A week or so ago, I read with distinct amusement the commentary of two Twitter friends who were attending the Malcolm Gladwell lecture at Book Expo America. Each was live tweeting the event, and in verbose, manic style, their tweets filling my feed to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. But what made things so fascinating was that their tweets were fundamentally, diametrically opposed–one gladly worshipped at the altar of all things Gladwell; the other decried him as a charlatan Pied Pipering his unquestioning listeners down a rabbit hole of rubbish–and yet, though they were in the same space, and even reporting using the same hashtag, they weren’t engaging with each other in the least.
I mentioned this to my husband, who suggested that the two had probably blocked each other. That though they might well be sitting side by side in the auditorium, they were so ensconced in their personal ideological silos that they had no intention of letting someone else breach those walls. But it seemed so strange, I responded, pointing out that each was a highly articulate, thoughtful individual who had something to bring to the debate, and that the very fact that they were attending the same event, regardless of their personal perspectives about what was being said, showed that they clearly had some aligned interests and concerns. If only Twitter could prepare a graph or a diagram showing who had blocked each other, said my husband. Doing so would be an excellent way of identifying both communication and information breakdowns: an ideological schism over which information, ideas and debate had no means of passing.
These sorts of divisions are nothing new, and are one of the key themes of Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South, which looks at both the physical and social divide between those of the landowning, educated classes and those of a working-class background. The novel traces the journey of Margaret Hale as she moves from the well-to-do, buffered south to the industrial town of Milton in the north, a place currently unsettled by conflict over workers’ rights and the relatively new development of the entrepreneurial middle class. Margaret’s initial ignorance regarding the Milton context is such that she is thrown into circumstances that are utterly alien to her. (Upon arriving, she despairs for her situation: “If she had known how long it would be before the brightness [either internal or external] came, her heart would have sunk low down…”) Her slow ingratiation into Milton society comes in a gradual, iterative manner, with Margaret first needing to acknowledge the existence of the place and its people, and then begin to humanise and empathise with her new peers.
“Your lives and your welfare are so constantly and intimately interwoven,” she argues at one point, highlighting the connectedness of both worker and employer, “God has made us so that we must be mutually dependent. We may ignore our own dependence, or refuse to acknowledge that others depend upon us in more respects than the payment of weekly wages; but the thing must be, nevertheless. Neither you nor any other master can help yourselves. The most proudly independent man depends on those around him for their insensible influence on his character–his life.” And the same is true of ideas: aligning oneself only with those whose beliefs are our own is deeply problematic and can only represent an ideological narrowing.
As the book progresses, Margaret becomes quite demonstrative in her proclamations of equality and empathy, and we see her striving to play the role of cultural anthropologist, seeking to understand her new circumstances. But the inciting event behind her engagement is obvious: her coming into contact with this place, these people, these ideas in the first place. Had she and her family remained in their isolated social and ideological silo in the south, Margaret would have remained entirely ignorant of life in Milton, and would have found herself surrounded only by those whose ideas, goals, and outlooks she shared–the possible exception being her father, whose defection from the church signifies a potential opportunity for an ideological clash and therefore a resultant, accompanying growth.
“There might be toilers and moilers there in London” (where Margaret lived at one point) “but she never saw them; the very servants lived in an underground world of their own, of which she knew neither the hopes nor the fears; they only seemed to start into existence when some want or whim of their master or mistress needed them.”
And yet, while Margaret slowly begins to make her way across a variety of social, class, and linguistic borders, others around her refuse to do so. (“And if I must live in a factory town, I must speak factory language when I want it. Why, mamma, I could astonish you with a great many words you’ve never heard in your life.”) Her mother, for example, is intent upon maintaining the wall between her erstwhile life and her new one, and upon arriving in Milton immediately falls ill, becoming housebound and isolated. Her determined disconnection from all that Milton represents could be argued to be a contributing factor to her eventual demise, and one that I’d argue is as much an ideological or existential death as a physical one. Ideas are what make us human, after all, and by refusing to engage with a differing point of view or way of living, Margaret’s mother is slowly asphyxiating her intellectual self. It’s hard not to see this as Gaskell’s warning about the dangers of close-mindedness and deliberate ignorance. Without sustained intellectual debate, without being subjected to ideas and situations that frustrate us, that are abhorrent to us, that make us uncomfortable, or that make us feel anything other than warm and fuzzy, we risk severing ourselves from the wider context of reality.
“Mr Thornton is coming to drink tea with us tonight,” says Mr Hale, “and he is as proud of Milton as you of Oxford. You two must try and make each other a little more liberal-minded.” “I don’t want to be more liberal-minded, thank you,” said Mr Bell.
Perhaps what bothers me most about the ideological schisms we see today, the conversational black-outs that occur thanks to blocking and other siloed forms of information access/restriction, is that they are far more deliberate than in the time when Gaskell was writing. Where Gaskell’s characters could be forgiven their ignorance in many instances due to their physical isolation and their relative inability to obtain information, today we’re far more deliberately choosing to ignore people whose mindsets or beliefs clash with ours. Even worse is the idea of blocking someone: if you ignore someone you are at least aware of their behaviour or their presence; by blocking that individual, you preclude that entirely. Yes, the sheer degree of connectedness of our world means that it can be immensely tiring to constantly engage with differing ideologies or beliefs, but we owe it to ourselves and to our intellectual richness not to cut ourselves off from these viewpoints, to at least try to consider the perspectives of others–and the people who hold those perspectives.
“Margaret the Churchwoman, her father the Dissenter, Higgins the Infidel, knelt down together. It did them no harm.”(less)
Over the course of my last few reviews I've been considering the role of the author as narrator and as character, and the degree to which authorial insertion is, to the mind of the reader, assumed to be inalienable. In large part this has been inspired by the narrator character--who is, perhaps, the author himself--in Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being and his/her thoughts regarding the use of characters as an author's possible selves.
The idea has continued to haunt me, and in my reading recently I've been pondering the inextricability of the author and their work. I do think that there's a winking fallaciousness to Kundera's statement, and it's to do with the slippery slope and extrapolation that's inherent in the idea of possibility. There are, obviously, degrees of remoteness involved in all of this. An author might create a character who is in every way the author's image (or at least as near as possible--the character can never be the author, but only ever a facsimile of the author). This would be an example of a close possible self. Of course, an author might create someone who is their polar opposite, but for all this dichotomy, this character would still remain a possible self, merely a distant one. After all, it's impossible to write without using oneself as a reference.
However, I do think that there is a tendency for readers, unless told otherwise, to see an author's characters as close possible selves. Camus, in The Myth of Sisyphus, which I'm presently reading, says, "though I have seen the same actor a hundred times, I shall not for that reason know him any better personally. Yet if I add up the heroes he has personified and if I say that I know him a little better at the hundredth character counted off, this will be felt to contain an element of truth." I think that this is particularly true of narrator characters. (For an example of this, you need only see my lack of certainty above regarding the identity of the narrator character in the Kundera.)
Where, of course, this conflation of author and character becomes a problem is when the character exhibits morally questionable traits.
I read with interest some months ago an interview with Junot Diaz regarding his writing of a misogynistic character in such a way that he as an author would not be seen as tacitly condoning the character's sexism, but that would not signpost his own beliefs in such a way that it would break into the narrative:
"If it's too brutal and too obvious then it becomes allegorical, becomes a parable, becomes kind of a moral tale. You want to make it subtle enough so that there are arguments like this....For kind of sophisticated art I'm interested in the larger structural rebuke has to be so subtle that it has to be distributed at an almost sub-atomic level. Otherwise, you fall into the kind of preachy, moralistic fable that I don't think makes for good literature."
This line of moral ambiguity is one along which Nabokov carefully treads in his masterpiece Lolita, and throughout the book we see a careful distancing of author, narrator, and even character in order to achieve a separation of author and work. That the novel is bookended by an explanatory, absolving foreword from a fictional character posing as the author, and an afterword by Nabokov himself speaks volumes; there is also further distance created in my edition (The Everyman's Library edition) by the inclusion of a lengthy introductory essay. We see an additional obscuring of identity and therefore of self by the fact that Humbert is itself a pseudonym, as is the surname "Haze", given to Lolita and her family. These structural elements are probably the most overt attempts at separating the author and work, but Lolita is rife with them.
Take, for example, the book's self-consciously literary approach, with its three-act structure and its narrative artifice. The various deaths and disappearances of Humbert's lovers feel deliberate and unnatural, carefully shoehorned into the plot to create a sense of the created rather than the naturally arising. Characters and situations appear as obstacles or illustrative points less than they do organic explorations of real life, the effect resulting in a sort of moral cushioning, particularly when we consider the book as being framed within the context of the introductory foreword from a "John Ray Jr, PhD", with its placatory remarks about the text being a "lesson" or a "warning".
Beyond the higher level structural elements, however, we have those occurring at the character and prose level, and it's here that Nabokov plies his authorial genius, driving a stunningly wrought sentence-level wedge between the writer and the written. The book hums with a note of critique, with what feels like a misalignment between Humbert's predatory waywardness and the author's own moral code.Even at his most sincere, Humbert's account reads with a dissonance, with a careening madness that positions him as pitiable and unhinged, an egocentric individual whose myopic obsession transforms him into a figure to be mocked, one who is incapable of being taken seriously. He is a pathetic figure, a man who is obsolete, lost in a fusty history and a tumult of justification and self-deception, scarcely capable of existing in the present day. With his old-fashioned mannerisms and language, he is disconnected from reality, and approaches the world in a strangely cerebral, removed manner. This is characterisation by careful design: we are warned, cleverly, by a subtle authorial hand, against connecting with him.
And of course, finally, there's the elegant de-eroticisation of Humbert's relationship with Lolita, and of Lolita herself. There's something grotesque and impersonal about Humbert's obsession with Lolita: rather than being the actual object of his desire, she is simply a sort of sexual golem upon whom he applies a general sense of deviancy. His descriptions of her are ugly and garish: "her toenails showed remnants of cherry-red polish and there was a bit of adhesive tape across her big toe", he writes early on, and these descriptions grow no more beautiful over time--"monkeyish" seems to be his most commonly tapped adjective. There's a sense of appalling ugliness and baseness applied not just to Lolita, but to Humbert's courtship of her, and it's hard not to assume a degree of approbation emanating from Nabokov's pen throughout. This, to me, at least, is perhaps most evident in the searingly illusive, deeply figurative prose, a descriptive sleight of hand that misdirects the reader's eye away from the flinching carnality of the narrative and instead to the breathtaking richness of language.
