The terrifying march of extinction
The dodo is gone. Gone too is the ivory-billed woodpecker, the bandicoot, the sea mink, the painted vulture. Also gone is Will Mendelsohn's book on extinct animals, and with it 10 years of research. Last in a long line of loss is Will's wife, but the extinction of his marriage seems to trouble him the least.
Janice Deaner's third novel, Notes on Extinction, explores one man's attempt to separate himself from both the tragic chaos of human life and the petrifying irrationality of human emotion. Carefully detailing the phenomena of extinction in his work as a scientist, Will manages to avoid the messy sensations of an involved existence. When his wife, to whom he is mostly indifferent, inadvertently sets their apartment on fire and destroys his work, Will's apathy intensifies. A fruitless attempt at rewriting his book leads Will to shift focus. He sets out to witness the planet's demise first-hand, discovering quickly that beneath his detachment lies a terrifying conviction that the world is unraveling. Will's research eventually leads him to India, where he becomes involved with three women: an elderly Holocaust survivor, an immature lesbian actress and a mysterious screenwriter who is married to the owner of a tea estate. Slowly these women begin to tease threads of emotion from deep within Will, and he starts to examine his own existence for the first time.
A filmmaker as well as a writer, Deaner creates prose that is visually as well as intellectually stimulating. Unobtrusive phrasing vividly translates the scenes in her mind's eye to the page, especially in the passages that take place in India. The multiplicity of human experiences is most pronounced when conveyed as images seen by Will, from the lush tea-gardens to the dusty, crowded city streets. The success of Notes on Extinction lies in the author's ability to mesmerize. Readers are pulled into Will's reality so completely that they momentarily forget their own. Deaner's lucid prose persuades readers to identify and even empathize with a complex and often unlikable personality. Witnessing one man's evolution from the inside out proves not only an entertaining read but an opportunity for personal reflection.
Susanna Baird is a writer in Brookline, Massachusetts.