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Austin Chronicle Book Reviews

SEPTEMBER 8, 1998: 

The Calcutta Chromosome: A Novel of Fevers, Delirium & Discovery

by Amitav Ghosh, Bard, $6.99 paper

And now, ladies and gentlemen, let's welcome into the ranks of cyberpunk novelists -- direct from New York via India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Oxford, and Egypt -- Mr. Amitav Ghosh!

Hey, I'm as surprised as you are, assuming you know who this guy is in the first place. I know him as a superb writer, capable of knotting together a plot so tight that you can carry water in it, but the idea that he would sit down and turn out an absolute page-turner, one that I had to keep telling myself to slow down and read so I didn't miss a thing, is, indeed, a shock. A very pleasant, one, I hasten to add.

Everything about The Calcutta Chromosome is a pleasant surprise. It's erudite, funny, scary, suspenseful, and filled with fascinating speculation, not to mention paranoia, poetry, and malaria.

Malaria, in fact, is at the center of everything here. It's a bothersome disease for researchers -- and considerably more than that for those unlucky enough to contract it -- because the organism that causes it just won't sit still, mutating as quickly as the human race can pin it down, which means that it may never be eradicated. Millions of people live with it, dormant in their systems for the most part, but suffering from recurrences throughout their lives.

It was also one of the diseases whose cause was identified early, and this fact is at the heart of Ghosh's story. Just how was it that Surgeon-Major Ronald Ross, a not particularly brilliant medical dilettante, using what were, even for the time, terribly shoddy scientific methods, was able to isolate the source of the disease, spread by anopheles mosquitos, in his primitive lab in Calcutta in 1898, when dozens of other researchers, with better educations and more expertise, had failed?

This question has obsessed a man named Murugan, an employee of LifeWatch, a small health organization and epidemiological databank, to the point where he's quit his job and traveled to Calcutta in search of an answer. Obsessed? He even insists on taking a room in a run-down guest-house because it's on the same street as Ross' lab.

And, as the book opens, Murugan has become the assignment of an aging drone named Antar, an Egyptian in the employ of the International Water Council, a huge corporation which has, among other things, absorbed Antar's former employer, LifeWatch. With a couple of years remaining until his retirement, they've allowed Antar to set up an AVA/IIe supercomputer in his New York slum apartment, so he can work from home tracing the insignificant bits of bureaucratic detail they toss his way.

The latest detail comes out of Ava's matter-hopper, a badly mangled ID card of a former LifeWatch employee who disappeared in Calcutta way back in 1995. The case needs closing, and that's what Antar is paid to do. And hey, he sort of remembers this guy, too. Where'd this ID come from? Lhasa, Tibet? How'd he get there?

To go too much further into the details could spoil the story, since virtually every sentence is crucial in building up the evidence of a conspiracy so large, so bizarre, and, ultimately, so almost believable, that the comparisons with Pynchon's Crying of Lot 49 in the blurb are totally justified. And, as I said earlier, Ghosh is a master of plot, pushing the reader forward gently, unfolding the story bit by bit, and, ultimately, laying bare a confrontation between East and West that's as thought-provoking as it is scary.

Summer lasts longer in Texas than elsewhere, but I hesitate to recommend The Calcutta Chromosome as beach reading, despite its addictive plot and the ease with which it goes down. First, you may get so engrossed that you'll burn dangerously. And second, well, you never know about those mosquitoes ...
- Ed Ward



Where the Sea Used to Be

by Rick Bass, Houghton Mifflin, $25 hard

Ah, wilderness.The uncharted wild is not only Rick Bass' favorite subject, it's also where the acclaimed writer, one of the country's premier sources of poetic, nature-oriented short fiction, finds himself with the publication of his very first novel. Where the Sea Used to Be explores little new ground uncovered in Bass' 14 years of short stories and essays -- the Montana wilderness, geology, hunting, man's interaction with nature -- and is just as wonderfully written. Yet Bass has remarked that writing the novel was one of the most agonizing and excrutiating challenges of his career, saying in a recent interview that writing it was "an ass-kicker. I'm feeling relieved more than anything that it's done." Why was it so difficult? And what can a Rick Bass novel promise that hasn't already been fulfilled in other forms? The answer to the first question is that as a master of the short piece Bass is skilled in economic storytelling. Writing within the expanded space of a novel, he faced much different and (for him) difficult choices about what to include. The answer to the second question follows from the first. The particular pleasure of reading a Rick Bass novel is the total immersion you feel in the hypnotic lyricism of his prose. Over the course of the 445 pages you become ensconced in the fictional Swan Valley of Montana in a way impossible in the short stories.

