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The Song of the Earth Hardcover – June 1, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Nissenson (The Tree of Life, etc.) creates a Rimbaud-like figure for the 21st century in a bizarre mock biography that supports the notion that art can't be taught although perhaps it can be engineered. Born in 2037, Johnny Baker is an arsogenic metamorph (a test-tube baby whose genes have been illegally tailored to make him an artist). It comes as no surprise when he turns out to be sensitive, open-minded, ambitious and (like his mother, Jeanette, a member of the group of gender activists called Gynarchists) gay. In high school, he has a few flings and becomes obsessed with a religious guru named Sri Billy Lee Mukerjee in fact, he eventually has his breasts augmented in imitation of the guru. He leaves home at 16 to live in New York, shacking up with a sugar daddy he meets through a personals ad, telling his mother he has gone to study art. His surreal, often morbid artwork is interspersed throughout the book, which acts as a sort of extended elegy, since Johnny dies violently at age 19. Nissenson has created a complete and fascinating future world full of details that tease the imagination, such as genetic manipulation, astronomical price inflation ($60-a-liter Evian), virtual reality and the submersion of most of New York City under water. The book consists of reconstructed dialogue, e-mails, fragments of interviews and downloads of information from fictitious Web sites. Although this approach is a pointed reference to the increasingly staccato nature of communication in contemporary society, it gradually loses its dynamism and becomes distracting. But the cumulative effect is a haunting warning against the hazards of pushing technology forward without regard for human integrity. (May 11)Forecast: The time is ripe for a reconsideration of Nissenson's quiet but distinguished career, and this latest offering his strongest since the 1985 National Book Award-nominated Tree of Life may spark reviews with a retrospective slant. QPB, Insightout and Reader's Subscription selection; author tour.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

From The New Yorker

In the year 2037, a depressive graduate student chucks her doctoral thesis and takes the Planet Train from Chicago to Tokyo. There, in violation of America's Created Equal Act, she is implanted with a male embryo whose DNA has been enhanced with the genes that determine artistic ability. Her son, John Firth Baker, duly exhibits the traits one expects of a budding Basquiat: he is hugely talented, sexually voracious, and alternately obsessed with and cavalier toward his lovers. This fictional portrait of the artist as a young man is distinguished by the intensely imagined world that surrounds him—a world in which transgendered religious gurus preach over the Web, the rich live in hanging-garden apartments high above the canals of a half-submerged Manhattan, and a terrorist women's movement battles a resurgence of polygamy. Nissenson's prose is always exuberant, and although absurdity occasionally threatens to overwhelm the story, the author's genuine curiosity about his characters and their fates engages us to the end.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books; 1st edition (June 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1565122984
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565122987
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.9 x 8.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.2 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (16 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,575,625 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By "purpcowboy" on May 29, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Where the PW review states the style, one of culled ficticious emails, web page posts, historical records & interviews as eventually becomming "distracting," I felt that the style was the main thrust of Hugh Nissenson's "The Song of the Earth." This style helped keep the story fresh & moving quickly, as I could see a "straight" narrative covering the same subject matter drone on & be quite preachy. Nissenson's style never approaches this & yet is quite chilling & a fantastic warning of where our collective gobal village future is headed.
I was initially drawn to the book due to its haunting cover & Cynthia Ozick's strong review who stated: "Any reader who believes that, after Joyce, the novel can no longer give rise to the absolutely innovative and the absolutely astonishing will be shocked into revelation by...Song of the Earth."
Indeed, the one quip I have is that there is a lot of homosexual content, something you do not get from the jacket and something I was not expecting due to that fact. In retrospect, I believe it served me better as I quickly became enveloped by Nissenson's world and the various plots at hand.
