The Newsletter of
BURNT by Lance Olsen.
Wordcraft of Oregon ($11.95). P.O. Box 3235, La Grande, OR 97850 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alan S. Tinkler
Ecosystems are in flux in Lance Olsen's latest novel,Burnt. Squirrels burrow through the walls of houses to commit suicide by placing their heads in traps; road kill reveals a deer with a fifth leg growing from its back; an environmental illness, RCS (Rapid Change Syndrome), is endemic; and the academic institution, around which the story revolves, provides insights into pecking orders and rituals of mating.
Murph, the narrator and a professor at a small regional college in Kentucky, lives with his wife, Tanya, in a pink-brick split-level. Academic life seems simple enough until Murph becomes enraged when offered a bribe to pass McTraz, a star athlete. The administration looks the other way since the school's identity is tied to the success of the team as it pursues a record-breaking third championship. "It comes down to," Murph and Tanya decide, "money, fame and power." The third championship guarantees all three. When the grade pressure becomes too much, Murph devises a plan to get rid of the problem and punish the school at the same time. McTraz becomes the plan's target though he is guilty of no more than "doing serious injury to the English language." For the most part, the repercussions of the plan are minimal (the team goes on to win the fabled prize) as is the moral discussion of the many issues raised in the novel. Near the end of the novel, one of the characters suggests, "Amorality sells. Immorality is a thing of the past, like the sperm whale."
Many contemporary concerns ranging from euthanasia to the quality of drinking water are raised throughout the novel. In Burnt, a brain is being kept alive, apart from its body, for experimentation and the tabloids condemn the Japanese for exploiting the fresh water in the Alaskan glaciers. The attitude of the novel suggests that 'shit happens' and that ultimately "you don't have any choice;" you might as well just make the best of it and go on. Despite their actions, the characters have no inclination to change.
The contemporary commentary and the pervasiveness of references to popular culture at times detract from Burnt 's effectiveness. On the first page, Olsen writes, "He was smacking away at a thin cholesterol patty ..." Later, as the plan is being carried out, Murph reflects that "there are more than five billion people on earth, five billion, and more than one hundred million dogs and cats in America alone." Olsen's purpose, of course, is to provide color and material for satire; at times, however, the intrusions are too interruptive. Overall, however, Burnt is satisfying, providing many interesting tidbits that undoubtedly will pop into mind. Olsen touches effectively on many issues relating to contemporary society and the workplace in addition to portraying an environmental maelstrom.
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