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6

LAURENTIAN

REVIEWS

F

ollowing up the success of his

Daedalus

trilogy—in

which he combines historical elements of the Napoleonic

era with the genre conventions of traditional science

fiction—Martinez begins his new

MJ-12

(abbreviating

the codename for the covert government program that is the focus

of the novel: MAJESTIC-12) series by setting up what initially

seems like a Cold War spy novel in the early days of the Central

Intelligence Agency, and then grafting onto it the kinds of

extraordinary abilities associated with superhero narratives. Four

people from very different walks of life find themselves quite

suddenly in possession of talents that radically disrupt

their lives: during a parent-teacher conference, Maggie

Dubinsky’s personal turmoil reaches out and impacts a

father, turning a pillar of the community into an

emotional firestorm; Calvin Hooks prays over the

horribly-injured arm of a man who’d been taunting

himmoments before an accident at a tire factory

occurred, and instantly his own energy and vitality

begins to drain into the stricken co-worker; Lieutenant

Frank Lodge learns while fighting in the final days of

World War II that when someone dies in his

proximity, that individual’s memories and skills pass to

him; and Ellis Longstreet discovers that his touch can unwittingly

(and unpredictably) transmute one substance into another.

With the approval of President Harry Truman, Navy

Lieutenant Commander Danny Wallace is assigned the

supervision of the MJ-12 project, including the recruitment and

training of its personnel assets, called “Variants” with enhanced

abilities. Once these characters are introduced, the novel is

propelled by the conflicts created by essentialist positions, social,

political and spiritual. The most obvious ideological opposition of

the era, Soviet versus American, simply introduces the many

struggles of the time, namely equal rights for American women

and minorities. These issues contextualize the personal challenges

facing each of the characters. Danny Wallace is torn between his

empathetic connections to the basic human needs of the Variants

under his authority and the political agendas they are obliged to

serve as “assets” of the CIA. When Maggie Dubinsky

unexpectedly becomes a person of power, her enhanced abilities

and the opportunities they open up are shadowed by an increasing

tendency toward overcompensation, becoming increasingly more

masculine in her exercise of control. Cal Hooks learns that he can

extract the life force from others as well as give it, which initiates a

fundamental moral dilemma for him as a committed Christian

believer. Frank Lodge learns that the knowledge and skills he

retains from others cannot be dissociated from the people to whom

they belonged: his mind becomes a melting pot of human voices

and personalities. And the challenges to Ellis Longstreet’s private

prejudices serve as microcosms of the pressures that American

society had to begin addressing in the post-WWII era.

The mysterious origin of their abilities is only one of the

elements tantalizing us here, as the MJ-12 team prepares to

interact with a group of their Soviet counterparts (who, in

contrast to the conflicted Americans’ labeling of such gifted

people as “Variants,” instead refer to themselves as

“Empowered”), without any information about what abilities

they possess. Readers looking for a page-turning, character-

centered speculative narrative will have plenty to enjoy in the

opening novel of this new series.

n

JENNY WILLIAMSON ’02

Collections of Flaws in a Black Dress

FINISHING LINE PRESS, 2016

BY SARAH BARBER, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH

C

ollection of

flaws

in

a

black dress

, the first

chapbook of poems by Jenny Williamson ’02, is a

heart-breaker. In 26 poems, Williamson explores love

and loss with star-struck and fiery language that is

also earthy and playful. From the beginning, the reader trusts

this poet to speak deeply and truly about how desire overwhelms

us: “I touched my tongue to the place at the root of your throat /

and fell like a planet around a star,” she writes, describing an

early encounter with the beloved. This is a poet the reader is

eager to follow: “the world is bright as citrus,” she writes,

seducing not just the addressee of this particular poem but her

readers to “Stay. Just for a minute”—whether it is to watch with

her how “Outside the window the night sky / is being dramatic”

or to walk, insomniac, with her at night when “my heart is a box

of bees / and I can’t sleep.” The lover’s lexicon—all those words

by which we name pleasure, grief, longing, pain—is

Williamson’s companion on her journey

from desire through suffering to

acceptance. Her humor, searing self-

examination, and sharp eye ensure that

every reader will find in this brave book at

least one line that captures exactly some

past or present moment in his or her

sentimental education.

n

MICHAEL J. MARTINEZ ’93

MJ-12: Inception

NIGHT SHADE BOOKS, 2016

BY SID SONDERGARD, PISKOR PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH

ON CAMPUS