In all, from a tried & true Gene Wolfe lover, I really enjoyed this book. I love books that inspire new thinking & this is one. Its engaging & spirited and better yet, "light" and "dark" at the same time. A true song of earth's not-so-distant future.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 3, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Hugh Nissenson's new book, Song of the Earth, is hard to catogorize. In this work, Nissenson uses the written word, the visual image, and a non-narrative style to compliment each other, to produce a memorable picture of an artist and his art. The picture gradually emerging is of a man struggling with issues of existence and creativity made poignant by his enhanced capabilities, in the richly portrayed landscape of the future. It could be seen as sci-fi with its troubling vision of the future, plausably extrapolated from current scientific knowledge. It could be seen as an exploration of social developments where political, religious, and sexual preferences and practices are at once accepted and celebrated while the frictions of these varying life styles lead to bitter conflict. It could be seen as the exploration of the homoerotic life of his protagonist, as he pursues the yearnings of lust and affection. It could be seen as a chronical of artistic struggle and an exploration of the place art plays in the world. This last is developed using startling original art created by the author in his development of these themes seen through the eyes of his characters. Finally it can be seen as a skillful merging of artistic modalities, demonstrating the synergistic enhancement of expression. The result will satisfy those interested in any of these possible catagories.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Jon Linden VINE VOICE on August 21, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In this book, Nissenson has transcended to a new plane of current fiction. Not only is the subject matter bold, daring and temporally topical, but the treatment of the subject matter and the stylilistic aspects of the book, make this my selection for leading candidtate for the National Book Award this year.
The book, written in an epistolary style, which usually means letters, but in this case, are much closer to an "e-mail" format than a letter format. The style allows Nissenson to be alternatingly personal and intense versus removed and obscure, from message to message, giving him amazing stylistic versatility, which he utilizes to great advantage.
Additionally, the book is a "multi-media" piece in that it mixes the media of written text with artistic visual creations and the use of "e-mail" as an expositional vehicle all in one piece of literature, which he then uses to give the reader an extrapolation of what is to come just around the corner in today's society. Today cloning has just started. Tomorrow, there will be science that allows us to change "congenitally deleterious" genetic problems, but what other detrimental effects might those "genetic corrections" contain, and might those horrible effects be only known after 100 or 1000 generations? These are in fact the questions that we will have to wrestle with and who is to say, which is an 'OK' genome change and which is not legal?
As if this were not enough, Nissenson, may even be prescient in detecting the growing polarization of men and women in today's society. Not only are the viewpoints of these two necessary groups polarizing, but even the issue of self-sexual identity is becoming a problem for people in society today, no less 50 to 100 years from now. Nissenson leaves no issue unaddressed and all serious modern literature readers should look to read this book, just to keep current with issues, if not for Nissenson's incredible craftsmanship.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 20, 2001
Format: Hardcover
I highly recommend this highly unusual novel. Nissenson is a brilliant writer who projects the reader into his richly textured, deeply disturbing vision of life in the mid-21st century. Everything is different, yet everything is the same. The outer conditions of life are sharply different, yet the reader recognizes the emotional lives of the novel's characters. This is in many ways a terrifying vision of the future, brilliantly and sensitively rendered.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By alproc on August 20, 2001
Format: Hardcover
It's the mid-21st. century. Genetic manipulation to produce desired talents is possible (but illegal in the U.S. ...shades of the current stem cell debate.) New York is like Venice, due to rising sea levels. Black Blizzards ravage the Midwest, which has shelters for "exodusters" (people never quite defined). Poor people live (and die) in the "weather", the reasonably well-off live (and die) in "keeps" (completely enclosed, air-conditioned residential communities). "Human" has become "Humin", female "femayle". Old people are "wrinklies". Men and women are divided, with an extremist feminist movement called the "Gynarchists". The religious right has more power than ever.
This is just a little of the rich background from "The Song of the Earth".
I like near-future novels. I read "1984" at a young age, and was very taken with Orwell's vision. (His spare, expressive prose influences me to this day.) "Neuromancer", too, fascinated me. Hugh Nissenson's vision was not quite what I expected, from a review in the New York Times. Actually, it was rather more.
Constructed with emails, interviews, diaries, poetry, images and other forms, it presents a portrait of John Firth Baker, an arsogenic metamorph, a manual artist (as opposed to digital), one of four human beings genetically (and in his case, socially engineered by his mother, see the book for details), to be an artist of renown.
And, it's not just prose. Mr. Nissenson has given us Johnny's art, too, in black and white, and 13 pieces ("Baker's Dozen") in color, a great idea, although I did find the quality of the art somewhat variable. But nevertheless, very impressive. (The dust jacket cover is one of Mr.
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