<%@ Language=VBScript %> <%response.buffer = TRUE%> Book Review: After Dachau by Daniel Quinn
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Book Review: After Dachau by Daniel Quinn

Though he has placed excellent, thought-provoking works in our hands in the past, Daniel Quinn's newest work leaves much to be desired. This attempt may have simply been too much at once and hope remains that Quinn can save us from simple story telling.

by Brian F. Hartz


Daniel Quinn's latest cautionary tale of the perils of how we view history, After Dachau, falls flat on its face as both suspense story and revisionist philosophy. Just as the mystery at the heart of the novel begins to unfold, Quinn veers sharply off course, turning from an unnerving inquiry into reincarnation phenomena and personal identity to a stultifying morality tale about the evils of intolerance.

Quinn introduces one of his dullest protagonists ever, laconic heir Jason Tull Jr., but we forgive him this because one does not read books such as Ishmael and The Story of B for character development. Quinn's books are about ideas; in this regard, After Dachau disappoints, but only in comparison with his other works.

It seems that Tull, when not leeching off his wealthy parents, works as a reincarnation investigator -- which means, more or less, that he travels around the world listening to kooky tales about past lives and transmigrated souls. Think FBI Agent Fox Mulder from "The X-Files" but as a wannabe Hindu not obsessed with aliens.

Tull's an earnest young man trying find his place in the world; he'll be damned before he resorts to sitting around and waiting for dear old dad to keel over and drop. Nope, Jason Tull Jr. is bound and determined to do something different, something special, something ... utterly ridiculous that only the progeny of the well-to-do could pursue with abandon and vigor. Thus, his "career" as a reincarnation investigator. Quinn does deserve some credit, though, for setting up his blase characters with such quirky preoccupations. His first and greatest novel, Ishmael, began with a man answering an advertisement -- placed by the novel's namesake, a telepathic gorilla -- which read, simply: "Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world." That's all it took for Ishmael to get going. Reincarnation? Sure, why not!

Tull spends years wandering in the wilderness, listening to one tall tale after another, until he stumbles upon the case of Mallory Hastings, a 26-year old white woman who inexplicably went into a coma and woke up as a completely different person. While our protagonist thinks this might be the Golden Case for which he is searching -- the evidence that will prove, once and for all, that there is substance to the concept of reincarnation -- astute readers cannot help but be skeptical.

First of all, Mallory awakens from her coma and is completely changed emotionally and psychologically. Her soul has apparently reverted back to the personality of its previous incarnation -- Gloria MacArthur, a deaf black woman who tried to make a career in the world of mid-20th century abstract expressionist art, populated by the likes of Jackson Pollock. Although Mallory, prior to her coma, was perfectly healthy and in full possession of her aural functions, she now acts and talks like a deaf person. Meaning, of course, that she has no comprehension of the mechanics of spoken language, aside from reading lips. This is where Quinn takes the easy way out and, essentially, tries to pull a fast one on his readers. After a week or so of speech therapy, Mallory/Gloria is able to speak and comprehend language with the best of them ... and speak it she does, tossing in four-letter words at a clip unseen in previous Quinn works. Confused yet? You should be. And that's the least of this tale's problems.

After Dachau tries awfully hard to be both a suspense novel and a dystopian treatise in the tradition of George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Unfortunately, it fails at both of these aspirations. The operative conceit in Dachau is a basic "What if?" scenario that has been debated ever since World War II ended in defeat for Nazi Germany and the Axis powers. "What if the Germans had won?" Quinn asks in this book. What if Adolf Hitler was seen as the savior of the triumphant Aryan race and not the vile, hate-filled monster that he is today? Quinn has a good idea here -- rewriting the future to criticize the present. But it doesn't work out. Dachau tries to do too much with plot and mystery and not enough with intellectual inquiry.

To his credit, Quinn does throw in a nifty surprise ending that will leave adept readers smiling with appreciation and confused readers wondering how and where they missed the point. But don't be ashamed, confusion is easy to come by with this book. Quinn's narrative is stilted and truncated where it should be free-flowing and verbose. And vice versa. For example, at one point in After Dachau, Mallory/Gloria and Jason set out for an expedition into the underbelly of New York City. At least half of the pages devoted to this excursion could be omitted or simply skipped without any loss to the story's continuity. It is this heavy-handedness that fells Quinn as a spinner of yarns. He should stick to writing heady, philosophical fare like Ishmael and Beyond Civilization, books that challenge us with ideas about improving ourselves and our conceptions of history.

Either that or abandon all predilections about saving the world from ourselves and write pulp novels. Let's hope he chooses the former; the world has enough John Grishams and Clive Cusslers. Perhaps Daniel Quinn can, at the very least, save the world from bad literature.

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