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Erin O'Brien (Toronto, Ontario Canada)

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A Son Of The Circus
A Son Of The Circus
by John Irving
Edition: Paperback
Price: 6.29

5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Chaos theory, 14 July 2002
This review is from: A Son Of The Circus (Paperback)
John Irving's leitmotifs make for a curious collection. Wrestling; veneral disease; bombs; car and other freak accidents. Vienna; bears; sex-change operations; dwarves. Prostitutes; New England; precarious marriages and necessary infidelities.
When a critical mass of these Irving fetishes appears within a few pages, one can nearly hear the slow-motion crack of a bat nailing a baseball way, way out into the stands.
One of the most interesting features of his work is the convoluted logic which allows each of these themes to be worked into his lunatic subplots. Irving has the wonderful sadism of the best story-tellers, dragging out a chain of events over pages and pages.
"A Son of the circus" is the first Irving novel to make use of the wider world (i.e. not Vienna or New England). Irving sets down the massive machinery of his unsummarizable plots in India. India is a fitting world for him, with all its hugeness, sectarian chaos and multi-everything diversity.
Tom Wolfe has sharply criticized Irving for returning with a mere topography of India, and not a journalistic dissertation. This criticism, while not entirely unfair, is surely irrelevant to Irving's purposes. He has no pretence about being another Joseph Conrad or Ryszard Kapuscinski. Why compete with Salman Rushdie as India's novelist when Irving can bring his own mad vision to an unfamiliar nation?
"A son of the circus" involves a large number of typically bizarre components. An exhibitionist aristocrat named Lady Duckworth after whom Bombay's most prestigous social club is named. A Bombay-born, North Americanized orthopedist who adopts a beautiful boy for whom he writes movies scripts. A serial killing man-turned-woman who draw winking elephants on the stomachs of her victims. In such company, drug-smuggling hippies and a circus full of dwarves are nearly banal.
The chapter headings (such as "The Doctor Dwells on Lady Duckworth's Breasts", or "A Misunderstanding at the Urinal") are surely among the most wonderfully berserk in modern literature.
Irving's character studies are a masterful blend of punning names, verbal tics, and physical features rendered as Homeric epithets. According to the whims of his plots, Irving can suddenly inject a previously flat character with detailed history and motivation.
The concentration on form required of a novel which swalls the structure of a murder mystery whole results in a certain diminishment of emotional energy. While this cast of characters can make you laugh hysterically, unusually for Irving, it can't make you cry. Peerless in his mastery of the comedic epic, second-rate Irving is still first-rate American literature.

Executive Orders
Executive Orders
by Tom Clancy
Edition: Paperback

10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Jack Ryan has a much to learn as Clancy has to teach, 8 July 2002
This review is from: Executive Orders (Paperback)
Tom Clancy's longtime hero, former CIA analyst Jack Ryan, has managed to assume the Presidency, Gerald Ford-style, without ever having been elected on a presidential ticket.
Unlike Ford, however, Ryan had never been elected to any public office at all. Asked by President Durling to serve as Vice President, after the previous Vice President is forced to resign in the wake of a sex scandal, Ryan reluctantly agrees to take on a largely ceremonial office. The catch for the non-politician Ryan, however, is that the Vice-Presidency is only a heartbeat away from the most burdensome job in the world, and one which Ryan shivers at the thought of undertaking.
Then the incredible happens, when a grief-striken Japanese pilot who lost family in a brief Japanese-American shooting war, mans a jumbo jet during Ryan's swearing-in ceremony and crash lands into the Capitol, thereby all but obliterating government. The President, First Lady, the entire Supreme Court, nearly all the Cabinet and most Senators and members of Congress are killed in a few calamitous moments.
This leaves Ryan, who survived by a sheer fluke, to assume an office which he frankly dreads approaching. A complete political outsider, Ryan has an excellent working knowledge of the government, but close to zero political instincts. A populist and technophile of the sort both idolized and unelected by America, Ryan must bumble through his grief and shock at the horror which has befallen his nation and attempt to lead it. His hostility toward any form of ideology that appears other than starkly pragmatic, however, is ultimately disappointing. In the guise of non-partisan vigor, Clancy has Ryan deliver a series of startlingly conservative speeches praising a flat tax and denouncing abortion rights.
If Ryan's syrupy claims to integrity are occassionally enough to set one's teeth on edge, Clancy establishes a magnificent character in "India", the Prime Minister of the world's largest democracy. Referring to her only by the name of the country she represents, Clancy cleverly harkens back to the medieval language of kings, who refer to one another by the name of their countries. India is a nearly Picassoan study in minimalism. Only a few lines here and there richly summon up the mental image of the face of Benazir Bhutto masking the mind of Indira Gandhi. India's supernaturally beautiful English conveys all at once the history of her nation, her class origins and educational background, her exquisite mendacity and diplomatic sophistication.
One masterpiece is a conversation between India and Ryan in which he attempt to secure her promise of safe passage of American vessels through the Indian ocean. India effortlessly evades Ryan's direct request a number of ways, each time protesting offense and hurt feelings on behalf of her nation. While India is written as a villain in Clancy's novel, conspiring against America, her delicious sophistication elevates her far above the supposedly well-intentioned lummox that is America. India's protests on behalf of her "sovereign nation", as Ryan attempts to shove her military around, will resonate deeply amongst Clancy's international audience, as he is surely aware.
In the meantime, America's vulnerability is a huge source of inspiration to any number of enemies, both foreign and domestic. Ryan's forte, and Clancy's as well, is in the field of international relations, and an array of hostile nations (India, China, Iran and Iraq) plan intricate attacks on the American homeland and its new President.
Clancy has a speechwriter inform Jack Ryan that his use of language, while correct and to the point, is far from poetic. Clearly, the same can be said of Tom Clancy. But what Clancy lacks in artful turns of phrase, he makes up for in scholarship. None of the attacks dreamed up by foreign powers against America are, in themselves, totally unbelieveable: it is only their sheer number and simulteneity that gives "Executive Orders" a far-fetched quality.
Tom Clancy's immense learning about weapons systems, military manoeuvers, Pentagon and CIA operations, is put to superb use. Even an outbreak of the Ebola virus in Zaire, which is quickly capitalized upon by the new United Islamic Republic (composed of former enemies Iran and Iraq), is described with striking and quite remarkable clinical accuracy. The governmental institutions he describes are entirely real. Clancy's gift is for taking the world of politics as he expertly knows it to be, and rearranging a few pieces on the chessboard to suggest fictional events evolving from familiar institutions.
A large amount of the pleasure derived from a Clancy novel comes from simply being able to follow it. The acronyms are endless, yet largely accurate and non-fictional. Clancy is the ultimate man's man, sharing his war stories in warmly confidential tones, allowing the reader the great vicarious pleasure of merely comprehending: testing each piece of data and finding most to be accurate and real.
While many readers will note a kind of "jump the shark" quality to Ryan's extraordinary assumption of the Presidency---for where else had he to go in Clancy's imaginary career trajectory?---the book has an indisputably educational quality for students of geopolitics. World leaders use subjective impressions gleaned at diplomatic receptions to decide upon military gambits. Everyone in politics and in the military has an agenda, noble or not, and all leaders use a range of discursive strategies to communicate with the public, the international community, their cabinets, and with other leaders. None of these 'voices' is entirely sincere or truthful, and some are not a bit of either.
Clancy will establish in his readers the important instinct toward looking for the ever-present subtext behind every public speech and pronoucement, and for this reason alone, at least one or two of his novels should be attempted by any serious student of politics.

