Sunday, December 26, 2010

Tony Bailie's "Ecopunks": Book Review

This novel combines the story of a German eco-activist, a Japanese maverick archeologist, and an Irish acid casualty-mystic. In 225 pages, it covers global ground, and links intriguing ideas such as Robert Graves' analyptic analysis, our narcotic addiction to tv, the entrapment of minor celebrity, and Charles Hapgood's theory about prehistoric continental drift. Tony Bailie, a Belfast-based journalist, integrates into this fiction his sober take on the media's creation of and distortion of events so as to caricature those before the camera and how many everyday folks today seek their own sort of secular salvation, lifted up as reality-TV heroes from their obscurity to their own triumphs over adversity.

The three storylines take a while to connect, but there's no disappointment in the wait. Wolf Cliss, the eco-warrior, certainly manages to juggle relationships (for a while) and to traverse the planet as he stays in front of the reporters who mock but dutifully cover his exploits as he seeks, for sincere but easily manipulated reasons, to alert the public to environmental destruction. Meanwhile, Kei Yushiro falls for Wolf, and their child, Irinda, leads the couple separately and together into the path of the third protagonist Lorcan O'Malley's own wanderings, this time less geographical than psychological, as he tries to figure out what the "chink" lysergically prised open after a drug-induced vision in his hippie days may portend as to the discovery in the Sahara that Kei makes.

The plot moves neatly, and (despite a discouraging number of typos, the one drawback) all the pieces fit. Fittingly, the networked nature of the ways activists communicate and connect today serves to emphasize the conjectures that Kei wonders about in her excavation, and that Wolf uses to try to figure out his own origins.

In his first novel, "The Lost Chord" (see my review on Amazon or my blog), Bailie had explored the side of fame less attended to, that of the musician who nearly made it, one who labors in the shadow of one who did. For Lorcan, his stint in an Irish folk trio at the dawn of the Age of Aquarius recalls Bailie's interest in this milieu, and he captures well the collision of Celtic past with countercultural present, as in Lorcan's gig playing in Antwerp while strippers "gyrate their naked crotches inches from his face like real-life sheela na gigs." After Lorcan's sudden come-down from such heady delights to Irish seclusion, his half-scholarly, half-spiritual quest appears inspired by John Moriarty, the late Kerry-born mythopoeic sage. Bailie patiently aligns marginalized speculations with scientific possibilities from our ancient past about how current research, even if maligned by the mainstream, may point to networks as intricate once upon a time as those you and I use to read this review today.

Also, the novel conveys a message that allows its mediators to preach a bit even as they know they are doing so. It's for, after all, a good cause. Nobody's entirely good or bad in this tale (even if a certain corporation with unexplained initials may indeed do evil), and these human qualities in its characters sustain the reader's empathy. There's one lurch into brief violence, but this hastens the climax and in the context of the threat, remains believable.

The plight of a planet in which devastation is seen as the inevitable exchange for jobs and economic growth is compared to a cancer, which may currently break out in isolated regions but has yet to metastasize. The impact of the earth so far may appear small, but it is like pebbles rolling down a slope after the rain: "the mountain--seemingly vast--varied and unchanging, but closely and almost imperceptibly being eroded until one day nothing would be left." (80) Relationships in this novel appear as fragile, and subject to their own global disruptions and sudden upheavals.

In Spain, after Wolf's intervention fails to halt a river diverted to feed a subdivision: "The trees in the forest didn't get a chance to die from thirst as they were chopped down and their wood used to build garden fences, some of them in the new housing development." (85) The wry note combines with the poignant one.

And even a familiar topic such as another hi-tech blight, that of our bodies and minds by television, gets a fresh spin. Instead of saints and martyrs, today we admire those such as one "who just a few days ago was caught in the same drudgery as most ordinary people now has, by the power of TV, been transformed and taken to a paradise on earth." (196) The slow drain of this eight-hour-a-day addiction, as with any sedative, makes one wonder about the long-term effects, on the individual and on our culture.

The denouement, after the rapid pace of most of this narrative, stands on its own as a haunting evocation of what Kei had discovered, or rediscovered. It ties together the ending, but it leaves it open with the careful twist that allows the imagination to enter the reader as the book is closed. (Author's website. Posted to Amazon US & Britain 12-25-10.)

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