Review: The Extinction of Good Stories (A Review of The Extinction of Irena Rey by Jennifer Croft)

By Hugh Blanton

Publishing moves through phases—chasing fads they think they can cash in on. At one time it was gritty westerns, another time the "Women's Lib" movement, for now it's this odd brew of gender/sexuality, race, and climate change. A lot of the novels rolling off presses today are lacking in story, or filled with amateurish writing, or bad stories sloppily thrown up as scaffolding around one or more of the current fads. One can even find what could have been a good story ruined by its attachment to a current fad. Here we have a stew of climate change, forest conservation, and land reclamation and somebody decided to throw in a story of translation and writing.

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The Extinction of Irena Rey is the latest novel from Jennifer Croft. The good folks at Guggenheim cut her a check so she could write it and she's also received the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing and the International Booker Prize for her translation of Flights. As is fairly typical, the most lauded authors give us the worst stories and Extinction is no exception. We start of with a group of translators meeting at the home of Irena Rey who has just completed her latest novel. Rey lives in a three story house in the Białowieża forest in Poland. The main character in this novel that she's just completed, Grey Eminence, is, you guessed it, a "climate change artist." An odd thing happens after our eight translators arrive at Rey's forest home to begin work—Rey goes missing.
Extinction is being written by the Argentine translator (Emi) and translated from Spanish into English by the American translator (Alexis). It's a gimmick Croft uses to allow translator footnotes throughout the book, which become surprisingly humorous as the book goes on (a rivalry had formed between Emi and Alexis soon after their arrival in Poland). The eight translators aren't sure if Irena left them deliberately or if she may have been a victim of crime or accident. (A ninth translator shows up, someone who had worked on previous Irena Rey translations but had not been invited to work on this most recent book.) So what started out as a story of translators working on the book of a worldwide renowned author morphs into some sort of Scooby Doo crew trying to solve a mystery.
The merry band of multilinguists are desperate to find their beloved author, but not desperate enough to call the police or ask if any of the nearby residents have seen her lately. They take a break from their sleuthing to attend a WW II commemoration and they are fired upon by some deranged lunatic with bow and arrow. The Scooby Doo crew believe it may have been a racially motivated attack (one of them is Senegalese) but as we find out later it was not—and in fact was not related to anything in the story. It was just a randomly thrown red herring in our contemporary novel cum mystery thriller. There are nature lessons galore as they continue their search—the Swedish translator, Freddie, says "Without fungi, none of what we know as our world could have existed." There is a "Fungi Foundation Blog" that backs up our translator's assertion, however the fact that fungi is not always the component breaking down dead animal and plant matter casts doubt on both their claims. If nothing else, we learn from this novel there actually is such a thing as a fungi cult.
The crew would like to get into Irena's computer to look for clues to her disappearance, but of course it's password protected. Not to worry—they guess the password! Inside there are password protected files. Not to worry—they guess those too! Croft should have stuck with her nature/climate story and left the mystery stories to the pros, or at least writers who put more effort into their stories than their characters coming up with lucky guesses. Emi, our Spanish translator, starts getting responses from Irena on her Instagram account. She doesn't let the rest of the crew know about it at first. Then Irena, or someone with Irena's Instagram name, posts a pic on Emi's Instagram that looks like some sort of graffiti. Emi shows it to the Scooby Doo crew and lo and behold, the German translator Schulz recognizes it as graffiti in the abandoned Tempelhof airport in Germany. Not only that, Schulz has keys to the abandoned airport so off they all go to see if Irena has decamped to an abandoned airport in Berlin. If you're wondering why in the world our German translator has keys to an abandoned airport, well it was all made very clear. His husband mailed them to him in Poland days prior. Genius! (As to why the hell he had them, the dear reader will just have to speculate.)
The whole abandoned airport scene plays a role in the book—it's there to remind us that the land where it sits should be reclaimed for nature. The climactic scene that takes place there is just as much of a dud as the three-hundred pages before it.
There's no way to predict which novels coming off the presses today will become classics in the future. But it's a good bet that the ones frantically ringing the climate change alarm will not.

Hugh Blanton's latest book is Kentucky Outlaw. He can be reached on X @HughBlanton5


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