All too aware of the danger of author-narrator conflation, Nabokov seems to be seeking solace in the diffuse wadding of the poetic, allowing himself to drift in the layered ambiguity surrounding the possible self, creating narrative buffers that prevent him from plunging headlong into the fraught waters of the character-as-self, and allowing him to tell the story that needs to be told. All characters may be linked back to their creator, but, Lolita reminds us, it is dangerous to assume that all characters are a close possible self.(less)
I have a friend who's a former chef. The only thing he loathes more than poor-quality coffee is the current trend of amateur food photography.
"Wouldn't you rather enjoy the food that someone's prepared for you, and spend some time hanging out with your friends rather than fiddling around with the filters on Instagram?" he said one day.
This obsessive need to document and share our lives isn't just limited to food, however. Just as our phones have become an extension of our memories as far as contact details, maps and schedules are involved, photo-sharing sites have become the way that we engage with the narratives of our lives. Retrospectively, and with rose-tinted lenses that are no longer just metaphorical.
Rather than experiencing a moment, embracing its temporal ephemerality, letting it shape us in its own subtle way...and then allowing it to slip into memory until dredged up into consciousness by some conversational or olfactory mnemonic, we've become obsessive documentary-makers. But one of the things about being able to outsource the recording of these experiences is that we don't necessarily engage with them with the depth that we might otherwise.
My in-laws are a case in point: after putting together a precarious, overpopulated itinerary, they'll hurtle their way through their trip, sitting back to relax and reflect on the experience only on the plane afterwards, digital cameras at the ready. Oohs and aahs will ensue as they try to piece together their holiday from the photographic artefacts beeping along in a slideshow in their hands.
I'm not sure that these sorts of pictures are each worth a thousand words.
But we're all guilty of this. Digital cameras mean that we don't need to be discerning in what we photograph--every moment, then, is given an equal weight. But not all moments are created equal, and being able to differentiate what ought to be retained, not to mention the way that we choose to document it, is somewhat of an art. One, I can't help but feel, that's fading away with the need to internalise travel directions (I will be forever glad that I'm young enough that thanks to GPS systems whatever part of my brain in charge of this can be put to use doing other things. Coming up with meme extensions, perhaps.)
I can't help but wonder what W Somerset Maugham's On a Chinese Screen might have looked like had he been travelling through China today, rather than a century ago. A slim edition of just under sixty vignettes written during his travels through China in 1919, the book is described not as a novel, but rather as material for a novel. There's not a photograph nor a FourSquare check-in in sight.
Rather, with only one or two exceptions, the book comprises lengthy character sketches of the people, largely western foreigners living in China, Maugham met as he made his way along the Yangtze. It's wry, devastating, and infuriating in turn, and it presents a shame-inducing picture of western attitudes towards the Chinese in the early twentieth century. Though he gives only a couple of pages to each character, slipping from merchant to philosopher to cabinet minister with the staccato induced by a page-turn, a story--or at least, a perspective--arises from these observations, and it's a damning one.
For the most part these are people who disdain, resent or reject China, and who are clinging to their past lives in the west, no matter how distant they might be.
In "My Lady's Parlour" we read of a woman who has turned a temple into a dwelling house, carefully papering over its history with western tapestries and accoutrements. And let's not forget the kitchen: "Here generations of believers had burned their tapers and prayed, some for this temporal benefit or that, some for release from the returning burden of early existence; and this seemed to her the very place for an American stove." There are missionaries who hold nothing but loathing towards the Chinese, and gadabouts who treat the country and its people as some sort of personal carnival.
We read of people bored and disengaged with what they see as a purgatorial stretch in a culture they perceive as so far beneath them that they see it as either a playground or a prison. The tall man in charge of the BAT, for example: "He is bored. It has never occurred to him that he lives a life in which the possibility of adventure is at his doors. He can only recognise it through the printed page; and it needs a story of derring-do in Texas or Nevada, of hairbreadth escape in the South Seas, to stir his blood." Even the Chinese scholar we encounter seems to be undertaking his studies less out of an interest in the culture than he is in satisfying a grudge against a fellow scholar.
And then there are the displaced, the people live between cultures, or long to become a part of a culture they see as being elevated above their own--a snobbery and cultural relativism that becomes only more pronounced against the Chinese backdrop. In "Dinner Parties" we read of a young Russian woman who experiences deep ennui "when you [speak] to her of Tolstoy or Chekov; but [grows] animated when she [talks] of Jack London. 'Why,' she [asks], 'do you English write such silly books about Russia?'. Then there's the First Secretary of the British Legation, who speaks "French more like any Frenchman who had ever lived" and who "you [wish] with all your heart...would confess to a liking for something just a little bit vulgar". Or Her Britannic Majesty's Representative, who while fixing his pince-nez more firmly on his nose, argues that it is monstrously untrue to accuse him of putting on airs of superiority.
Then there are the confessional moments, the ones that are so perfectly familiar...but which, I realise as I write this, probably won't be for much longer:
"How precious then is the inordinate length of your book (for you are travelling light and you have limited yourself to three) and how jealously you read every word of every page so that you may delay as long as possible the dreaded moment when you must reach the end! You are mightily thankful then to the authors of long books and when you turn over their pages, reckoning how long you can make them last, you wish they were half as long again."
On a Chinese Screen is a magnificent read, capturing in so few words entire people and a painful, lingering sense of cultural superiority, and I found myself wishing that I'd spent more time engaging and reflecting during my past trips abroad, rather than letting so much slip through my fingers as I watched the shutter click again and again.
Until I read this paragraph referring to the work of Jonathan Swift: "the words," writes Maugham, "are the same as those we use to-day and there is hardly a sentence in which they are not placed in the simplest order; and yet there is a dignity, a spaciousness, an aroma, which all our modern effort fails to attain: in short there is style."
A familiar sentiment.
Perhaps, after all, food photography isn't to blame. Perhaps it's perfectly normal not to be able to appreciate something until we have enough distance from it that our perspective is sufficiently undistorted by time and emotion. Now excuse me while I upload some photos of my afternoon coffee to my Instagram account.(less)
I often attempt to read books in situ, although I can't say that I've ever been especially successful. Perhaps because I choose books that are way too lengthy and ponderous to get through in the short amount of time I have at my disposal in a location. Proust for three days in France? Yeah, right. The Decameron over four days in Italy. Sure. The Glass Bead Game in three days in Germany? Ha! (I ended up reading this Perth, which isn't quite the same.)
Anyway, the US is a long way to go to read Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, so I made do with what I had at my disposal: a dimly lit walking track and some windy Melbourne weather. To ensure that I wouldn't have my head lopped off by some headless horseman or low-hanging branch during my travels, I opted for an audio version of the book, a choice version from Librivox featuring a Man With a Booming Voice, and whose intonation made me think rather of the Simpsons Hallowe'en episode featuring Leonard Nimoy.
Unfortunately, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow has forever been tainted in my mind by the fact that I saw a film adaptation before reading it--something that I wouldn't ordinarily do, but hey, Johnny Depp. So I did spend a good deal of the hour-and-a-bit of the narrative feeling quite bemused that someone had managed to get an entire movie out of what is an exceptionally slight, and despite all the hushed murmurings about its spookiness, extraordinarily whimsical, tale.
Although I waited for sundown for my little jaunt into Tarry Town, it didn't take me long to realise that Mr Irving was not really in this business of scaring his readers, but was rather having a good old joke of it all (I can't remember if this was part of the film, because, hey, Johnny Depp). For there are so many moments of levity in this camp little thing. Take, for example this about Ichabod's appetite:
"The revenue arising from his school was small, and would have been scarcely sufficient to furnish him with daily bread, for he was a huge feeder, and, though lank, had the dilating powers of an anaconda..."
Or this description of Brom Van Brunt's (yes, best name ever) impassioned clawings: "his amorous toyings were something like the gentle caresses and endearments of a bear..."
The whole thing is really a single joke ghost story, and it's really quite hilarious, particularly when it's read in a ponderous, Nimoy-esque tone. I mean, check out the conclusion:
"Just then he saw the goblin rising in his stirrups, and in the very act of hurling his head at him. Ichabod endeavored to dodge the horrible missile, but too late." (Italics mine for added hilarity)
I admit it, I laughed. Out loud, in public, on the walking track, and eliciting a few stares from sternly power-marching lycra-clad forty-somethings.
But then, it gets better!
"In one part of the road leading to the church was found the saddle trampled in the dirt; the tracks of horses' hoofs deeply dented in the road, and evidently at furious speed, were traced to the bridge, beyond which, on the bank of a broad part of the brook, where the water ran deep and black, was found the hat of the unfortunate Ichabod, and close beside it a shattered pumpkin."
Oh, Mr Irving, you funny chap, you.
Irving has a bit more fun with the joke when he posits, in extraordinarily great detail, the possible running away of Mr Ichabod Crane, subsequent to which Crane possibly moves to the other side of the country, possibly studies law, possibly takes to the bar, and possibly becomes a politician; and also Van Brunt's habit of chortling whenever the word "pumpkin" is mentioned.
Where else in literature are you going to read about a battle of the heart conducted via means of a pumpkin? Seriously.(less)
I’ve never understood the utter terror that accompanies being told how a book or a movie turns out, and I certainly don’t understand the passionately head-in-sand approach to learning anything at all about a story ahead of time. With the possible exception of a whodunnit novel, I’m perfectly happy to read on even if I know exactly how a book is going to turn out, and have had every single plot point and reveal explicated to me along the way. I’m not in the habit of reading the end of a book first and then back-tracking, but I understand people who do this.
Because there’s so much more to a book than its ending. A book, more than anything is about the journey, not the final destination. Finding yourself unable to appreciate the entire book that leads up to that very last ten percent purely because you’ve heard some oblique murmurings about a twist seems to me very strange. That you’ve perhaps missed the entire point of what reading and stories are all about.
