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Posted December 8, 2000
Best damn new picaresque novelist since Rushdie!
Here's a still fresh but already overlooked masterpiece for the reader who loves the great and near-great satiric novels of world literature. It is too early to tell if Jensen will sustain or develop her already impressive talent with future works. But I've read many in this fine tradition -- from Cervantes and Swift, Poe and Twain, to more recent or contemporary masters like Salman Rushdie, Gunter Grass, Italo Calvino, Kobo Abe -- and now, Liz Jenzen. Of course there are many others I've omitted. I was particularly excited about Salman Rushdie when 'Midnight's Children' was published. No great genius was required to see the brilliance here -- and it won the Booker Prize, too, of course. 'Midnight' wasn't his first novel, however. 'Grimus,' if memory serves, was the first or one of the first of Rushdie's offerings. An intelligence and wide range of interests was evident, but gave little hint of the greatness to come (and still forthcoming from this man). Jensen's 'Ark Baby' is only her second novel. Yet it shines brightly -- and darkly, too. Professional reviewers, if they've taken note, and not many have as far as I can tell -- have damned her with faint praise and exiled her from the world community within her homeland: a Brit wit, no less, no more. She's been mentioned, generally disparagingly, in company with Fey Weldon and Will Self. Well, wake up, people. Take another look. Weldon's works often entertain us mightily, and are under-appreciated still as well-distributed and reprinted as she is. But, hey! -- Weldon took a while to reach her greatest heights. Jensen has announced her arrival; she's served notice -- and as a novelist of international note. 'Ark Baby' is the new manifesto. Like a bull elephant, it thunders upon the stage and trumpets the arrival of the new century, the possibilities of new schools, new movements. I hesitate, but only slightly, to rank her directly on a par with Grass, Rushdie, Cervantes, Calvino, Twain (Clemens) and the like -- because she's just warming up. But it is also odious to compare and rank authors this gifted -- odious and pointless. The ranking doesn't matter, the treasure houses of the individual works, these matter. Plunder them. Jensen is her own unique talent. The work will engulf you in a 'night of serious drinking' for the fiction connoisseur. And Jensen may appeal to a much broader audience than many other vastly-talented authors of recent times (Nabokov and Joyce come to mind). While ribald and Rabelaisian at times, she has a full repertoire of style and dimension at her command. But you won't find the wild romps of vulgarity and sexual frankness so creatively manifest, for example, in many of Will Self's works. 'Ark Baby' will appeal to both men and women, when given its due. And that is rare today. Jensen's sense of humor, her insight, and her humanity engage both sexes, while making merry of new and old science and lore. She slices and dices with a light touch, but with a deft hand, through matters of reproductive technology, mating, courtship, and child-rearing. Like Mary Shelley, perhaps, she is capable, too, of cutting entirely through us and reassembling the human corps, when it suits her -- but not as a sadist or mad herald of doom. It is our willful delusions or feigned ignorance, our failures of responsibility and compassion which she seeks to excise. Then she adds a dash of parody, a shadow-play, an anti-pageant where nationalism, tourism, and global-market imperialism are made to march -- our civilization's talismans transmuted to stone, to dust, before our very eyes. No one has done this before -- no one -- not this way, not this well. Jensen's 'Ark Baby' gives evidence of an ample treasury of sources -- but the final impression is not of individual brushstrokes, colorful flourishes and artistic gimmicks. A whole emerges; emerges, and gathers momentum. The work is not seamless. But what great work in any field, fromWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.