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July 2nd, 2003 Nate Berne | Books
 

review of two new books

Enough; The Effect of Living Backwards

     
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Enough
by Bill McKibben
(Times Books, 271 pages, $25)

The future. Some say it's a glistening technotopia where machines do all the work. Others predict an era of germline engineering where everyone has three eyes, a tail and funky night vision. Bill McKibben is a conscientious detractor: He prophesies a lifeless age where children are engineered for physical and professional greatness but essentially devoid of soul and love. McKibben fears an era where all human depth, industry and even curiosity are sacrificed for the pursuit of our ever self-retooling, ever dehumanizing technocracy.

Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age is McKibben's borderline-desperate cry for technology as a whole (including robotics, genetics, the Internet, etc.) to decelerate its churning march toward mechanized human perfection. Sound a little far-reaching? Well, McKibben clearly knows his trade, and his work displays exhaustive research with respect to all the sciences, but an anti-techno crusade is a bigger bite than most can chew.

Unfortunately, McKibben's demand that everyone ease back on progress, skip gleefully back to nature and learn to love themselves is a little too...Mr. Rogers meets Clan of the Cave Bear. To his credit, McKibben cites some truly harrowing examples of technocracy gone wrong. His descriptions of steroid-coagulated cyclists, self-replicating nanobots and slug-powered flesh-eating garden droids are scary, but his argument is essentially a tirade for self-restraint that's only occasionally convincing.

McKibben is (admittedly) a tad self-absorbed: He repeatedly cites his own intense love of jogging as a perfectly enjoyable, non-bioenhanced activity. McKibben's near monomania builds to a flaky, foamy head when he actually quotes Dr. McCoy of Star Trek to support his case against genetic engineering. Dammit, Bill! He's an actor, not a doctor! Bold vision, bravely counter-industrial, but essentially moot.
Nate Berne

The Effect of Living Backwards
by Heidi Julavits
(Putnam, 325 pages, $23.95)

Heidi Julavits will read from her novel at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside St., 228-4651. 7:30 pm Tuesday, July 8.

Julavits' first novel, The Mineral Palace, is published by Berkley (368 pages, $14).

Is it possible, in this day and age, to write a funny novel about an airplane being hijacked? If you're Heidi Julavits, it is.

Her second novel stars two sisters on a long flight with a not-quite-suave group of terrorists. The "good girl" sister, Alice, is the narrator, and the one chosen to mediate the hostage negotiations. Edith is the sister who seduces men just to show Alice she can, despite the fact she's getting married in a few days. The central figure among the villains is Bruno, a man who accidentally blinds himself to test his wife. But the real star of the book is Julavits herself. Her writing seems oceanic--beautiful, undulating, sometimes stormy, and with the ability to plunge deep with little warning, making you hold your breath. Julavits' ambitious work is especially successful in the chapters where some of the characters tell a story they're ashamed of.

Besides this new novel, Julavits has become one of the most talked-about magazine editors of the year with the publication she's helped to launch, The Believer. The first issue, which came out in March, featured her now-legendary 9,000-word introductory essay about "the snarky, dumbed-down world of book reviewing." The Believer has become one of the most popular new magazines since, well, McSweeney's (which publishes The Believer out of its San Francisco headquarters). I recently asked the busy Julavits some questions about her work.

Willamette Week: How far were you into the novel before Sept. 11?

Heidi Julavits: I finished the first draft of this book about two weeks before the 11th. The projected gloom of the reader was a minor worry at the time--of greater concern was my own ability to re-engage with the project. This took quite a few months, needless to say. But once I did, the novel became a really crucial outlet for me to explore the tragic absurdities that have marked this period, and my own growing uncertainty and distrust toward all political leaders. The smoke-and-mirrors coverage of world events, from all sides, makes it impossible to get a grasp on what's really happening. I view Alice as a pretty accurate reflection of our nation's queasy emotional and mental state.

There's a scene in your novel where one character says, "I despise certainty." Do you feel the same way?

Well, it depends if your life is your art, or your work is. This is a line that divides Edith and Alice. Certainty curtails imagination, I've found--yet a certain amount of certainty in my daily living situation frees me up to be a more imaginative writer, because I'm not wasting my headspace on imaginative ways to pay my mortgage. But if my life were my art, as it is with Edith, I'd probably have about 14 different husbands and live in a different city every few years. Thankfully, my life is fairly artless.

Are you surprised by the reactions that The Believer has received?

I've been somewhat limiting my exposure to these "reactions"--but yes, I guess I was a little surprised, but happily so. It means people do care about literature in an urgent way. --Kevin Sampsell

 
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