The Information
The Information
by Martin Amis
Edition: Paperback

5 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is why typewriters are manufactured, 5 July 2002
This review is from: The Information (Paperback)
Leave English to the English. No North American could possibly produce such a rich, red wine novel: smoky, dark, giddiness-inducing.
But the subject is so perverse!
Richard Tull is an Oxford-educated former novelist with delusions of publishing, whose life is an unmitigated horror show. After a very modest and ever-dwindling success with his first novels, his next three do not even find publishers.
For the narrator of "The Information", ulcer-burning envy sizzles and pops between every clack of fingers on keyboard.
According to Amis's vision, every writer secretly regards every other a talentless, undeserving moron. Every writer robs every other of recognition, fame, money, status, immortality, and sex. In short, every writer is robbed by every other of nothing less than undifferentiated, pre-Oedipal love from the entire universe.
What makes writing such a torturous profession? The sheer sendary inactivity, driven by the need to put perfect words to every sensation, no matter how miserable of otherwise fleeting? Try this:
Richard's miserable income as a professional book reviewer
(reviewing Other People's Books) has him "receiving a solicitor's letter from his own solicitor" while "being summarily fired, through the post, by his own literary agent." With belly-flopping bathos, even Richard's vacuum cleaner fails him, leaving his study lined with symbolic dust.
Richard drinks to forget that he drinks to forget why he drinks, and then he drinks more because he forgets that he is already drunk. When he isn't drinking, he chain-smokes and takes unfashionable drugs he can't afford. At age forty, his face has irretrievably collapsed. His marriage threatens to follow.
Imagine Richard's outrage when his "oldest and stupidest friend", Gwyn Barry, has his second vacuous novel enter the best-seller list. Gwyn is toothy, frisky, and dazzlingly insensitive. Gwyn's novels are soon translated into dozens of languages, while he earns massive critical endorsement, celebrity and money.
Richard wants to knock Gwyn's literary ice-cream cone out of his hand and into the dirt. Richard wants to hurt Gwyn very badly indeed. After Richard's first attempt to reach out and wound someone goes awry, he decides to hire a professional to make Gwyn's life unliveable. Will Richard succeed? Has Richard ever succeeded at anything?
As Richard learns, jealousy begets jealousy. When someone has it going on, they usually really have it going on. With professional success comes money, then social cachet, then sexual desireability. This means virtually complete
satisfaction on every level that really counts at the end of the day. Good times all around, keep the change, etc. In an earlier novel, "Success", Amis coins the perfect synonym for his kind of spiralling upward-mobility: "socio-sexual self-betterment".
Amis also bravely uncovers the latent attraction between Richard and Gwyn; only Eros could fuel the fear behind their cracklingly catastrophic, passionately paranoid interactions. In choosing a nemesis to adorn with taboos and phobias, Richard performs an act as loaded and personal as choosing a mate.
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