Books aren’t just about that final reveal, which is what they’re reduced to if you’re spoiler-averse. Books are all about exploring the ways that people interact with each other, with their own egos and with the world around them. They’re about settings and situations and ethics and puzzles. If you steamroll ahead with your eyes set grimly on the finish line, you’re invariably going to miss the utter joy that comes from all of the elements that work together to make a book.
Let’s take a look at The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens. It’s a book that doesn’t even have an ending (sorry if I spoiled that for you), thanks to Mr Dickens kicking the bucket half-way through and leaving us right in the middle of a murder mystery. So by very virtue of its unfinished nature, it’s a book that you simply must enjoy for reasons other than that means-to-an-end reading style.
When you’re reading a book without an end–and there are plenty: take Gogol’s wonderful Dead Souls or Nabokov’s recently released The Original of Laura–you have the opportunity to read in a way that you probably aren’t used to reading. The book necessarily becomes about the book itself. The same is true to a degree of the classics, whose endings and plots are pretty much a spoiler free-for-all, but I do think there’s an even facility for this in a book without an end. Because without a complete narrative to work with, you’re freed up entirely to read the book on your own terms. You can be unshackled from the fetters of plot and structure and readerly expectation.
And The Mystery of Edwin Drood is, quite honestly, sheer delight. It’s the kind of book that you do want to spend some time bumbling about in, enjoying the deliciously Dickensian names (Mrs Crisparkle, Miss Twinkleton, and certainly Edwin Drood himself), the tsk-tsk-worthy humour (poor Rosa has a nickname that would surely make her cheeks flush a colour to suit her given name), and the unbridled fun that the author clearly had in writing this.
Take, for example, Mr Honeythunder’s nominatively-appropriate outlook: “his philanthropy was of that gunpowderous sort that the difference between it and animosity was hard to determine.” Or the poor Reverend Septimus’s selfless donning of a pair of unneeded glasses in order to make himself unable to read text so that his mother might rejoice in her own excellent eyesight–what a ridiculous, hilarious scenario. Or the description of Mr Grewgious’s hair: “He had a scanty flat crop of hair, in colour and consistency like some very mangy yellow fur tippet; it was so unlike hair, that it must have been a wig, but for the stupendous improbability of anyone’s voluntarily sporting such a head.”
And what of this scene about the gossip involving some (uncertain) implement being hurled at Edwin Drood, a scene which must surely be the author’s attempt to fill up the word count for his weekly serial allotment:
Miss Landless’s brother had thrown a bottle at Mr Edwin Drood. Miss Landless’s brother had thrown a knife at Mr Edwin Drood. A knife became suggestive of a fork; and Miss Landless’s brother had thrown a fork at Mr Edwin Drood. As in the governing precedence of Peter Piper, alleged to have picked the peck of pickled pepper, it was held physically desirable to have evidence of the existence of the peck of pickled pepper which Peter Piper was alleged to have picked; so, in this case, it was held psychologically important to know why Miss Landless’s brother threw a bottle, knife, or fork–or bottle, knife and fork–for the cook had been given to understand that it was all three–at Mr Edwin Drood.
And perhaps my favourite, a several page long missive about the contents of a cupboard, including this choice snippet:
“Every benevolent inhabitant of this retreat had his name inscribed upon his stomach. The pickles in a uniform of rich brown double-breasted buttoned coat, and yellow or sombre drab continuations, announced their portly forms, in printed capitals, as Walnut, Gherkin, Onion, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Mixed, and other members of that noble family. The jams, as being of a less masculine temperament, and as wearing curlpapers, announced themselves in feminine calligraphy, like a soft whisper, to be Raspberry, Gooseberry, Apricot, Plum, Damson, Apple, and Peach…”
It goes on…and on, with every single item in that cupboard surveyed as though part of a gastronomic census. The Mystery of Edwin Drood is indeed a mystery novel, and even more so given that it ends a few chapters after Drood disappears, leaving the reader looking pretty cagily at John Jasper, but never actually being certain whether this fellow’s to blame, or whether some more peripheral character has been lurking at the edges of the narrative leaving clues all around. If you’re reading in order to get to the end, to slam the volume shut with a satisfying “Ha! Another Dickens down!” thump, you’re going to be disappointed. But the true disappointment of this is something that you probably won’t realise until later: that you missed all of these wonderful, amusing things that this book has to offer because of your end-fixation. Because unfinished books give you the freedom to make of them anything you want to, so why not take the opportunity?
Books like Edwin Drood are advertisements about why this fear of spoilers is so ridiculous and unwarranted. There is so much that can be appreciated in a book despite–or even because of–an awareness of how it ends. If your enjoyment of a book can be undermined completely by having the outcome of a plot revealed to you, then you probably need to ask yourself what it is why you’re even reading in the first place. Because I think you’re doing it wrong.(less)
Monsieur Leroux, I have something I want to say to you. Although I’m quite sure–mostly–that you didn’t mean it, you’ve been a terrible influence on the reading public.
Let’s take a moment to stroll through my bookshelves, shall we? Why yes, it’s a fact that they’re bristling with books featuring hideous love triangles and deviant suitors–often both, actually. There’s some sort of obsession with men who lurk in the shadows, who tempt dull and interchangeable women into their icky webs, and who lure them away from, well, the world. There’s this preoccupation with stalkers, with lurkers, with abusive blokes whose definition of love is not so far from a criminal act, and which any normal person might describe as abusive, belittling behaviour. And, maybe worst of all, they have these saviour complexes going on. From both sides, actually: the women want to redeem the basest, most brutal of men through nothing other than the sheer power of lurve, while the guys want to rescue those poor little damsels. And keep them in a shack with no human contact.
Before you start protesting, I should say that I know that you’re not entirely to blame. Literature, I know, is filled with all sorts of love affairs that should have been hacked off at their weedy little roots the minute they started to slink out from the mud. And I know that this book was actually only a minimal success in your time–it wasn’t really until the various stage and film adaptations made from it that the voice of your phantom began to reach such a large audience–so it’s not like you ran about encouraging everyone to submit to a crazy chap with a hankerin’ for killin’.
I also know that you had no idea that a hundred thousand young adult paranormal romance writers would leap upon the relationship dynamics in your book and turn them into something–wait for it–appealing and desirable.
I mean, let’s take this Erik chap, shall we? Hearts have broken not just for your Erik but for all the Erik-inspired characters out there in the world. The broken man whose humanity has been denied him because of his disfigured visage. The love interest, really, of so many paranormal romances today. Never mind that your Erik gets about emotionally tormenting the woman with whom he’s apparently “in love”, cutting her off from her friends and, you know, kidnapping her and threatening to do away with a whole bunch of others if she doesn’t agree to marry him. No, of course it’s not stable behaviour, and of course you didn’t mean for him to be some sort of delicate flower who just needs a little bit of TLC. Yes, you meant Erik to be sympathetic in a way, to be lost and mad from the utter denial of his right to walk amongst other humans, but you didn’t mean for him to be actually a viable love interest, did you?
I mean, Christine, even if she is a little bit of a non-entity–what does she do, really, other than blink a lot and become beholden to any man who shows a modicum of interest in her, no matter how clearly sociopathic?–even Christine says no to your Erik in the end. Because, honestly, no matter how much weeping and sobbing and please-forgive-me business goes on, kidnapping and attempted murder is a bit of a deal-breaker, after all, isn’t it? Especially with that whole jumping the shark with the jungle in the mirror-room and the turning grasshopper thing. It seems self-evident, but you’d be surprised if you saw how many Eriks managed to get the girls in books these days. As Erik says, if people know how hideously deformed you are, just whack on that mask, and they’ll manage well enough. And who doesn’t want to live underneath a lake with a man with no face and a penchant for dropping chandeliers on people?
But let’s be honest here, you didn’t mean either Erik or Raoul to be decent romantic options, did you? Neither really seems to know anything at all about Christine, do they? After all, if you’d swapped out Christine for just about any girl (or possibly guy) Erik probably would have done the same thing–he just wants to be loved, after all, am I right? No matter how much brutality that takes. Because being shunned by society is entirely reason enough to go about seeking violent justice. I mean, Frankenstein’s monster took the same approach, and that wasn’t morally ambiguous at all.
And about that Raoul. I saw what you did there, don’t think I didn’t. He’s really just an Erik in miniature, isn’t he? Although better looking and not quite as murderous, admittedly. But he’s just got this whole thing in his head about Christine loving him because they were friends as kids, yes? Raoul, really, is just in love with the idea of being in love. He has this whole rescue narrative thing going on–he kind of loves that Christine is all damaged and crazy, because he can sweep her off her feet and show off how manly and heroic he is, right? I mean, he’s fixated on the fact that he rescued her scarf as a child. Really. That does not a relationship make, you know. (And it’s not a very impressive pick-up line at that, either, but that’s by the by.)
But I think you knew that when you wrote of Christine and Raoul’s depressing nuptials, and of Christine’s return to bury the heartbroken Erik. None of that sounds very pleasant: because, after all, choosing the slightly less rotten of two bad eggs is still far poorer an idea than simply saying no. You knew that, some hundred years or so ago, so what’s with all of these violent beasts who continue to beat their chests over these damsels in distress today?(less)
The other day I was stopped at the pedestrian lights when a guy leaned out of his car, pointed to my red shoes, and yelled, “Hey Dorothy! Cl...more3.5 stars.
The other day I was stopped at the pedestrian lights when a guy leaned out of his car, pointed to my red shoes, and yelled, “Hey Dorothy! Click your heels together!”
This was an affront on a number of levels, not the least of which being that in Baum’s original, Dorothy’s shoes are not red, but are in fact silver. And indeed, there are a number of differences between the novel and the film adaptation with which we’re all so familiar. Where the film is garishly naff, all vivid Technicolor and twee singing and chirruping, the novel has a good deal more depth to it–and a surprising amount of eeriness.
