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Book Report: Ark Baby

Our AtoZ project has, as it is designed to do, compelled me to read books by writers I hadn’t previously read, and in many cases hadn’t previously heard of. I had never read anything by Liz Jensen, for instance, when I was perusing the local library’s J shelf, and of the three or four books that looked interesting, I picked up Ark Baby. So that’s a plus for the project, because I quite enjoyed it.

It was very James Morrow-ish, which is a good thing in my eyes, even though I think it wasn’t, in the end, quite up to the standard of Rabelaisian humour in the better James Morrow books. Still and all: provocative, funny, surprising, obnoxious, and with rococo sentences that get lost in metaphorical bric-a-brac. Or bric-a-bracical metaphor. Something like that, anyway.

The book is largely sewn together from two parts, the successful part and the not-altogether-successful part, the latter of which follows a main character who is neither likeable nor intelligent, which makes following him a chore, frankly. This half also bears the weight of the futuristic elements: for unexplained and indeed inexplicable reasons, the residents of the British Isles have become entirely sterile, and the sun is therefore setting on Britishness. The better half (in my arrogant one, at any rate) is set in Victorian times, we follow two characters in this part, both moderately likeable, as they approach each other and their inevitable romantic pairing. The two parts are linked thematically and by concern, the descendants of one showing up in the other, by a taxidermists’ figures, and by probably my favorite character in the thing: the Empress of Laudanum, who in the early part is racked with prophecies of the endtimes, whose hideous death pushes forward the narrative more than anything else, and who haunts the modern section with increasing indifference to the end of the world. I liked her quite a bit, and wish in fact that she had returned at the very end to pass judgment on the ending of the book. Ah, well.

The book was also filled—packed—with monkeys and apes, and references not only to evolution but to our human relationship to our primate brethren. Not because Ms. Jensen in interested in monkeys, I think, but to provoke us to wonder: do we care, really, about the elusive definition of humanity? Are we satisfied to know it when we see it? If humanity, Homo Sapiens as we jocularly call ourselves, turns out to be an evolutionary dead end and Nature starts selecting elsewhere… so what, really?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,