The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   37

Dead as a Dodo

by Jane Langton

Illustrated by the author

Penguin Books, 1996

The Warfare of Science and Theology in Oxford

Jane Langton is one of our best and most intellectual novelists, but no one holds this against her, or even really notices, because her books are officially mystery novels, funny, full of her amusing line drawings (my copy, acquired through means I prefer not to discuss, has a very fetching and very dead dodo penned inside the front cover) and have happy endings. Probably this is just as well, as it means she is read by many, and lit. crit. graduate students don't write torturous papers on intertextuality in Dark Nantucket Noon. I'm not sure whether those critics would have a field day, or disdain her as too easy pickings, because each of her books very obviously shows the world through the lens of some previous author or artist, sometimes, indeed, through the lens of a single work. If one looks deeper than some obvious themes and chapter headings, one realizes that almost everything in each book works on more than one level, that everything carries a couple of different meanings. If she were post-modern, this would just be an excuse for slyness and wandering all over the map; instead all these different levels reinforce each other, they resonate, everything points in the same direction, marks out the same curve.

This time her chosen author is no less imposing a figure than Darwin, and the setting Oxford and environs. The mystery involves a flock of zoologists, a great many fossil skeletons, a clutch of hundred and fifty year old marine specimens, an overenthusiastic graduate student studying artificial life and the Oxford approximation to hacking, a good deal of complicated primate mating behavior ("The courtship of animals is by no means so simple and short an affair as might be thought" --- The Descent of Man), family pride, the expression of the emotions, envy, arrogance, malice, competition, improbable links between the most disparate organisms, mutual aid, a saponaceous Victorian bishop, and the introduction of a new species of weed to Oxfordshire. As usual, the mystery is solved by Homer Kelly --- large, loud, clumsy, sympathetic, enthusiastic, and, somewhat improbably, professor of American literature, specializing in the New England transcendentalists, visiting Oxford --- with a few well-placed suggestions and kicks in the shin from his wife and fellow-professor Mary. The mystery is clever, fair, and had me, at least, pleasantly puzzled.

Dead as a Dodo is of course about the extinction of God, even so fuzzy and hard to pin down a god as that of the Kellys' transcedentalists, by the theory of evolution: " 'Perhaps someone should put him in a zoo, and mate him with some old mother goddess, in order to carry on the species Deus divinus, or Dea divina, whichever it is.' The iguanadon regarded this as a frightful lapse of taste." We not only get to see Homer encountering Darwin for the first time, but, putting together various of his enthusiastic outpourings, we get an accurate precis of The Origin of Species, complete with the one famous figure. Some would point out that God can say, with the old man in Monty Python, "I'm not dead yet"; but Langton retains a transcendentalist's optimism, as witness the closing words:

The poor farmer was thrown back on his own devices. He tried mowing the thing down, but it sprang up thicker than ever. He tried pesticides, but none of them worked. Within a couple of years Phragmites oxoniensis had swept its hideous stalks over the roadsides and riverbanks of Oxfordshire, and romped over market gardens and fields of hay.

It was a classic case of natural selection, the preservation of favored races in the struggle for life. The farmer wasn't happy, in fact he cursed the day he was born, but Phragmites oxoniensis didn't care whether the farmer lived or died. Unthinking, uncaring, it prospered and survived.

As I said, she has happy endings.
339 pp., more line drawings than I feel like counting
Evolution / Mysteries
Currently in print as a hardback, ISBN 0-670-86221-5, US$21.95 [Buy from Powell's], and as a paperback, ISBN 0-14-024795-5, $6.95 [buy from Powell's]
21 March 1998