For the most part, the plots of the book and musical run along similar lines until after our group of intrepid heroes “receive” the wishes they’ve longed to see granted, but after this things begin to diverge. When Oz floats off in his hot air balloon, Dorothy does not simply tap her shoes together to return home, but instead embarks on a dangerous mission to the witch Glinda’s property, which requires a surprising amount of hiding and killing.
If there’s one thing that I’ve learned from watching American TV, it’s that Americans really do like their guns. Or really, anything that makes other...moreIf there’s one thing that I’ve learned from watching American TV, it’s that Americans really do like their guns. Or really, anything that makes other stuff go boom. If Jules Verne’s humorous novella From the Earth to the Moon is anything to go by, this is a widely observed fact, and has been for a good deal of time now.
The novella cheekily reflects on a post-civil war environment where all the guns, munitions and artillery are lain down in the name of peace, leaving plenty of gun-totin’ Americans feeling a tad impotent.
But another thing I’ve learned about Americans (also from TV) is that the right to congregation is something held in high regard. So it’s no surprise then when the gun-lovers of Baltimore get together to create the Baltimore Gun Club in order to angst over the dearth of things left to blow up.
My recent foray into the oeuvre of Jules Verne has been enlightening in a number of ways. I’ve learned how it’s possible to write multiple books using a cast that varies between books only by name, and how it’s possible to arrange for said character to escape whatever end-of-the-world situation in which they find themselves by manipulating the Earth itself into a rather impressive series of contortions and natural phenomena. Houdini would be proud.
But in The Mysterious Island, Verne outdoes himself. In fact, I do believe that in it he’s written the world’s first strategy game, but on paper. Not only that, but he’s cleverly tied it in to his previous work in such a way that I can only imagine the royalties that must have ensued. Good for you, Monsieur Verne.
Ostensibly an oceanic travelogue, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea involves rather less travel than it does log: comprising for the most part long, hideou...moreOstensibly an oceanic travelogue, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea involves rather less travel than it does log: comprising for the most part long, hideously boring lists of marine life and scientific definitions and discussions of the same, it’s a lengthy Wikipedia entry without a moderator swinging by to do a clean-up. While at least these lists can be skimmed over in book format, spare a thought for those of us enduring the same in an audio version. A better title might be "Jules Verne’s Taxonomy of Fish (Unabridged)".
Anne of Green Gables and its accompanying volumes had pride of place on the shelves of the local library of my childhood, with multiple dog-eared copi...moreAnne of Green Gables and its accompanying volumes had pride of place on the shelves of the local library of my childhood, with multiple dog-eared copies of each jammed on to the shelves. But for some reason, despite reading close to everything in that humble little venue, I bypassed Anne, and it wasn’t until I began a concerted effort to work through some of the young adult classics featuring female protagonists that Anne made an appearance on my TBR at last. Needless to say, this review is somewhat belated, for not content with the first book, I zipped through the whole series (or at least what I could get my hands on) in quick succession. For me, sympathetic characters are crucial to my enjoyment of a book, and in Anne I found a kindred spirit with whom I was more than delighted to spend my evening (and many early waking) hours.
Having thoroughly enjoyed my re-read of The Secret Garden earlier this year (see my review), I’ve set about acquainting myself with the rest of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s work, beginning with her famous A Little Princess. Curiously, there are a number of shared themes between the two books, but in my mind A Little Princess draws more on the tropes of the boarding school genre than it does on that in which The Secret Garden (as well as books such as Heidi [see my review] and Anne of Green Gables [my review forthcoming]) falls–the “orphaned child in care” subgenre, perhaps.
Like The Secret Garden, A Little Princess begins with the transplanting of a young girl from India to England with a view of beginning a new life. But given the vastly divergent natures of the protagonists of the novels, the goals, and thus outcomes, of these works are in substantial contrast. In The Secret Garden, headstrong Mary Lennox undergoes massive and emotional growth as a result of her interaction with the natural world, while in A Little Princess, Sara Crewe is tasked with retaining the moral and emotional qualities she has always exhibited.
Unlike “Princess” Mary, so named for her bratty and selfish disposition, Sara, the titular princess of A Little Princess, is level-headed and almost uncannily aware. Where Mary reacts emotionally and unthinkingly, Sara’s typical response to any sort of stimuli is inaction. Her efforts are on maintaining the status quo and on avoiding confrontation, and she conducts herself flawlessly. Her conduct, of course, is in stark contrast with that of the adults around her–rather amusing given that Sara’s well-meaning father has sent her to England with the expressed intention of her learning English customs and comportment.
Like Mary, whose bratty behaviour sees her immediately given outsider status in her new household, Sara’s impeccable manners and inscrutable manner sees the same happen to her: she is immediately sized up by boarding school owner Miss Minchin as a threat. The two participate in a power struggle throughout the book, with Miss Minchin using her position as an adult to cow Sara–and Sara’s impassive nature only encourages further mistreatment.
Sara is initially in the odd position of being a sort of odd adult-child amalgam, and this is perhaps the issue Miss Minchin struggles with most. Sara’s wealthy father has asserted that she is to have everything that she desires, elevating her to the status of lady of means despite her youth, and Sara’s perspicacity and quickness of mind sees her veer further into the adult sphere, challenging Miss Minchin’s authority.
And indeed, things become more strained between the two as Mary takes on a sort of guardianship role over not just her fellow students, but also of the serving staff, undermining and to a degree even usurping Miss Minchin. But Sara is so very good, and Miss Minchin has no form of recourse with which to challenge her new student. Sara’s fees, of course, are exorbitant, and thus the child is not only undermining Miss Minchin, but she’s also keeping her in business, making for a rather delicate situation indeed.
But, as Sara notes, she is only so good because she has never lacked for anything. (And here comes a lesson in being careful for what one wishes for). Of course, the fates move in narratively appropriate ways, and Sara’s father is promptly dead, and Sara (as a result of a rather complicated series of events involving diamond mines and greed) is a penniless orphan.
Miss Minchin, of course, seizes on this in delight. The circumstances of Sara’s newfound poverty can easily be associated with moral desultoriness arising from greed, and Miss Minchin sets about tarring Sara with her cruel schoolmarm’s brush. Sara is reduced to a virtual slave, and Miss Minchin is able to take the moral high ground through her endless assertions that she’s helping the child by keeping a roof over her head.
But despite these endless tests of her moral fabric, Sara doesn’t waver (although I have to admit, I really wish that she had). Though she has lost the physical trappings of her pseudo-adulthood, she still retains the moral and emotional elements of the same, and throws herself into her habit of caring for the others in the school to an even greater degree. (Of course, this also involves having regular and ongoing conversations with a family of rats hidden in the wall, and increasingly common flights of fancy–perhaps Sara’s simply a tad unhinged throughout all of this?)
Sara’s admirable performance in such trying circumstances requires that she be rescued and returned to a status more fitting of her behaviour, and yes, you’re probably not surprised to find that this is so. But despite this inexorable lead-up to an inevitable ending, it’s hard not to be fascinated by everything that happens. I think in part this is because Sara is less of a character than she is a mirror (something which also occurs in Little Lord Fauntleroy, which I’ll review shortly).
Because Sara always takes the moral high ground, it’s clearly evident when those around her do not, and we are given a fascinating picture of how others act when confronted by this. Moreover, Sara’s unflinching perfection magnifies the flaws or positives in everyone with whom she interacts, making the generous seem exceptionally gregarious, and the miserly…well, bloody awful indeed.
But this absence of change in Sara’s character despite the evidence changes in her circumstances highlights how the material does not make a person who they are. Sara always seems rich and satisfied regardless of how challenging her circumstances, and indeed, her actions encourage those around her to behave in a way that facilitates this very satisfaction–everyone leaps to indulge or support Sara. In contrast, Miss Minchin’s behaviour entails that she will remain morally (and in her eyes materially) impoverished, as her actions curtail any generosity on behalf of others.
Like The Secret Garden, A Little Princess is in general a triumph, but there are some elements that pull it down a little. Its orientialism, while of course reflecting the sentiments of the day, is somewhat teeth-grinding, and while I understand the need for Sara’s unvarying perfection, occasionally one wishes she’d be a little more human–it’s rather hard to feel much for a saint.
Still, it’s a beautifully written book, and one that stays with the reader and spurs them to discussion (my poor fiance has heard more about this book than he ever wanted to). Read in tandem with some of the others noted above, or even alongside others from the boarding school genre mentioned above, it makes for some food for thought indeed.(less)
Despite having finished Ethan Frome a good fortnight or so ago now, I’m still haunted by this book, and suspect that I will be for a long time to come...moreDespite having finished Ethan Frome a good fortnight or so ago now, I’m still haunted by this book, and suspect that I will be for a long time to come. If you’re after a read that’s relentlessly desultory but that is, despite its inherent emo-ness, worthy of your emotional investment, then pick up a copy of this book, and read it straight through. I would, however, suggest supplementing your literary journey with a hot chocolate or something similarly comforting. This review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com
Ethan Frome is a challengingly bleak novel that slowly, quietly forces itself upon the unsuspecting reader’s psyche. It’s less a recount of something that has happened than one of what might –or could never–have happened. Wharton takes a circular approach to her narrative, using the flashback framing device popular when the book was written to explicitly contrast the then and the now. The book opens with an unnamed narrator hiring a crippled husk of a man–Ethan Frome–as his driver during his stay in town. Inclement weather forces them to return to Frome’s home, where the stranger speculates on Frome’s downfall, after which point the novel takes us back to the events that culminate in Frome’s disfigurement–a disfigurement that certainly seems to be a sort of moral or karmic retribution.
Some twenty years ago Frome was a strong, able-bodied man, although emotionally he has never been in especially good shape. Frome’s life has been one of expectation and obligation, and he has spent the better part of his youth caring first for his mother, and subsequently for his wife Zeena, whom he takes in out of a sense of duty. The dynamic between Frome and Zeena is a chilling one, and it’s one that no doubt deserves some dissection by someone who’s more pyschoanalytically inclined than I am. Zeena is the type who is perpetually indisposed, something she puts down to her past efforts to care for Frome’s mother, and their entire marriage revolves around this fact. Zeena plays the consumptive card to keep Frome close, while Frome’s sense of residual guilt over both his late mother’s and over his wife’s health sees him take her incessant barbs without comment.
