The Song of the Earth
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, $24.05 (cloth)
Hugh Nissenson's new novel The Song of the Earth, his first since his acclaimed The Tree of Life (1986), is set in the near future of the mid-21st century. It's a likely view of the future, with the world barely surviving under a permanent cloud of pollution, "Granny" Smith in the White House, the genders (still only two, despite our best efforts) at war, and the once-fertile Midwest suffering from rampant desertification. The oceans have risen an average of three feet worldwide, drowning coastal cities. (This has, at least, the beneficial side-effect of transforming New York City into an enormous Venice, with vaporetti chugging up the Broadway Canal and gondolas sailing along the Canal Street Canal.) The main historical root causes of these evils, at least according to the Gynarchists—aterror-group of radical "wimin" whose battle cry isFEMINIZE THE HUMIN RACE—are the internal-combustion engine and phallocratic hegemonism. The first of these has disappeared, but the second, entrenched in China, the Arab world, and retrograde parts of North America (notably the districts under joint Mormon-Muslim-Hasidic rule), still battles grimly on in its obdurate phallic or phallocratic way.
And, in 2057, the nineteen-year-old arsogenic metamorph and famous "manual artist" John Firth Baker is murdered. Yes, an arsogenic metamorph. (Imagine what Beckett could have done with that.) This Nissenson-coinage denotes a human—sorry, humin, per the spelling rules of 2057—genetically engineered to be an artist. These customized people, despised by the old-line phallocrats and religious zealots, are the marginalized minority du jour. Most of them are still in the closet, but not John Firth Baker. He comes out big time, both ways. First, he discovers he's gay—which is no surprise, as both his father Fritz, director of the Ozaki Institute of Humin Metamorphic Genetics, and his mother Jeanette, a Nebraska hair dresser, are too. Then, our lad (or lass—s/he grows breasts as part of a compact with a Hindu subsect of Gaia-worshipers led by bearded and big-breasted Billy Lee Mookerjee, a Bengali from Phoenix who occasionally suckles his followers) boldly comes out as a gay arsogenic metamorph and earns the admiration of one and all. Well, not quite all. There is one character who has it in for him, and this character eventually does for poor Johnny, not yet twenty years old and on the cusp of world fame, with a knife.
It may seem that I've just committed the reviewer's cardinal sin and given everything away, but the author actually beats me to it. The story and its denouement are summarized in a mock-preface to a Johnny Baker festschrift contributed by an art scholar from the North American Museum of Manual Art on the first page of the novel. Now, other writers, including such eminent personalities as Nabokov, Tolstoy, and Céline, have used this device and gotten away with it, but in a book with a paucity of real narrative or stylistic power, it's a ploy of dubious merit. After all, if we know the hero's fate from the outset, any plot development is, by necessity, anticlimactic, and the reader's interest—this reader's interest, anyway—soon flags.
Moreover, the book's style offers little by way of compensation. The narrative alternates snippets from journal entries, interviews, emails, and letters, most of them written in contemporary slang. Here, for example, is a succinct journal entry by Fritz's Japanese lover, describing Johnny's parents' courtship and the artificial (manual!) consummation thereof:
After Fritz talked with Jeanette in the garden, he rushed me to the IVF lab, where I jerked him off into a test-tube. He processed the sperm himself.
Whatever this is, it is hardly literary style. Many of the other journal entries are in similar vein. Here's Johnny:
Teddy blew me on our third date. I'll never forget it. It was the first time somebody else gave me a hard-on.
After a while it is a bit like being stuck in a locked room with nothing to read but the Village Voice personals. Gay sexual acts are described in racy, loving detail. (There's no straight sex—in the future, apparently, as Anthony Burgess put it in his futuristic fantasy The Wanting Seed, "it's Sapiens to be Homo.") To be fair, when the serious issues of climate and the environment come up, as they do frequently, Nissenson does elevate the tone somewhat, as in this excerpt from an Easter sermon:
Christ must have … foreseen the future in which the fumes from our gasoline, oil, and coal-burning engines would year by year turn up the heat of the earth. He must have envisioned the droughts, floods, tornados, killer hurricanes, and rising seas—all the unintended consequences of the knowledge we accepted from the Devil in order to become like gods.
But this comes perilously close to a political harangue. Thanks, your average reader might say, but if I want to read this stuff I'll just stop by the local Green Party office on my way home and pick up a few pamphlets.
What in the end hoists this novel into the realm of art is, in fact, the artwork, purportedly a representative cross-section of Johnny Baker's oeuvre, in reality Hugh Nissenson's own work, that is interspersed throughout (there are 47 illustrations in 240-odd pages). The pictures, weird and occasionally distasteful as they are, are original and well crafted, and they form a link between this novel and Alasdair Gray's Lanark, another self-illustrated vision of future shock.
But it's a tenuous connection at best. Like its made-to-order hero, this book is sui generis, resembling nothing outside itself. Part screed, part scrapbook, The Song of the Earth—no relation to Mahler's lushly romantic song cycle of the same name—is clever and disturbing, yet trite and distasteful at the same time. So brashly and unsubtly does Nissenson mock so many controversial aspects of society—sex, religion, art, science, the military-industrial complex, feminism, machismo, and academe, to name but a few—that his attempt at satire falls short of the real thing, which should, in the poet's words,
… like a polished razor keen
Wound with a touch that's scarcely felt or seen.