This Week's Reads

Margaret Atwood and Tom Robbins.

The future just isn't what it used to be. In Margaret Atwood's 1985 classic, The Handmaid's Tale, it was merely a dystopian nightmare of ruthless control and sexual segregation. In her latest, Oryx and Crake (Doubleday, $26), it means nothing less than the total obliteration of mankind. Jimmy, a.k.a. Snowman, the novel's maddened, emaciated protagonist, is, as far as he can tell, the last living human being on the ruined planet. Starving and delirious, he embarks on a mental and physical journey back in time to the place where the endgame began: the hermetically sealed biopod of his youth. The product of a tidy, empty childhood in which his father worked endlessly as an advanced genetic engineer, while his mother sank deeper into existential depression every year, Jimmy had only two good friends: his beloved raccoon-skunk, Killer, and his brilliant but aloof classmate Glenn, better known as Crake. Even in a pod where every student is a hyperachiever, Crake is the creamiest of the brain-trust cropwhile Jimmy heads off to a fourth-rate art school to listlessly study extinct 20th-century media, Crake jumps on the fast track to bio-development superstardom. After years of only casual contact, Crake pulls his old friend from obscurity and invites him to join his latest project. Enter the beautiful, mysterious Oryx, a deadly microvirus, and well . . . a few hundred pages we won't spoil in one short review. Suffice it to say, Atwood has not lost her touch for following the darker paths of speculative fictionshe easily creates a believable, contained future world. Even more convincingly, she takes on the emotionally damaged persona of Jimmy. Fans of her 2001 Booker Prize winner, The Blind Assassin, may not appreciate Atwood's switch from romantic intrigue to grim science fiction, but it's still an absorbing, if not uplifting, leap worth taking. Leah Greenblatt Margaret Atwood will read at University of Washington (Kane Hall, Room 130, 206-634-3400; tickets required), 7 p.m. Thurs., May 15. Another Robbins Attraction

Under the same inspiration, imaginations may converge. Tom Robbins says he'd never heard of, let alone seen, Isao Takahata's 1994 animated film Pompoko when he sat down to write Villa Incognito (Bantam, $24). True, there's no resemblance in plot, but book and film share a similar atmospherezany, raunchy, and melancholic all at once. And that's as it should be, because both are possessed by the same spirit, the spirit of Tanuki. Tanuki (small "t" tanuki, that is) are a species of Asian wild dog (Nictereutes procyonides) native to the Japanese archipelago and environs, but they don't look or act anything like dogs. They're more like our raccoons: cute, cagey, clumsy, comic, and dangerous when cornered. Tanuki need forest and plenty of elbow room, so they're sadly few in today's crowded Japan, but they're still the favorite fantasy animal of the Japanese nursery, subject of songs, stories, and games for kids who've never seen a live one. Big "T" Tanuki, however, is something else again: In the pantheon of Japanese nature deities, he plays the role of Mercury, Bacchus, and Silenus combineda drunken, horny, irredeemably uncivilizable one-critter lord of misrule. It is this Tanuki, of course, that most interests the Pacific Northwest's own lord of literary misrule, though he spares in passing some kind and understanding words for the four-footed kind, too. Like its immediate predecessor in the Robbins oeuvre, Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates, Villa is composed in the international-thriller genre, though the framework is here even more irrelevant to the purpose. As always, plot and situation are Robbins' springboard (in this case, high wire) for luxuriant digressions on life, sex, art, drugs, and sex, peppered with apothegms and lubricated with lubricity. The ending, as in most Robbins novels, is a train wreckbut since the author seems to emerge unscathed from each catastrophe and ready to ride again, who cares? Roger Downey Tom Robbins will read at University of Washington (Kane Hall, Room 130, 206-634-3400; tickets required), 7 p.m. Fri., May 16.

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