The puritanical context in which Frome and Zeena live, as well as Frome’s wont towards self-flagellation, essentially create a scenario that is all about stagnation, repression, and resentment–so what better way to throw a spanner in the works than a love affair? And this Wharton does in style by introducing Mattie, a live-in, unattached housemaid who happens also to be Zeena’s cousin. What follows is an abject depiction of a love that is notionally requited, but that is acted upon in only the most roundabout way. This affair, after all, is representative of Frome’s freedom–something which his moral concerns disallow him from chasing after. Every wayward thought or action, therefore, becomes something that cripples Frome with its weight, and Frome and Mattie find themselves in a spiral of increasing lust (if one could call it that) and thus increasing self-loathing.
Zeena, of course, is aware of the tension between the two, and thus of Frome’s desire to reclaim his freedom and youth, and she seeks solace in her illness by claiming ever worsening symptoms. In what is a stroke of manipulative genius she heads off to a nearby town in search of a diagnosis solemn enough that it might force Frome to remain by her side. Frome and Mattie are left alone during this time, but their sense of duty and moral uprighteousness, which are underscored by the moralistic challenge inherent in Zeena’s actions, precludes them from doing anything wayward. But it’s not their adulterous actions that pose the problem here–it’s the fact that that desire exists despite not being acted upon. And given thatFrome’s relationship with Zeena is necessarily emotional rather than physical, the psychological nature of his adulterous inclinations is all the more sordid.
Did I mention that Frome is the self-flagellating type? Well, things become even more desperately bleak upon Zeena’s return, when Zeena circuitously condemns the affair by noting that she has hired a new girl to replace Mattie. Given that Zeena has essentially okayed casting out her own kin, Frome feels vindicated in doing the same, and decides that he’ll leave his wife at last. But upon making this decision, he realises that he cannot do so without taking advantage of those who have historically been kind to him. Mattie gets in on the act at this point, suggesting a suicide act by sled (possibly one of the more novel approaches to suicide I’ve heard), but Frome’s guilt is such that he derails the sled at the lost moment, meaning that the two end up seriously injured rather than dead. This, perhaps is the most challenging aspect of the novel, and I could go back and forth for hours attempting to tease out the motivations here. Mattie, now an invalid, is cared for by Zeena and Frome (or at least by Frome when he is well enough to do so, having been nursed back to health by Zeena), adding a whole new dimension to the dynamics here. Is this Frome’s way of seeking retribution? His way of ensuring that he can spend the rest of his days by Mattie’s side? His way of punishing both himself and Mattie for their unbidden love? And what of Zeena’s response to this? Where her husband’s infidelity was ostensibly once the stuff of her paranoia, she now has proof of its existence, but is forced to live with the knowledge of his quiet desperation for the rest of her days.
Ethan Frome is proof that sometimes the greatest horrors are those that aren’t made explicit. It deliberately forces the reader to imagine the twenty years of convalescence and obligation that occur between the first and final chapters, and to endure the emotional challenges no doubt involved in this time. And if you’re not thoroughly disturbed by the thought of this, then you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.(less)
Having recently ventured around the world with Mr Verne, I decided that a journey into its depths with the same author might be in order. After all, Around the World in 80 Days, while flawed in many ways, was an immense amount of fun, and it’s hard not to feel fondly towards it despite its shortcomings. So it was in an adventurous frame of mind (cue image of hard hat, goggles, and spelunking gear) that I began Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
Unfortunately it seems as though travelling around the world is rather more interesting than travelling through it. In this novel, Verne takes us along on a psuedo-scholarly journey through the earth’s mantle, stopping frequently to tell us all about different geological materials and the equipment by which they might be assessed. And while I have an appreciation for rocks and stalactites and sedimentary and igneous what-have-you, I admit to needing a bit of plot or character to make this educational meal more palatable.
Verne’s characterisation seems to be a recurring weak point in his work, but it’s painfully apparent in this book. Brusque and snarky Professor Liedenbrock is, well, brusque and snarky, and engages in all manner of shenanigans for utterly incomprehensible reasons. Upon by chance finding in a newly purchased book a cipher he’s unable to crack, he locks up everyone in his household. When his (no doubt hungry and cabin-feverish) nephew Axel cracks the code (a process that is depicted in thoroughly excruciating detail–Mr Verne, if I wanted to read about tedious cryptography and steganography, I’d pick up a Dan Brown book), which tells in poor Latin of the truth of the centre of the earth, Liedenbock suddenly sets off to Iceland, dragging a few hapless others in his wake. And Liedenbock continues in such a manner throughout the rest of the book (with the exception of a few scenes in which he’s forced to show his oh-so-human colours). It’s with a Terminator-esque determination that he sets out on his journey. But curiously, it seems less that he’s motivated by the geological side of things–which might be the case given his preferred area of study–but by a boyish need to conquer stuff.
While a larger-than-life character can be good fun, their presence needs to be balanced by the other characters with whom they interact. But Verne gives us wimpy Axel, who’s roughly as useful as Bella Swan, and who has a similar propensity for tripping over his own feet, and a guide called Hans, whose role is limited to occasional ejections in Danish: “water!”, “help!” and so forth. In fact, the most interesting character is Axel’s betrothed, a young lass who’s an academic in her own right and might well have made for some interesting reading. Of course, being a young woman she’s unsuited to such things, and is left behind to undertake some needlework in the parlour or somesuch.
Needless to say, all of this makes for a rather bumbling effort when it comes to determining whether or not the centre of the earth is molten.
But perhaps what’s most frustrating about this book is its potential–and the fact that that potential goes unrealised. There’s so much room here for this book to be a fabulous, rollicking adventure. We get dinosaurs! Underground waterspouts! Humanoid life! But Verne’s characters utterly ignore these in their efforts to effectively plant a flag in that all-essential central part of the earth. And, of course, once they meet their destination they’re vomited up back on to the earth’s surface (after a few random flashbacks about skulls and academic lectures). I understand that there’s a statement being made here: the human tendency to fixate on one outcome or objective to the point that our myopia stops us from so much as noticing those other astonishing things around us. Given that Verne’s main character is a scientist, this is no doubt a commentary on the nature of scientific practice and research. But while that’s all fine and dandy, one can’t help but feel that this insight might be better served with a dinosaur scene or two.
In all, Journey to the Centre of the Earth makes for a fabulous elevator pitch: “three guys journey to the centre of the earth!”, but there’s little more to it than that.(less)
Most agree that character growth and development is the key component of a successful narrative. After all, what’s the point in completing a journey if one emerges from it utterly unchanged? Even a small change is significant in the greater scheme of things, with even incremental shifts in outlook changing the way we approach things. These small shifts are the standard shape of things in adult literature, where few individuals undergo a truly epiphanous experience. In children’s literature, however, such changes are reasonably common: think of the myriad “chosen one” narratives out there, or those that could be tucked under the wing of the “overcoming adversity through [random activity]” sub-genre.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s much-loved The Secret Garden is all about these sorts of dramatic changes, and is perhaps so universally so well-received because she allows her characters such flaws in the first place. Where many authors err on the side of the likeable protagonist in order to ensure that the reader is able to feel some sort of empathy with the character in question, Hodgson Burnett eschews all of this and gives us a trio of rather foul, down-trodden individuals who are more sour than a tub of off cream. Fortunately, Hodgson Burnett is skilled enough that she not only works her magic on her characters, but on us, too, and what should be a book that’s rather pat and twee is something utterly superlative instead.
Indian-born Mary Lennox is a self-centred, snippy young girl who has spent the formative years of her life being waited upon by an array of servants and governesses. Mary is used to being treated with deference, to having her every whim attended to. But her being able to treat her servants as playthings doesn’t hide the fact that Mary is utterly without companionship, and that her callousness and insularity is a shield that serves to protect her from the loneliness she feels. A loneliness that is only compounded when, after a bout of cholera churns through the population in her area, she is the only survivor. With no one to care for her, Mary is sent to Misselthwaite, a rambling manor deep in the heart of the moors of Yorkshire.
The contrast of vibrant, bustling India, with its dazzling heat and socially and linguistically complex way of life and quiet, bucolic Yorkshire, whose own soft beauty Mary has be coaxed to learn to appreciate, is a fascinating one. But while Mary was an outsider in India, so to is she an outside at Misselthwaite. Unversed in the Yorkshire dialect and unaccustomed with the pragmatic way of life of the locals–which includes things such as dressing oneself, a notion that’s utterly foreign to Mary–Mary is equally out of her depth in this new environment as she was in India. But she’s not the only one. Her new guardian, the aptly named Dr Craven, is a forlorn, lost man who has never recovered from the death of his wife some ten years ago. And, of course, there’s Colin, the would-be cripple who lives out his days secreted away in his bedroom, counting down the days until his inevitable death.
It certainly sounds like an abject setting, and yes, at first one is rather tempted to slap a bit of sense into this moody lot. But Hodgson Burnett’s way of doing so proves to be rather more beautiful than my own suggested open-handed approach. She uses a garden, a locked away, lost garden that has gone untended for years, to illustrate the way in which beauty, passion, and hope, lay dormant in all of us, and need only be tended to if it is to be brought to the fore. Hodgson Burnett highlights the way in which so much of our way of being is psychosomatic, with our self-concept being based upon fears and habituated behaviours that have simply gone unchecked and unchallenged. She highlights that the very act of tending to something, or indeed someone, necessarily involves tending to oneself.
Thus, as Mary throws herself into the new-found delights of the natural world, led carefully by the winsome country lad Dickon, who is the very embodiment of love and acceptance, she gradually comes into her own. With her every effort Mary becomes physically, emotionally, and spiritually enhanced, and she reinvests her new outlook into improving the lives of those around her. She helps to imbue Colin with the self-confidence he needs to cast of his own emotional shackles, and her increasingly robust presence brings life to Misselthwaite, raising the awareness of Dr Craven, who becomes more reflective and open and less lost in his own misery. The children’s breaking into the “secret garden”, of course, emphasises the importance of dealing with one’s emotions and struggles rather than leaving them to fester: for both Colin and Dr Craven the garden represents a wound that no one has thus far been allowed to tend to.
