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May 16th, 2001 | Books
 

Reviews of three new books

     
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Eclipse
by John Banville
(Knopf, 212 pages, $23)

Eclipse is the story of a middle-aged man in full identity crisis. After years of sliding from character to character, guise to guise, well-known thespian Alex Cleave "dries up." On stage, mid-performance, following the line, "Who if not I, then, is Amphitryon?" he freezes. Unable to act any longer, he shuffles off stage and retreats to what he thinks is his empty childhood home, intending to figure out just what has happened to him--and to himself. He finds the place unexpectedly populous: first, by benign ghosts who fail to note his presence and whose identities puzzle him; second, by Quirke, the house's caretaker, and Lily, a teen who reminds Alex unnervingly of his own troubled and estranged daughter.

Literary critic Sven Birkerts recently championed Banville as an "undiscovered genius," and Eclipse offers plenty of evidence to support that assertion. Banville's formidable command of language and imagery weaves a sense of dislocation so complete that everything except the ghosts begins to feel omen-laden. Alex is flirting with a breakdown, but a breakdown first requires a cohesive identity to be broken, and whether Alex has ever had that seems open to debate. The phantoms of his past continue piling up at the door, however, and it's not long before we feel Alex bumping up against evil itself. What's truly haunting him becomes sadly clear, but the recognition is troubling: Has Alex learned something, or simply slipped into yet another character? Banville allows the question to linger, giving Eclipse the power to continue haunting you even after the actor has finished his monologue. Dan DeWeese


Cyborg Citizen
by Chris Hables Gray
(Routledge, 201 pages, $28)

 

Chris Hables Gray's world is one of "posthuman possibilities" in which vaccinations "reprogram" the immune system and daily technologies such as TVs, computers, cars, alarm clocks, etc., effect a "symbiosis of humans and machines." In Cyborg Citizen, Gray tilts his prism toward the question of citizenship and the body politic in the cyborgian era. "We have to think in terms of the cyborg citizen, and that means we have to decide who qualifies," he says.

In this eruption of tomorrow's topics, Gray explores everything from "cybocracy" to human-machine weapons systems. On the other side of the weapons issue, Gray discusses penile prosthetics (the male's "technological apparatus") and its closest competitor, what Gray dubs "dildonics," where the penis's life-support system becomes obsolete. This takes us to genetic engineering, cloning and cybersex. Gray gauges these based upon their cultural (mainly as related to constructions of gender and power) and political (mainly as related to participatory government) meanings.

Through this, Gray argues that the prospect of the cyborg is "a disturbing technocarnival with permanent consequences, delightful, disturbing imaginings of beautiful and grotesque technoscience." He concludes that the complexity and implications of the cyborgian era demand an active government and informed decisions on a societywide basis.

Although nebulous and overly speculative, Gray succeeds in raising a number of questions worth consideration. His failures lay in his inability to convince the reader of his drastic suggestions concerning the fate of man as a cyborg, and his excessive use of the word "hubris." Notwithstanding, his overall appraisal of the difficulties attending the tech age and the cyborgian era are insightful and well formulated. Andrei Yuri Lubomudrov




This Shape We're In
by Jonathan Lethem
(McSweeney's Books, 55 pages, $9)

 

There's much to admire about McSweeney's and its Staggering Genius wunderkind Dave Eggers. Eggers is a marketing ninja. He's spun a self-obsessed website, gimmicky prose style and prissy dealings with the press into national fame--all while protesting just a little too much about it. Clever lad, our David. He may be the perfect American author for the era, for many unfortunate reasons. One wonders if McS's cultivated arch-earnestness is as much of a hipster cliché for the new century as Tarantino's retro irony became in the '90s, doomed to the same irrelevance. Crap like This Shape We're In surely doesn't augur well.

Jonathan Lethem, author of sci-fi noir riot Motherless Brooklyn, is a funny and smart writer. In this slim (in every sense) volume, he gets a little too smart and funny. This Shape is a clumsy social satire set within a human body (the title is a joke, see; Lethem remembered his sledgehammer the afternoon he wrote this). A microscopic humanoid society lives inside this "shape," and Lethem's plot revolves around two little guys wandering through organs and arteries in search of a third little guy. For this, they killed trees.

Much scarcely readable drivel later, our narrator ends up gazing out the "shape's" eye onto a suburban landscape. Cue conclusion, a dreary and entirely predictable indictment of consumerism. That would be fine, were This Shape not such a blatant rip-off in its own right. Lethem's text stretches to 55 pages only because it's set in giant, double-spaced type. Nine bucks is steep for this trifle, no matter whose logo is stamped on the spine. Zach Dundas

 
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