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THE NARRATIVE ARTS : THROUGH THE ARC OF THE RAIN FOREST By Karen Tei Yamashita (Coffee House Press: $9.95 , paper; 192 pp.)

September 09, 1990|MICHAEL HARRIS

"Through the Arc of the Rain Forest" is a sermon on the evils of technology worship, media hype, metastasizing capitalism and environmental rape. Fortunately, it's also much more. It may be, for example, the only novel in existence to be narrated by a "personal satellite"--a sentient sphere the size of a golf ball, whizzing around the head of a Japanese expatriate in Brazil.

He and five other characters--an American industrialist with three arms, a Sao Paulo couple who raise homing pigeons, an old man who heals the sick with feathers, and a religious pilgrim--converge on the Matacao, a mysteriously flat, smooth clearing in the Amazon basin. The floor of the Matacao proves to be made of plastic--a bunghole for the world's accumulating wastes. The plastic has myriad uses and seems to be the ultimate technological fix, but efforts to exploit it lead to excess, frenzy, plague and ruin.

So much for the sermon. The rest is humor and exuberant melodrama, a satire on science, philanthropy, marketing research, corporate climbing and pop evangelism. Karen Tei Yamashita, who grew up in the Los Angeles area and spent 10 years in Brazil before returning to Gardena, says she modeled her story on the Brazilian soap operas, which are broadcast even to "the most remote towns, (where) a single television in a church or open plaza will gather the people nightly" to find out what happens next.

This is Yamashita's first novel. As a playwright ("Hannah Kusoh: An American Butoh," "Omen: An American Kabuki"), she showed interest in crossing cultural lines. "Through the Arc of the Rain Forest" takes the process a step further.

"I like ideas," Yamashita said in a 1989 interview in the newspaper Rafu Shimpo. "I don't like writing dialogue." This suggests an impatience with the fictional vehicle for those ideas, but "Through the Arc" doesn't show it: Besides remarkable speculative reach, it has OK dialogue (by soap-opera standards, at least), engaging characters, tight plotting and all the necessary regard for what happens next.

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