Hodgson Burnett manages all of this with astonishing warmth, and though there is certainly a quixotic feel to the narrative at times, with every Yorkshire native a red-cheeked, plump, and universally loving individual, and motifs such as the garden and the robin redbreast (who is, oh, just a wee bit over-anthropomorphised) being trotted out time and time again, it’s impossible not to adore this book. Like The Little Prince (see my review), it’s gentle, suggestive, and so very evocative, and it’s hard not to do a little reflecting yourself once you’ve turned that final page.(less)
Rather like an individual whose vices include smoking, tanning, and excessive drinking, science fiction typically doesn’t age well. I’ve cringed my way through countless SFnal classics attempting to determine what it is about them that has seen them catapulted to cult-like status. Science fiction, of course, is almost necessarily a reflection of the present, rather than of the future: reading an SF volume is a way of gauging the fears and concerns of the era from which the writer is currently writing. Thus, while so many volumes seek to elevate themselves in one area, they often fall flat in others (women’s lib, hello). For me, the best SF is that which works as a simple allegory, those novels that rely on a single trope, and which simply explore the resulting actions and reactions of those around. I’ll take a story about two characters stuck in a room over one that spans galaxies any day. And given this, it’s perhaps no surprise that HG Wells has found himself another fan with The Invisible Man. This, of course, wasn’t my first encounter with this famous novel: I have vague memories of reading a bright yellow volume of the same as a kid, and I’ve seen and read countless variations on its theme since. But this, like the Wyndham or Cormier novels I’ve recently worked through, just to name a few, is one that rather benefits from an old fogey-style reading rather than a cynical school kid-style one.
Iping is your quintessential small town: everyone is known to everyone else; it has its own particular quirks, habits, and customs; it’s narrow in scope, set in its ways, and terribly, terribly insular. And while all of this works perfectly well so long as the status quo is preserved, any changes to its compositional fabric are all but doomed to have some sort of desultory effect. So when a mysterious, inhospitable stranger arrives at The Coach and Horses Inn, we know it’s only a matter of time until things begin to go horribly awry.
A lodger of any sort is cause enough for gossip and chatter in Iping, but the Inn’s newest patron is one who is roughly as evocative as possible. Who is this surly, vituperative stranger who refuses company and gives away nothing of himself? Just how does he spend his days? The lodger, an inherently peculiar thing at the best of times, only elicits increased surveillance and curiosity as he further and further withdraws, attending to his own needs and declining to interact with others. But curiosity, if left unsated, quickly turns to suspicion, and such is the case here. As this strange individual does everything he can to retreat away from the watchful eyes of those around him, they become more determined to learn his secret. But it’s a secret that is both utterly astonishing, and terrifying.
The lodger (whose name is deliberately withheld for the majority of the volume) is, of course, invisible, a condition that is the result of scientific experimentation. And while this notion might not be anything novel or challenging to today’s readers, who’ve seen this idea trotted out as often as a champion show pony, Wells turns the idea into a thing of frightening proportions, and works allegorical wonderment on so many levels.
The most salient of these, is of course, the dangers associated with science. Not science itself, perhaps, but the hubris associated with it: humanity’s search for omniscience, that desire to not only know, but to control the natural. The lodger, in his efforts, has overstepped the bounds of humanity into the sphere of godliness, and it’s something that can have nothing less than disastrous results. By transforming himself, he has not only lost his outward sense of humanity, but given that he is no longer (to a degree, at least) restricted by the bounds of physicality/humanity, he is, by extension less restrained by those of morality. The lodger thus descends into a sort of amoral madness where he resorts to not only extreme pragmatism as a way of justifying his behaviour, but where his actions become almost senselessly motivated. Without the boundaries imposed by the visage of humanity, the lodger regresses to a violent, aggressive state–yes, comparisons with The Island of Dr Moreau and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are inevitable.
But there’s so much more to this book than the simple idea of being punished for overstepping the bounds of science. Apologies for name-dropping Foucault, but the notion of surveillance is utterly key in this novel. Foucault, of course, posited that regulation, documentation, monitoring, and surveillance are all key elements of ensuring that individuals within a given society behave the way that they should. People behave differently if they are being observed, for example. And other norms, such as that of naming–something which does not happen to our lodger until very late on in the book–are also essential to behavioural control. Thus, if our lodger is subject to none of these behavioural mechanisms, in what way will he respond? Truly, what would you do if you were not bound by the punitive force of others’ gazes? To me, this is perhaps one of the most chilling ideas present within this slim little volume: the fact that our humanity, our civilisation, is only a veneer kept in place by the sanctions of those around us.
A third concept, and one that is perhaps on par in terms of eerieness as its predecessor, is that of xenophobia. While the invisible man wreaks havoc and eschews morality at just about every turn of the novel, it’s not entirely without precipitation. From the outset he is othered–the townspeople, in their curiosity, treat him as some sort of curious attraction, or a puzzle that must be solved. And when the reality of his condition is revealed, their response is a mixture of fear and revulsion. The townspeople, including those who knew the invisible man in his pre-transparent days, quickly resort to a classy mob mentality, with even educated individuals, such as the invisible man’s university friend Dr Kemp, turning on him out of fear of his differences. Humanity’s terrifying ability to turn on the unknown and the different is at the forefront here, and it makes for a truly horrifying read. In fact, both the invisible man and the townsfolk end up resorting to the very same pragmatic ends-justifies-the-means approach. And where science is blamed for the actions of the former, it can be in no way identified as the cause of the actions of the latter. Given the complex, changing societies in which we live today–where there are many “others”–this is a sobering, poignant thought.
The Invisible Man is far more than a novel that rests on a cool trope and some well-written fight scenes. It’s complex, dark, cynical, and in its final scenes, surprisingly moving. As an examination of the flawed nature of humanity, and the ease with which the facade of our civilised state can slide, it’s a standout work indeed.(less)
This review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com I’m the type of reader who prizes style, theme, and characterisation over plot–a page b...moreThis review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com I’m the type of reader who prizes style, theme, and characterisation over plot–a page break is all that’s needed for me to be convinced that there’s some action going on. But there’s something to be said for those rollicking adventure stories of old: those where a hapless individual chases after a questionable end goal whose purpose is minimal at best. The type of narrative I’m talking about is that were each chapter might well begin with “And then…” And with an oeuvre that’s all about hair-raising, pulse-speeding adventures, the famous French fabulist Jules Verne fits perfectly into this breathless, zany genre.
Around the World in Eight Days is one of Verne’s most celebrated works, and has no doubt played more than a slight role in the sudden ubiquity of goggles, pocketwatches, cravats, and adventuredom beloved by the steampunk crew. Its plot is slight, its internal logic akin to my own, and its characterisation flimsier than a house built from crepe paper, but goodness, it’s a lot of fun. And when listened to in audiobook format in the gloomy early hours of the morning (yay for my 50 minute hike to the office at 7am daily), it’s all the better. Particularly when that morning walk involves trekking through Fawkner Park, where hot air balloons regularly land after their morning flights.
Phileas Fogg is the kind of man who would put an atomic clock to shame. Much like a production editor, he has every moment of his life regimented into strict segments. In fact, perhaps the only spontaneous thing he’s ever undertaken in his life is his sudden decision to attempt an around-the-world journey in 80 days–no more, and no less. But while the completion of the journey will net him a hefty sum indeed, it’s the strict time requirements of the journey that most interest Fogg. And, so, having mapped out in his mind the exact chronological requirements of the journey, he and his hapless assistant Passepartout set out on their omnicontinental journey. But while Fogg’s dogged punctuality sees things starting off on the right track, there’s necessarily a spanner or two thrown in the watch-works. First, Passepartout’s bumbling shenanigans, which see the pair get themselves into all manner of time-chewing mischief, and the fact that Fogg is being stalked by a Terminator-esque police officer who is adamant that Fogg is in fact a bank robber on the run. Having found myself stuck for several days in international airports, missing all manner of connecting flights, one can only imagine how easily things could be derailed in a time where correspondence via snail mail (pony mail?) was the order of the day.
Yes, it’s all rather ludicrous, and each chapter essential entails Fogg and Passepartout setting out on a leg of the journey, Passepartout screwing things up, and Fogg saving the day (and time) in the end. It’s kind of the narrative equivalent of There was an old lady who Swallowed a Fly. But really, there’s a great deal to like here. For my part, I’m rather impressed by Verne’s efforts to put together a worldwide itinerary in pre-Google days. There’s also the cold pragmatism of Fogg, who feels like a clockwork man himself–perhaps he’s a precursor to the Vulcan race? But Fogg, despite being intransigent in his goals, is surprisingly beneficent, being willing to help out just about anyone along the way so long as his his time constraints aren’t stymied.
But while the characters are so thin as to be see-through, there is some character growth. Fogg, who throws money at just about every obstacle that comes his way, does so in a way that indicates that money is no object: rather it is one’s intentions, beliefs, and passions that are paramount. But while extreme punctuality may not seem like an exceedingly admirable goal, rest assured that Fogg’s chilly heart does begin to warm in the name of lurve. Passepartout, too, while a shambling delinquent for the most part (I picture him rather as one of the Frenchmen in Monty Python and the Holy Grail–”your father smells of elderberries!”), is in fact a big-hearted chap who does what he can to see the goals of those he cares about realised. The contrast of rationalism and passion–indeed, the two men are both archetypes for their respective countries–is often hilarious, and Verne’s clever mix of poignancy and tongue-in-cheek mockery makes for a rather fun read indeed (and the fact that Verne’s characters can make it around the world in 79 days when the Melbourne Metro system takes similarly as long to get from one station to another makes for some relevant modern-day commentary…).(less)
Tender is the Night, one of F Scott Fitzgerald’s later works, was begun in 1925, but was not published until some years later. Indeed, the lapse betwe...moreTender is the Night, one of F Scott Fitzgerald’s later works, was begun in 1925, but was not published until some years later. Indeed, the lapse between composition and publication had significant impact upon the book’s success: although the author considered it to be his masterpiece, it was met with little of the runaway success and critical accolades of a work such as The Great Gatsby, which arguably remains today Fitzgerald’s seminal work. This in part was due to the temporal disconnect between the novel’s setting and themes and the emerging literary trends at the time. Rather than the novels of excess and delight that had so been in vogue in earlier years, the American literary horizon in the 1930s demanded greater austerity, greater restraint. Fitzgerald also considered the book’s structure to be commercially problematic, and as such, a significantly reworked second edition of the book was subsequently released after his death; it is this edition that is discussed in this review. Read the rest of this reviewhere(less)
This little snippet was told to my high school writing class by author Cate Kennedy some years ago, and it’s something that has continued to haunt me. Why does the world seem to get smaller rather than larger as we age? Why is growing up accompanied by a closing up of our minds and our imaginations? Why, despite my efforts to extend my mind through art and literature and music, do I see a box where my little brother sees a rocket ship or a tiger? Why is our time necessarily given over to activities and processes whose ends and purpose we can scarcely elucidate? Why do we concern ourselves with the so readily assessed concrete when we might instead spend our days engaging with the abstract, the unanswerable?
Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s astonishingly erudite and incisive novella The Little Prince is a plea to those of us who suffer from the degenerative disease of the imagination known as the adult condition to set aside the prescriptive boundaries of our realities and focus instead on those things that are truly real and meaningful despite the cultural narrative that says otherwise. The book whimsically begins with de Saint Exubery, himself the narrator, describing the dashing of his budding art career at the hands of adults who fail to see what he does:
I showed my masterpiece to the grown-ups, and asked them whether the drawing frightened them.
But they answered: “Frighten? Why should any one be frightened by a hat?”
My drawing was not a picture of a hat. It was a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant. However, it is not until many years later that his potential as an artist is once again revived, and by this point de Saint-Exupery lacks, if you’ll pardon the pun, the exuberance of his childhood years. He has spent his life travelling the world and participating in the various routines social norms required of Important Adult Life, but these achievements mean little when he finds himself stranded in the vastness of the Sahara desert, a place that gives little weight to social status, economic position, or comport. The Sahara is, like de Saint Exubery was all those years ago, vast, open, endless, and given the lack of boundaries or inhibitive forces present–beyond, of course, the most base need to survive–it represents a landscape of potential renaissance and transformation.
And this is indeed the case. For into de Saint-Exupery’s world comes The Little Prince, a solemn, innocent child who has travelled from planet to planet seeking sense and meaning from those he has encounters. The Little Prince’s stories, allegorical tales satirising the futility of modern life, are interspersed with questions that, firmly and deliberately, have a foot in both existentialist and absurdist camps. Thus, while de Saint-Exupery seeks desperately to repair his plane or seek water to sate his thirst, The Little Prince assails him with commands to draw a picture of a sheep that he might use to tame the hungry boabab trees on his own world, asks to consider the nature of rose thorns, and regales him with tales of the fox with whom he has made friends. The apparent strangeness of this situation is contrasted with equally strange situations from our “real” world that are nevertheless perceived as normative: the merchant who has developed a pill designed to slake thirst indefinitely, thus removing the need for (and pleasure of) drinking; a chilling train station scenario that highlights the meaninglessness and lack of engagement associated with work; the careful tending and creation of reverent things but purely for the sake of ornament.
But in addition to its satirical condemnation of adulthood and the superficial machinations of modern life, The Little Prince is also a poignant examination of love in all its forms. It not only addresses filial and romantic love, but also the source, the manifestation, and the reciprocation of love, not to mention the poignant, richly motivated acts to which love can drive us. There are elements of the book that are truly heart-rending: The Little Prince’s struggles with an unrequited love–the object of which would typically be pooh-poohed in our world–and his eventual final act in the name of that love are hugely, deeply moving.
The Little Prince isn’t flawless. There are times when its titular character is simply a skilled orator professing arguable truths and perhaps engaging in sophistry. But it’s difficult not to be rallied by its call to live in a more meaningful, sincere way, and to find beauty and value in those things that are beyond fact, that offer more than superficial engagement.
So perhaps I, as an adult, will one day be able not just to pretend, but to truly believe, that my little brother’s cardboard box is not just that, but is infinitely expandable, transformative: perhaps it is a boabab tree, perhaps a sheep, perhaps a planet of its own. Until then, every time I feel lost within the grim absurdity of adulthood, I’ll take to heart de Saint-Exupery’s exhortation to look up at the sky and ponder whether somewhere, a sheep that I’ve never seen has eaten a rose. And I hope you do the same, too.(less)
I always find the hermeneutic nature of literature, both at the wider level of the literary canon, and at the microlevel of my own reading history, fa...moreI always find the hermeneutic nature of literature, both at the wider level of the literary canon, and at the microlevel of my own reading history, fascinating. All art and literature is informed by that which comes before it and, likewise, my own reading is informed in the same way. It’s curious, because at some subconscious level I seem to select my reading in waves, and I’ll find that when writing my reviews the previous few books that I’ve read vie for a place within my latest review (or perhaps I simply notice in those instances when this happens, and otherwise not so much!).
Reading Albert Camus’s classic existentialist work The Stranger (alternatively rendered as The Outsider) was one of these experiences. Having studied The Plague extensively a few years ago, I’m not entirely unfamiliar with the author’s work, but this was my first encounter with this particular novel. As I read it, however, I couldn’t help but find myself slotting it in amongst recently read novels such as The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers, The Life and Times of Michael K by JM Coetzee, and Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. All feature those who are in some way lost or deficient; all are about the role of the individual within society, and how that role is simultaneously (and conflictingly) created by and created for that individual; all feature condemnation of this individual; and all a sort of phoenix-like redemption or self-renaissance through the arts or through introspection. Fascinatingly, though, while similar themes are touched upon in each of these books in each case the take and perspective of the author is different. As such, we get a series of books that intersect but that don’t necessarily overlap, and which inform each other without deriving from each other.
The protagonist of The Outsider is Mersault, an ambiguous character who, like Coetzee’s K, is rarely named and who as a result (as Foucault, who emphasises the importance of names in modern society, might argue) seems to float, inchoate, at the periphery of the reader’s awareness despite being forefronted by the author. Unlike K, however, whose laconic, socially distant ways stem from his imbecilic innocence, Mersault’s antisocial ways are painted in more of a nihilistic light. Where K functions adequately and largely unquestioningly within the bounds of society until the exigencies of civil war, Mersault has spent his life struggling with societal norms, seeing himself as beyond their artificially negotiated bounds. There is a sense of acceptance (or perhaps resignation) within K that is not evident within Mersault, whose self-imposed sense of alienation has an air of the cynical and hostile to it. Moreover, throughout Coetzee’s novel, K’s ‘deficiencies’ are accepted by others as being due to his slow-wittedness and his physical weakness, while Mersault, who is physically and intellectually normal, is seen as deliberately transgressing. There are differences, too, in the degree to which they function as part of a wider social circle. K, for example, despite being penniless and without means of transportation, seeks to return his ailing mother to her rural home-place–doing so during shocking conditions and circumstances–while Mersault’s treatment of his own mother is used to position him as amoral and heartless, and is eventually the cause of his downfall. In contrast, K is always depicted as benign and to a degree beatific, although one could argue that the torment his mother suffered during the trek was far more cruel than Mersault’s actions, which involved placing his own ailing mother in a nursing home when he is unable to accommodate her in his own residence. Both believes he is doing the right thing, and while both are punished eventually, it is for very different reasons and very different ways.
Where The Outsider linked in to The Man in the High Castle for me was largely to do with lived realities and the seeming powerlessness one has over fate. Dick in his classic dystopian novel has his characters realise that they are living in one of many possible realities, and that there are indeed worlds where the United States has not come under combined German and Japanese rule. However, Dick’s point is that despite this realisation that what seems real is not what is necessarily real, it is still real to those living within those circumstances. That is, while there are indeed realities in which the Allies won World War II, this is practically little more than a hypothesis, as Dick’s characters have no choice but to continue living the narrative that has been ascribed to them. Similarly, Mersault, eventually condemned for murder less on the actual facts of the crime and more on his murky character, reflects on both his current reality as well as other possible outcomes and the points from which they have sprung. Like Dick’s characters, however, after reflecting on these possibilities and seeking solace within, he eventually grimly yields to his one and only lived reality, which in his case ends a long, painful march to the scaffold. Curiously, however, where Dick’s characters arguably always act in moral ways regardless of the extenuating circumstances in which they find themselves, Mersault seeks to absolve himself by arguing that he has done no wrong. He has, of course, wronged, but like the jury who tries him, fixates on the wrong circumstances and acts when trying to assert his innocence.
The notion of absolution through art is a strong theme of The Man in the High Castle, The Other Side of You, and The Outsider. In Dick’s novel, art is used as a way of finding the chung fu, the inner truth, of the world, and the book within the book that is so central to its final outcome is also a means to existential enlightenment. In The Other Side of You art, in the form of Renaissance painter Caravaggio’s famous Supper at Emmaus and through more traditional spoken-word narratives, is used to allow Vickers’s two main characters to embark upon a journey of self-discovery and to finally assuage their guilt and ambivalence over past wrongs. Similarly, in The Outsider Mersault pointedly assesses a women whose only interaction with culture is in circling indiscriminately the radio programmes on offer that week; and indeed, later, he seeks to find himself not through the spiritual absolution offered by the prison chaplain, but through throwing himself into his memory and seeking self-realisation through this means.
Curiously, the absurdity of life and the arbitrariness of societal rules is touched upon in all four novels, despite their largely stoic approaches. In each, the novel’s characters manage to transcend themselves by a self-realisation that largely stems from rationalising society as absurd.(less)
Looking back over a series of events, it’s possible to make out the numerous junctures at which some other outcome might have eventuated but for some particular choice, some twist of fate. The more one considers these what ifs, veering off in one direction or slipping off into another, the easier it is to see these possibilities spread out, tree-like, into a tangle of possible pasts or possible futures. But while our lived reality necessarily extends through only one branch of this tree, there’s always that eerie, niggling feeling that things could very easily be very different—and in fact, may well be. This slippery notion of reality and experience, and the truth of each, is something with which noted speculative fiction author Philip K Dick has explored in a number of his books, including Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, and a good deal of his shorter work.