The story involves four main characters, two of whom are related: Old Dudley, a preternaturally powerful old man (almost comically so), and his adult daughter, Mel, a loner who studies wolves and tries to avoid feeling the dominance of her father. She lives in remote Montana, he in Texas. Old Dudley is a self-made man, rich from oil, and his forcefulness is displayed in part by a ravenous desire to possess people, specifically the geologists he employs to locate oil: "He preferred to chew through his geologists one at a time, so that he could focus the brunt of his force upon them without dilution." In between father and daughter, then, are two geologists -- Matthew, the calm and capable veteran, and Wallis, the hungry, contemplative newcomer. Wallis is to replace Matthew, whom over the years Dudley has almost entirely chewed through. Like a bronco buster domesticates wild horses, Dudley likes to break the spirits of his geologists. This he accomplishes by sending them up to remote Montana to search in vain for oil that he knows is not there. This sketches a complex power game: The failure of the hungry geologist to find oil is what finally allows Dudley to rule him, to own his soul. Matthew and Mel had become lovers during Matthew's days in Swan valley, but he now lives in Texas with Dudley and having become the old man's possession, is lost to Mel. The novel begins with Wallis' journey to Montana, where he will begin the same futile search for oil, live under the guidance of Mel, and enter the vast and poetic wilderness.

Man's interaction with nature is Bass' primary theme, and it is explored through such lenses as geology, cartography, and hunting. Bass is an environmentalist, but not a sentimentalist. In his eye nature is often sullen and wild -- a place of luminous beauty that is simultaneously dangerous and unyielding. Human beings are subjects of nature just like all other animals and Bass views hunting -- whether for crude oil or meat -- as a fact of life, albeit a romantically passionate one. In his descriptions of it, you come to see hunting as Bass does, in balance with nature and life: He saw how in the hunt, it all falls into place, how all the elements that seemed previously to be meaningless become now spurred into action: how every element, every atom, has meaning, and how this is the perfect desire of nature, the moment toward which all waiting, which is not really waiting, moves. Reading Bass' prose produces much the same effect; as you give yourself over to his descriptions and the steady, patient, and at times epiphanic prose, you realize that you are immersed in a novel of inestimable beauty. Whether or not you buy the drama that occurs among the characters, the Swan Valley will come alive for you. Images will persist in your head long after you've put the book down: the body of a man who fell through the ice and remains preserved at the bottom of the river, the figure of a man trudging days through the snow wearing like a yoke the giant antlers of an elk he'd killed.

The novel is not without its flaws. Bass sometimes loses the battle with the longer form -- writes too much, includes too much, resulting in long passages that must be slogged through. But even this is not so bad. Given all the scenes set in the pastorally fierce Montana winter, Where the Sea Used to Be provides a nice escape from the Austin summer. -Jordan Mackay



The Aztec Love God

by Tony Diaz, Fc2/Black Ice Books, $12.95 paper

In brief: Tio is a teenager living with his parents in Chicago. Antonio Marquez is an average high school student waiting to graduate. "D" is another student in the same high school quietly leading an affirmative-action revolution under the teachers' noses. Lorenzo Cassanova is a lady's man, in and out of clubs every night with a fake ID; he's dating an exotic dancer. The Aztec love god is a stand-up comedian who isn't quite sure whether or not he should tell Mexican jokes. And the catch is, they're all the same and they're all made up.

Houston author Tony Diaz's debut novel, The Aztec love god, is a book about identities -- how they are created, nurtured, discovered, and discarded. Exchanged. Tiofilio (if that is his real name) is the narrator of the story, those others his creations, versions of himself discovered as the need, as the desire, arose. He lives with his parents in Chicago. They live in a sitcom world, have lived there since his father bought the original set-house for Leave It to Beaver (Leave It to Burro, he calls his life). He performs at open-mike nights as the Aztec love god, telling average, non-Mexican jokes, until he meets Jester, an older, wiser, sold-out comedian who wants him as part of his act. Jester's got the money, he's got the girl, he's got the crowds, and all he wants are the jokes, but make them Mexican, please, else no dice, see?

