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The Song of the Earth

The Song of the Earth

by Hugh Nissenson

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Even before his birth, Johnny Baker's life is in danger. His mother breaks the law when she has her fertilized egg endowed with genes that will give her son the potential to become a visual artist. Born in 2038, John Firth Baker is the first genetically engineered artist. At the age of nineteen, at the threshold of his career, he is murdered. Now, ten years after his


Even before his birth, Johnny Baker's life is in danger. His mother breaks the law when she has her fertilized egg endowed with genes that will give her son the potential to become a visual artist. Born in 2038, John Firth Baker is the first genetically engineered artist. At the age of nineteen, at the threshold of his career, he is murdered. Now, ten years after his death, Baker has become famous. An art curator has organized a show of his work, and his biography-culled from journals, e-mails, and interviews with those who knew him best-is published. The Song of the Earth is this "biography." It presents a powerful and haunting portrait of an artist as a young man in the twenty-first century.

Baker is born into a world transformed by technology: genetic profiles, space travel, and controlled housing communities are commonplace. Global warming has altered the environment. A planetary gender war is raging, familial structures are shattered, and new religions contend with the old. Yet human needs remain the same: the search for love, the desire for approval, the longing for fame, and the quest for knowledge. The Song of the Earth is a hypnotic novel about our desire to control our destinies, our yearning for immortality, and the very human impulse to create art. With prose, poetry, and images, Nissenson tells an original tale that brilliantly captures the experience of another time and place.

Editorial Reviews

A cool fascination awaits [the reader] on every page.
New Yorker
Exuberant . . . engages us to the end.
Time Out New York
...more intellectual bang per page than most books twice its length . . . feverishly clever . . . a mind bomb of a book.
Los Angeles Times
...compelling...told with skill and consistency of voice...Nissenson evokes a melody that is at once painful and helpful.
New York Times
A mad parody of Joyce's Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.
Washington Post Book World
Compulsively readable, brilliantly conceived.
Los Angeles Times Book Review
Compelling. . .The Song of the Earth sings.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's 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.
Kirkus Reviews
After 16 years, Nissenson returns with a futuristic tale that lacks the charm of his extraordinary Tree of Life (1985) but still has the compelling interest typical in Nissenson. American artist John Firth Baker is born in 2037, genetically engineered so that, as his art-historian mother fervently wishes, he'll have "the lust of the eyes" and be brilliant in manual art (not mere "digital," mind you). The engineering has been done by American scientist Frederick Rust Plowman at the Ozaki Metamorphic Institute of Kyoto: a place chosen in order to evade the strictures of the "Created Equal Act," a US law passed in 2030 prohibiting "the artificial alteration of genetically determined traits in humins except for reasons of health." With this wry twist on today's reproductive preoccupations, Nissenson gets his story moving-in an America where "womin" and "humin" are spelled, well, that way; all but the poor live in "keeps" (whole towns sealed off from the insufferably hot, dust-driven weather); and global warming is turning the avenues of Manhattan into canals. The story of Baker's short life is told through pieces of diary, excerpts from an interview in The International Review of Manual Art, and snippets of monologue from various people who knew him-including the sleazy guru Billy Lee Mookerjee, a leader in the Gaian religion whom the infatuated young Baker follows, serving Billy as a "sheila" and even growing breasts (as a "he-she") to prove his fidelity to the earth-principle. But the religion stifles-even forbids-Baker's work as an artist, and only after he wrenches himself away from Billy Lee does his career flourish and fame come quickly, though bringing a lamentable end tothe younggenius. Not a story that will move readers, though a cool fascination awaits them on every page. And then there are Nissenson's pictures, 34 line drawings scattered throughout, so brilliant that it seems the book were made to illustrate them, not vice-versa. Quality Paperback Book Club selection; author tour

Product Details

Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill
Publication date:
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Barnes & Noble
File size:
7 MB

Read an Excerpt

This biography of John Firth Baker, illustrated with his work, is published in collaboration with The Virtual Museum of Modern American Manual Art, which organized and mounted the current Baker retrospective that commemorates the tenth anniversary of his death.

The book's title comes from the title of Baker's favorite poem:

The Song of the Earth

by Clorene Welles

I mother

& devour life.

I father forms

that thrive &

those that fade.

I'm husband

& wife,


& knife.

I'm the sheath

that shields

& rusts its blade,

this patch of sunlight,

that patch of shade.

John Firth Baker was the first genetically engineered visual artist. A confluence of fundamental contemporary expressions of creativity-science, art, and religion-made him into a uniquely twenty-first-century phenomenon.

A bound and printed book like this is a fit commemorative for Baker, who cherished bound books. Baker was a self-taught manual artist; his figurative images, always the work of his own hands, appeal to the sense of touch, as well as sight. They convey Baker's deepest feelings, his fantasies and dreams. The political and sectarian uses to which his art was put by others made him famous at nineteen; then he was murdered.

Baker was posthumously transformed into a myth, which continues to grow. His work is now given an iconic significance he never consciously intended. Gaians claim the images he made, particularly those they call "Baker's Dozen," are tangible visions of his quest for Gaian Consciousness.

John Firth Baker's inner life was more complex-far richer-than that. He died before he could fulfill his promise as an artist. Yet his handful of work endures. Baker was an American original. This book tells his whole story for the first time.

I organized The Song of the Earth around interviews I

Meet the Author

Hugh Nissenson is author of six books, including Tree of Life, a National Book Award and PEN/Faulkner Award finalist. Nissenson lives in New York City with his wife.

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