THE TUNNEL

After 30 years of labor, Gass (Habitations of the Word, 1984, etc.) has brought forth a big, big book that sets off, with linguistic and intellectual bravura, to explore the dark corners of history and the psyche. But it never quite reaches its destination. William Kohler, a noted historian, has recently completed his ``Great Work''—The Guilt and Innocence of Hitler's Germany. All that remains to be written is the introduction, and yet as he sits in his chair he finds himself writing a personal history of life spent mostly in a chair: ``a domestic epic that took place entirely in the mind.'' Drawings, typographical whimsies, and scabrous limericks frequently interrupt this often dense text, which, like a drop of water seen under a microscope, teems with rich and intriguing life. As Kohler writes, he hides the pages from his wife within those of his official manuscript. And he also begins to dig a tunnel from his cellar, a place for ``concealment of history beneath my exposition of it.'' An aphorist, Kohler delivers the mots—bon and juste—at the speed of a stand-up comic, but their wit and insight conceal a sickness of the soul. Most people, including himself, Kohler asserts, belong to the ``Party of the Disappointed People,'' people who recognize ``that the loss has been caused in great part by others.'' Preoccupied with evil, the nature of truth, and the effects of an individual's relationship with others, he recalls his bookish childhood with a mother who drank to remember the ``good old days'' and a bigoted father; graduate work in prewar Germany, where he hurled a brick on Kristallnacht; his unhappy marriage; and the lost love of his life, Lou, a former student. Kohler's story exhibits the same inconsistencies and deceits he finds in history: Kohler, the personal memoirist, is, it seems, as unreliable as Kohler, the eminent historian. A virtuoso performance without a grand finale. But what a remarkable show.

Pub Date: Feb. 28, 1995

ISBN: 0-679-43767-3

Page Count: 672

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 1994

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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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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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