Sunday, April 25, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

'Kings of Infinite Space': Satire takes a deft poke at bureaucracy

Special to The Seattle Times

"Kings of Infinite Space"

by James Hynes
St. Martin's Press, 341 pp., $24.95

Those unlucky readers who somehow missed out on meeting Paul Trilby, an up-and-coming professor of English in the story "Queen of the Jungle" in James Hynes' 1997 collection of stories, "Publish and Perish," can remedy the situation. Read "Kings of Infinite Space," a strange, suspenseful and splendidly written novel. Think of Stephen King writing satire.

Years after he drowned his wife's cat in the bathtub (don't ask; all will become clear, sort of, in this new novel), Charlotte continues — after death — to keep her claws in Paul's life. From women to work, from his television showing only programs about cats to his clothes and apartments reeking of cat pee, Charlotte haunts Paul's every move and makes sure that nothing in his life goes right.

As Paul descends from one miserable, low-paying job to another, he finally washes up as a temporary technical writer at TxDoGS, a government office in a town very much like Austin, Texas. A series of weird incidents ensue: a corpse that no one notices in the office cubicle next to Paul's, a homeless man who keeps repeating "Are we not men?" from H.G. Wells' "Island of Doctor Moreau" each time he sees Paul, and strange noises coming from the bulging ceiling above his own cubicle.

There is Paul's growing infatuation with Callie, the office's Oklahoma-born mailgal (who's on a self-improvement kick — she's reading "The Norton Anthology of Literature"), and a wild night of karaoke with his bizarre co-workers. These developments all serve to draw Paul into an ultimately devilish choice between what Charlotte has left him of his soul and a life of ease at TxDoGS. To say more would be to give away too much of the plot. Rest assured, though, that right through the last sentence, Charlotte continues to amaze.

Just as he skewered the pretensions of academia in "The Lecturer's Tale" and "Publish and Perish," Hynes has turned the bureaucracy of government into a very funny, very macabre novel, filled with unforgettable characters (the living dead among them) and a plot so bizarre it could just possibly be true. Maybe you should take a closer look at your fellow employee in the cubicle next to yours!

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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