While the love god has that to tackle, Antonio Marquez is struggling not to sleep through his senior year of high school. Writing jokes through biology and algebra, he finds himself in trouble as "D," a co-founding member of the Mexican-American Leadership Organization or MALO. "If we had been born and cultivated on the other side," he says,"perhaps our name would have been Buenos Alumnos Dedicados or BAD." Caught stealing biology tests for its members, he is threatened with expulsion and then simply ignored by faculty and students alike. And then there is Lorenzo Cassanova, 24 years old and sleeping with Jester's girl, running around in strip joints, and staying out well past Tio's curfew.

You've got one hell of a mess when you add to that mix Rosa Hernandez, the girl who wants to marry Tio (though one doesn't quite see why); Tio's father, a man who cashed his son's college fund CD to buy the Leave it to Beaver house and who once tried to take his son to a Menudo audition; Principal Autruck, who would like nothing better than the expulsion of Marquez and his clan of suspicious Mexican friends; and a host of friends, enemies, dancing girls, and mysterious diaries. But Diaz manages this mess well, all in 155 pages and peppered with smart observations of life, love, and the world at large.

There is a new voice in Latin American fiction and poetry coming out of the States. You can hear it in SWT professor and author Dagoberto Gilb's work, the work of Nuyorican poets, the work of our own Raul Salinas, and in this work by Tony Diaz. A voice different from other minority fiction and mainstream fiction. More a barrio voice. A street voice. And like any new voice, especially one that breaks from tradition, what works, works, and what doesn't, doesn't. This same can be said of The Aztec love god. There are beautiful and funny moments in this novel and these passages of poetic insight do well to cover what doesn't work -- those few passages which seem forced, contrived. And as long as Tony Diaz doesn't lose his voice, it can only become stronger. - Manuel Gonzales



The Essence of the Thing

by Madeleine St. John, Carroll & Graf, $22 hard

Only in Britain could you draw parallels between marmalade and love and then get nominated for a literary award, as Madeleine St. John has done with The Essence of the Thing, nominated for the 1997 Booker Prize.

Nicola and Jonathan shared a flat in a posh neighborhood of London until he abruptly asks her to leave, telling her it won't work out and, when pressed, that he doesn't love her any longer.

She, a grant writer at an arts organization, hadn't realized anything was wrong and in a series of 69 two- and three-page chapters, founders emotionally, wonders if it's her fault, takes Ecstacy, and finally moves on to a different job in a different city. He, a lawyering "stuffed shirt laying down the claret" can't wait to be rid of her until she's gone, when he concludes, albeit limply, that he's made the worst mistake of his life. Of course.

St. John tells a story that everyone can relate to, but has already read, if not lived through. But stories that are told time and again gather strength through fresh details and different perspectives, which hint at answers to the fundamental questions they ask: Where does love fit into our lives? What makes us happy? How introspective can one safely be when it comes to questions of love? This time the answers aren't there, because the details are simply skeletal, and the third-person omniscient narrator seems to be napping throughout.

The characters do change in the story, but The Essence doesn't warrant novel status, because neither of the main characters are developed to the point of interest. It doesn't even hint at Jonathan's motives, and it's difficult to empathize with Nicola. This has much to do with the brevity of the text, which ironically turns out to be one of the best things about the book; it's too short to draw you in, but since it doesn't, thank god it ends quickly.

The title refers to the changes that takes place between Jonathan and Nicola. His position at the beginning of the book is to scoff at both Nicola and marmalade, the mundane, domestic aspects of his self-important workaholic life. Once she leaves their flat she begins breakfasting on croissants in coffeeshops, a sophisticated and continental behavior, while Jonathan stays home and waxes philosophical about marmalade: "The balance between bitter and sweet is the essence of the thing," as is the balance between cosmopolitan detachment and blind domesticity.

The analogy would be apt if only it extended to the narrative, and the characters themselves were developed in balance. As it stands, the most that can be said for these two is that they are unripened, and alternately sticky. While clever dialogue between supporting characters goes a long way toward saving the book, this palate finds the whole thing neither bitter nor sweet, but just bland.
-Meredith Phillips


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