NESFA Members' Reviews


by Russell Hoban

Jonathan Cape, ISBN 0-224-05121-0, 1998, 182pp, L14.99

A book review by Evelyn C. Leeper

Copyright 1998 Evelyn C. Leeper

There has been much discussion of magical realism in rec.arts.sf.written these days, and I think I would classify this as magical realism. That is, of course, a meaningless statement, since the real question is not what category this fits into, but what this is about, and what it says.

The offer in question is the following: Mr Rinyo-Clacton will give Jonathan Fitch a million pounds in exchange for the right to terminate Fitch's life any time after a year has passed. Fitch, who has just lost his girlfriend and his job, agrees. One thing leads to another, and the next morning he wakes up realizing that he may have contracted the HIV virus as well.

Now, from a strictly logical standpoint, this makes no sense: if he thinks he's going to die in a year, why worry about a virus which doesn't even show up in a test for three months and would almost definitely not progress from an HIV+ condition to AIDS in a year? (I know people who have been HIV+ for many years now, and they have not yet developed AIDS.) But people are not rational, particularly about death.

One of the cliches about AIDS (and by extension, about the HIV virus) is that those who having it are "living with a death sentence." But we all are. Anyone could be hit by a truck, or choke on a piece of food. It's just that they know it, and we don't. So Fitch's reactions are perfectly reasonable, in a bizarre way: he is more concerned about the HIV virus that he *may* have, than about the agreement he signed selling his death in a year. Something--the media? one hates to blame them for everything, so maybe it's human irrationality as reported and spread by the media--something has convinced Fitch that the *possibility* of death from AIDS at some unspecified future time is a more serious concern than the virtual certainty of death from Mr Rinyo-Clacton at the end of a year.

I presume that in mainstream contemporary fiction, AIDS has been dealt with fairly extensively. Since my contemporary reading is more in science fiction, the examples I have seen are somewhat non-standard, and usually involve a plague which has some similarity to AIDS. But Hoban has done the reverse. Instead of looking at AIDS through the mirror of another disease, Hoban looks at death through the mirror of AIDS. Fitch feels that as long as he doesn't have HIV he's safe. We all do this. If we don't have AIDS (or don't smoke, or in general don't belong to that other group over there), we're safe. Death happens to other people.

So here we have Jonathan Fitch, dealing with his two deaths, the one theoretical but known, the other definite but unknown. And his reactions help us examine our own attitudes toward death.

And what of the mysterious Mr Rinyo-Clacton and his gentleman's gentleman whom Fitch describes as having "hands that looked capable of crushing a skull like a walnut. He was also in formal attire and almost invisible in his attendance. Except for the hands. I thought his name might be Igor but it was Desmond." What is his purpose in this contract?

Note to fellow Yanks: There is no period in the title, the American title of THE HOUNDS OF ZAROFF is THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, and is my favorite British Web bookseller. And in passing I'll note that this is at least the second book in which Hoban quotes Rilke's line, "For Beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror..." ("Denn das Schoene ist niches als des Schrecklichen Anfang...").

%T      Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer
%A      Russell Hoban
%C      London
%D      March 1998
%I      Jonathan Cape
%O      hardback, L14.99
%G      ISBN 0-224-05121-0
%P      182pp

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