Throughout, words are platitudes, words are weapons, words are what distinguish this generation from the diseased cattle...

IDIOPATHY

A darkly comic novel turns bleaker and sadder as a generation of perennially adolescent Britons struggles to find love, or meaning, or maturity or something.

The front page of the debut novel by Byers defines “idiopathy” as “a disease or condition which arises spontaneously or for which the cause is unknown.” It refers most specifically to a crisis which pervades England, initially referred to vaguely and obliquely as “all this terrible cow business” and “whatever was going on with the cattle.” Worse than mad cow disease and capable of crossing species, infecting sheep and even humans, it hovers in the background of the novel, which focuses on the relationship (or lack thereof) among Katherine, Daniel and Nathan, who are stuck in some gaping maw between mindless adolescence (which seems to extend well into the mid-20s) and adult responsibility. On the surface, Katherine is the most interesting and least likable: “The better she was at her job, the more people hated her. By general consensus, Katherine was very good at her job.” She has sex, indiscriminately and without any satisfaction, with some co-workers who hate her less (or at least differently) than the others, and perhaps she does so to fill the void left by her breakup with Daniel, though when the two were lovers they never seemed to like each other much. Observes their friend Nathan, “[o]n a good day, they drew on pooled energy. On a bad day, they battled for dwindling air.” Nathan has recently been released from psychiatric treatment following his attempts to really hurt himself (though not, he insists, to kill himself) after professing his love for and to Katherine. He may well be the sanest of the three. They inevitably reunite, after the reader has spent long stretches inside the consciousness of each, as the gathering unexpectedly encompasses Daniel’s blandly beautiful girlfriend and the man with whom she might be having an affair, in a climax that suggests a younger version of Edward Albee’s Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.

Throughout, words are platitudes, words are weapons, words are what distinguish this generation from the diseased cattle across the novel’s backdrop. Perhaps. Here’s hoping the promising novelist finds a depth of meaning that eludes his characters.

Pub Date: June 4, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-86547-764-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Faber & Faber/Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: May 30, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2013

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ANIMAL FARM

A FAIRY STORY

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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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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