoyannis’ elegant and tenderly observant prose captures how individual lives interconnect: “Anthony’s ‘gift’ seemed to always cast life in a shadow, Malcolm’s was to inundate its mysteries with light.” In previous works, the author has painstakingly created psychologically complex casts of characters, but he doesn’t apply the same level of detail to the minor players here. This is less important, however, because in this novel, the primary focus is excavating the horrors of a society rather than the internal worlds of diverse individuals. Overall, Cacoyannis has written a thoroughly gripping novel, using the rhetoric of a real-life pandemic to fashion a chilling vision of an abnormal “new normal” to come.

An intriguing, timely, and terrifying portent of life after Covid-19.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 2021

ISBN: 979-8-56-036884-5

Page Count: 269

Publisher: Self

Review Posted Online: Nov. 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2021

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DEMON COPPERHEAD

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

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Inspired by David Copperfield, Kingsolver crafts a 21st-century coming-of-age story set in America’s hard-pressed rural South.

It’s not necessary to have read Dickens’ famous novel to appreciate Kingsolver’s absorbing tale, but those who have will savor the tough-minded changes she rings on his Victorian sentimentality while affirming his stinging critique of a heartless society. Our soon-to-be orphaned narrator’s mother is a substance-abusing teenage single mom who checks out via OD on his 11th birthday, and Demon’s cynical, wised-up voice is light-years removed from David Copperfield’s earnest tone. Yet readers also see the yearning for love and wells of compassion hidden beneath his self-protective exterior. Like pretty much everyone else in Lee County, Virginia, hollowed out economically by the coal and tobacco industries, he sees himself as someone with no prospects and little worth. One of Kingsolver’s major themes, hit a little too insistently, is the contempt felt by participants in the modern capitalist economy for those rooted in older ways of life. More nuanced and emotionally engaging is Demon’s fierce attachment to his home ground, a place where he is known and supported, tested to the breaking point as the opiate epidemic engulfs it. Kingsolver’s ferocious indictment of the pharmaceutical industry, angrily stated by a local girl who has become a nurse, is in the best Dickensian tradition, and Demon gives a harrowing account of his descent into addiction with his beloved Dori (as naïve as Dickens’ Dora in her own screwed-up way). Does knowledge offer a way out of this sinkhole? A committed teacher tries to enlighten Demon’s seventh grade class about how the resource-rich countryside was pillaged and abandoned, but Kingsolver doesn’t air-brush his students’ dismissal of this history or the prejudice encountered by this African American outsider and his White wife. She is an art teacher who guides Demon toward self-expression, just as his friend Tommy provokes his dawning understanding of how their world has been shaped by outside forces and what he might be able to do about it.

An angry, powerful book seething with love and outrage for a community too often stereotyped or ignored.

Pub Date: Oct. 18, 2022

ISBN: 978-0-06-325-1922

Page Count: 560

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 13, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2022

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 16, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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