MixedThe New York Times Book Review... has the feel of a bedtime story spun to entertain, say, a niece or nephew, sprinkled with jokes based on animals’ bodies and sounds; but there are winks and nods for older readers in Easter eggs of punster humor throughout ... In its shape, the novel resembles an O. Henry short story or a movie like Planet of the Apes, with an ironic, dramatic twist at the end that’s not too surprising ... To child readers, this book might seem like all talk and no action, while to adult readers, it may seem too childlike, for The Council of Animals is a replicator, rather than interrogator, of fixed ideas about animals’ subservience to people and their roles as human instruments. Its levity of tone can be read as gentle handling or glib reduction, depending on your taste. For some readers, the story may land as a playful pantomime, meant to be received in that spirit of fun and seasoned with a thoughtfulness that’s broad but not too deep. But for those readers who may be discomfited by the casual use of animal figures as caricatures, and to those who, like me, are compelled by the subjectivity and uniqueness of other life-forms and are acutely anxious about their imminent peril at our hand, the book resonates more like a joke being told in the wake of an untimely death … and in the fleeting moments before the next death occurs ... As diversions for young readers, fiction has near-infinite license for silliness — to critique whimsical child’s literature straight-faced and primly feels foolish, like trying to scrutinize a prancing pink unicorn under a microscope. But since The Council of Animals has been likened to Orwell, though, the critical bar is set higher: McDonell — a journalist with a record of reporting on war and its casualties — clearly wishes to offer us more than child’s fare alone ... But through its inversion of the risks of current human activity — the conceit that human extinction, rather than the mass extinction of others, is the looming specter that haunts our kind — the novel enacts a kind of gamification of the tragedy of loss. This well-intentioned fable returns us once more to the arc of narcissism that has increasingly defined our dominant myths. Other animals and plants are being drastically, swiftly obliterated across the globe and may survive, in many cases, only in captivity or not at all as the coming decades unspool; but still people are the heroes, the villains and the victims in every epic. Why not? The world belongs to us ... Certainly the threat of human extinction, in The Council of Animals, also serves as a metaphor for the disappearance of others — hence the symbolic role reversal. But if all signs point everywhere, why bother to post those signs at all?
Sayaka Murata, tr. Ginny Tapley Takemori
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewThe novel’s tone hovers between deadpan and naïveté: Even in its episodes of violence it has an affectless quality, which we presume is a function of Natsuki’s PTSD from the sexual assault (plus her E.T. origins, of course). Its appeal lies precisely in this tonal flatness — the anthropological distance the narrator maintains from her subjects. Reminiscent of certain excellent folk tales, expressionless prose is Murata’s trademark. If her description of \'the Factory\' strikes a superficial note, we can ascribe its stripped-down literality to Natsuki’s automaton identity. Extraterrestrials, it seems, are less like living beings than rudimentary robots with limited powers of affective analysis ... no need, in Murata’s stories, for a tedious interpretive struggle ... Their project of de-acculturating themselves is rendered matter-of-factly, without suspense, since — existing in a half-life of childish patter and reductive reasoning — they didn’t exhibit much tension of personality or emotional intelligence in the first place. But the proposition that we can deconstruct our socialization through an act of will is intriguing and important. Here it comes with a dose of pathos, since these characters don’t possess the conceptual tools to explore with depth or nuance the human nature they’re so focused on rejecting. Their beef with society is the reproductive pressure it exerts; other systemic oppressions that might give a thoughtful alien pause, like widespread inequality and injustice, are of no interest ... If the Marquis de Sade were reanimated as a polite Japanese millennial — less French, less political, less relentlessly graphic and less obsessed with feces — he might produce a document like Earthlings ... Murata’s presentation of alienation as a natural response to the pressures of conformity may not give us much that wasn’t on offer in, say, European existentialist writing of nearly a century ago. The strength of her voice lies in the faux-naïf lens through which she filters her dark view of humankind: We earthlings are sad, truncated bots, shuffling through the world in a dream of confusion.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewThomas’s humor has a sharp, rhythmic perfection. Her prose is fast-thinking, entertaining and punchy, her dialogue fully authentic without sinking into the tedium of real-life conversation ... Oligarchy is a study in obsessiveness pinned to a vague, whodunit structure we don’t really need, with a couple of barely felt deaths thrown in. But in Thomas’s hands we don’t care ... Intriguing, fluid and frequently funny interior monologues are what Thomas does best.
RaveThe New York Times Book ReviewSam Lipsyte’s third novel, The Ask, is a dark and jaded beast—the sort of book that, if it were an animal, would be a lumbering, hairy, cryptozoological ape-man with a near-crippling case of elephantiasis. That’s not to say The Ask isn’t well hewn, funny or sophisticated, because in fact it’s all three ... Lipsyte is not only a smooth sentence-maker, he’s also a gifted critic of power ... there’s a rotten joy in Milo’s shenanigans despite his personal joylessness, a kind of delicious pleasure, with only a hint of rancidness, that accretes to us in his miserable wallowing ... What makes The Ask work so well is the way it dovetails its characters’ self-loathing with their self-consciousness. For instead of making its characters blind...it gives them 20-20 vision but endows them with perfect impotence ... And that’s why this book is a success: not only the belly laughs but also the sadness attendant upon the cultural failure it describes. There’s a genuine disappointment visible through the cynic’s jibes—the grief that comes with the end of empire and the collapse of an ideal.
RaveThe Los Angeles TimesAnnihilation, in which the educated and analytical similarly meets up with the inhuman, is a clear triumph for VanderMeer, who after numerous works of genre fiction has suddenly transcended genre with a compelling, elegant and existential story of far broader appeal … The apparent tragedy and freakish ecology of Area X's blight are quite fascinating, and the solitary voice of its post-humanist narrator is both deeply flawed and deeply trustworthy — a difficult and excellent balance in a novel whose world is built seamlessly and whose symbols are rich and dark.