Barbara Ehrenreich | Critical Review by Michiko Kakutani

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Barbara Ehrenreich.
This section contains 824 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Michiko Kakutani

SOURCE: "A Plague of Gray Caterpillars and a Preacher," in The New York Times, July 13, 1993, p. C18.

In the following essay, Kakutani negatively reviews Kipper's Game.

It's no surprise that science-fiction and futuristic novels are a favorite forum for social critics: after all, they provide an easy means of extrapolating and satirizing the problems of the contemporary world. Certainly, this is what the author and magazine columnist Barbara Ehrenreich seems to be up to in her first novel. "Kipper's Game," a dark, convoluted piece of apocalyptic fiction that enables her to combine her scientific training (she holds a Ph.D. in biology from Rockefeller University and a B.A. in chemistry and physics from Reed College) with the moral outrage she has cultivated as an essayist and observer of the American scene.

Set in a faintly futuristic world that bears a decided resemblance to the present-day United States, Kipper's Game begins with a series of unsettling portents: the trees in Ms. Ehrenreich's unnamed city have been devoured by a plague of bizarre, gray caterpillars; a faintly sinister preacher known as Sister Bertha has begun to haunt the airwaves on a pirate frequency, and hazardous wastes have begun to leak from the local Human Ecology Complex.

Both Ms. Ehrenreich's main characters work at the Human Ecology Complex, otherwise known as HEC, or, as its disgruntled employees refer to it, as "hell." Della Markson, who has had to get a job after her recent separation from her husband, works as a low-level clerk in the office of Dr. Hershey, a medical researcher on the trail of a mysterious and deadly new virus. Alex MacBride, Della's former professor, works there as a sort of all purpose gofer for Dr. Leitbetter, the head of HEC and a well-known television personality.

Dr. Leitbetter, we soon learn, purveys an eccentric, New Age view of science and religion. He believes or says he believes that knowledge yields pleasure, that human beings have an innate drive toward knowledge and that knowledge must be assembled and distilled in preparation for the arrival of a visitor from outer space, a superior being who will one day redeem the fallen creatures of earth.

Dr. Leitbetter's latest assignment for Alex is to research the life and work of an obscure physiologist from New Jersey, Henry Relnik, who may or may not have had Nazi connections in World War II. Much to his dismay, Alex soon discovers that mysterious others are also in pursuit of Relnik's missing papers: not only is his apartment ransacked, but he also receives death threats from gangsters, apparently working for an enormously powerful computer and information-gathering organization.

Della, meanwhile, has been preoccupied with a search of her own: her college-age son, Kipper, has been out of touch for a year, and when two of his computer-hacker friends turn up dead, she starts worrying that something terrible has happened to him, too. Her search for Kipper, strangely enough, begins to overlap with Alex's search for Henry Relnik's papers; both Kipper and Relnik, it seems, have been drawn into a utopian but diabolical quest that could save or redeem humanity.

Although Ms. Ehrenreich's narrative method of manically cutting back and forth between several story lines seems intended to build suspense, it has the effect of making the reader feel manipulated. We suspect that information is being deliberately withheld from us to tease our curiosity and that other events have been concocted for the simple purpose of raising further questions. Indeed our suspicions are confirmed by the novel's contrived and overly melodramatic conclusion, an ending that lacks the organic sense of completion possessed by successful novels of suspense.

Both the plot and conclusion of Kipper's Game are meant to underscore a few simplistic themes; that science can be used for good or ill, that the pursuit of knowledge can be turned into a Faustian bargain with nature, that madmen and philistines alike can exploit the interface between science and metaphysics.

Unfortunately, little of the irreverent wit that animates Ms. Ehrenreich's essays is in evidence in these pages: instead of beguiling and provoking the reader, she makes her points with the solemnly and portentousness of a third-rate preacher. The novel is filled with lugubrious disquisitions on computers and information-retrieval systems, ponderous speeches about the coming millennium and ridiculous discussions about extraterrestrials.

Where Kipper's Game does display flashes of Ms. Ehrenreich's usual verbal agility is in its all too rare descriptions of ordinary life: the liberating but frightening experience of driving along a highway late a night when none of the usual rules seem to hold; the oddly soothing, if numbing, experience of going to a shopping mall to have a solitary meal; the Kafkaesque experience of working in a huge modern building filed with dozens of identical, dimly lighted corridors and hallways.

It is with such descriptions of the everyday that Ms. Ehrenreich is able to display her generous gifts as an observer. One hopes her next novel does more justice to these talents.

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This section contains 824 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Michiko Kakutani