It is an idea that Dick also examines in perhaps his most critically acclaimed and most literary work, The Man in the High Castle. The novel depicts an alternate future in which the Allies have lost the World War, leading to a divided America whose eastern states are controlled by the Germans, and the west by Japan, with the Rocky Mountain states dividing the two acting semi-autonomously and playing the role of a buffer zone. It’s perhaps a relief that Dick chooses not to subject us to a microscopic examination of life under Nazi rule: rather, he focuses instead on life under the Japanese occupiers, who are painted as considerably more benign. Dick, in an approach that is consistent with much of his other work, provides us with a plethora of seemingly unrelated characters who are linked in strange and uncertain ways, requiring the reader to piece together the pertinent points of life under the new order through these wildly varied viewpoints. This approach, though, does leave things somewhat nebulous and illusory, with much of the reality of life only hinted at: so much lies tantalisingly out of reach, the big answers being beyond the scope of a narrow third person perspective. But it is this almost inchoate, almost surreal feeling that lends the book much of its strength, hinting as it does at a way of life that is still working itself out, that is still somewhere between the turning point of the old and the new.
Indeed the book fixates on such turning points, and it is at a turning point that each character is introduced. Childan, a dealer of kitsch Americana popular amongst the Japanese, is called upon by the high-ranking Japanese official Tagomi to produce an item for a visiting guest; Mr Baynes, a supposed Swedish businessman, is travelling to America in order to meet with Tagomi and his superiors; Frank Frink, ne Fink, a Jewish man living under false pretenses begins a jewellery making venture designed to highlight the American ability to create rather than just to replicate; and Julia Frink, Frank’s ex-wife, meets an Italian man who persuades her to travel across the country in search of the author of a well-known subversive book known as The Grasshopper Lies Heavy. Their narratives are woven together beautifully, with characters seemingly at opposite ends of a narrative thread coming together through a series of events that are both unlikely and likely. There is almost a freeze frame-like sense to the plot, which frequently pauses before turning off to explore another juncture, another possibility. In fact, these narrative plot points are often explicitly highlighted by the characters’ use of the I Ching, the Chinese Book of Changes, a sort of mystical oracle, to guide their actions. What is particularly intriguing about this is Dick’s admission to having himself used the I Ching to determine the progression of the narrative.
The I Ching is used throughout the novel in part to emphasise the ability of the spiritual to live on within an otherwise structured world, but also to highlight the way in which our choices, our agency, are perhaps not within our grasp at all, but rather are the result of some sort of external fatalistic force. Reality seems to happen to us: our experiences are reactive, passive, shaped by external forces over which we have little control. But if this is the case, then are they real, are they true? Indeed, Dick toys with this notion throughout the book, stretching it to apply not only to plot and narrative, but also to characters, and to the otherwise mundane. He incessantly juxtaposes the false and the real, at times applying both attributes to a single item: the cigarette lighter that is imbued with historicity by its owner, but that is for all intents and purposes indistinguishable from a replica. There is also the ‘fake gun’, the replica that still functions as a gun otherwise should. Childan’s antiques, similarly, are the genuine article to those who believe them to be such, but can be transformed entirely by the intimation that this may not be the case. The book is full of true fakes and fake truths. Each of the characters seems at once both real and false: Childan, with his deferential dealings with the Japanese, has in fact internalised a good deal of the wartime racist propaganda; neither Baynes nor the man with whom Julia Frank travels is who either purports to be; and Tagomi, it turns out, is the Buddhist capable of killing.
Perhaps the most overt device used to examine the issue of the true versus the false is the novel within the novel, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, which plays a strange sort of meta role, depicting as it does an alternative history to this alternative history: one in which the Allies have won the war. But again, the issue of what is true is further problematised: the world depicted in the book is not that of our own; it is not a mirror to our world. Rather, while there are recognisable elements of our reality, there are key points throughout The Grasshopper Lies Heavy where a juncture has been reached and fate has taken up one of the many possibilities available. When it is revealed that the I Ching, the oracle used by so many of the characters to guide their decisions, has been consulted in plotting The Grasshopper Lies Heavy, we are met with the implication that in another world, another equally real world, but one that has simply broken away at one of the many possibly junctures, the Axis was not victorious. This thought is at once comforting and terrible: the possibility of a life not under Nazi rule is indeed possible, and indeed real, but at the same time, it is not the lived reality of any of those within The Man in the High Castle, who despite their knowledge of this other truth, this other reality, are at the same time forced to continue along the path mapped out for them. This is further highlighted in a scene where Tagomi momentarily stumbles upon yet another illusory reality, one that is our own, when examining an item of jewellery and assessing it for its inner truth, but is abruptly thrown back into his own reality.
It’s interesting that Dick does not allow his characters to use this ambiguity of truth/reality/fate as some sort of excuse to absolve themselves of poor actions. Rather his characters at each juncture act with strength and integrity, responding in a way that is true to their own sense of self and that helps resolve the complex internal conflict each is experiencing. Childan, for example, who has suddenly gained a sense of self-efficacy and pride in his American status after being presented with the stunning jewellery made by Frank, refuses to bow to commercial interests that would see these exquisite items mass-produced and devalued–despite the potential wealth it could bring to him. Julia, similarly, having determined the true identity of her companion, tries to avert a bloody outcome, while Tagomi ensures that Frank is treated with mercy when he is taken in by the Nazi authorities.
There’s no denying that this is a challenging work, and I think it’s one that will likely only give up all it has to offer upon subsequent reads. There are so many themes, so many contested binaries, touched upon here, and many in subtle ways that require teasing out. On a prose level it’s uneven, although less so than much of Dick’s other work, and the plot is surprisingly grounded and traditional when compared with the other novels of his with which I’m familiar. However, the way in which Dick quietly, deftly sketches out this new world(s) and what it means to live within it is quite remarkable. Still, some readers may struggle with the ending, which is open and ambiguous, and which serves to undermine much of the previous narrative. That said, this is probably one of Dick’s more accessible works, and given its subject matter and his treatment of it, I’m not surprised that this novel has stood up so well these past fifty or so odd years.(less)
Fahrenheit 451 is set in a world that seems to gust and spin by, a fast-forwarded whirlwind...moreThis review originally appeared on readinasinglesitting.com
Fahrenheit 451 is set in a world that seems to gust and spin by, a fast-forwarded whirlwind where people are able to engage with their lives in only the most superficial manner, increasingly lost amongst the self-perpetuating triumvirate of mass entertainment, of simple, infantile emotion, of black and white binaries. In a world that encourages its inhabitants to abandon themselves to the freedoms found in moving quickly, in acting and speaking uninhibited by the prospect of being challenged, in being removed from the pain and heartbreak of close and complex relationships. Much like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. It is a world in which the why is deemphasised in preference of the how, where the pragmatic trumps the conceptual. It is a world where emotions and depth of thought are equated with unhappiness, with a pained, desultory existence, and so anything that may trigger engagement with such things are gradually elided from the public consciousness, whether overtly or in a covert way. For example, although war looms large on the horizon it, like so many other threats, is ignored, skipped over, lost to the static fuzz of televisions turned to vacuous talk-shows so lacking in content that they serve less as entertainment and more as a distraction. The ills associated with intellectual engagement and rigour, however, are also dealt with in a more blatant manner: the frequent burning of books by clusters of firemen, whose sole job is to seek out these heretical representations of an erstwhile miserable and inwardly oriented culture and destroy them in what is a sort of intellectual and emotional cleansing.
Montag is one of these firemen, and it is in this ritual burning that he takes his sole pleasure: it is through this act of destruction that he seems to draw some sort of existential meaning. There is, after all, none of the same to be gained through an act of creation, which has in Bradbury’s fragmented, industrialised society been reduced to simplistic step-by-step Ikea-like approaches of construction. But Montag’s perspective is suddenly challenged when his young neighbour Clarisse asks him whether he is truly happy. Montag is suddenly thrown into a self-destructive cycle of introspection—something for which he is not prepared, nor has the skills to be able to manage in a constructive manner—and his conception of his world and purpose slowly begins to crumble around him. A dangerous, deleterious thought begins to needle: could there be something more?
As Montag begins to survey the sad, strange geography of his life and the fractured society of which he is—albeit nominally—a part, he becomes increasingly aware of the ersatz veneer of happiness that shields a deeper fear, a deeper alienation affecting those around him. Society shies from the trauma of intellectual engagement, fearful of the clashes and discordance it may create, of the way in which it may reveal its deep flaws and truths. But at the same time, the intellectual and emotional shallowness required by such a perspective has resulted in a complete absence of the social. Children, for example, are born to those acting out only out of a sense of duty or vague amusement, and are subsequently then sent off to be mechanically reared; marriages are little more than formal contracts, their throwaway nature highlighted in a rather chilling scene where a friend of Montag’s wife, blithely reflects on her numerous failed marriages. It is inevitable then, that Montag begin to deconstruct his own empty marriage, where almost all communication is mediated by the wall-sized televisions encircling the lounge area. Montag’s wife, indeed, is presented as less a person than an empty, passionless shell: she pleads with him for an extra screen on the remaining wall of their living area so that she might be surrounded by her ‘family’, the presenters and performers in the shows she spends her days watching. Her obsession with being surrounded by these programs highlights her desperation for closeness, to be a part of something, but she lacks the ability to comprehend the depths of her loneliness, or to do anything to mitigate it. Her despair is such that she makes an attempt at suicide, yet is unable, or perhaps unwilling, to remember it after the fact, as doing so would require some degree of self-investigation, of which she is entirely incapable. The irretrievably lost nature of her mind and soul is cast into stark light when after a blood transfusion, a symbolic intervention that should result in some sort of phoenix-like transformation, she remains unchanged, hiding her woes beneath mindless entertainment.
For Montag, however, things come to a head when he is called to burn the house of a woman accused of hoarding a library of books and the owner, rather than giving herself over to the firemen, chooses instead to be immolated with her beloved collection. For without books, and the knowledge, depth, and creativity they inspire, what point is there? Montag, already conflicted, finds himself lured by the verboten books and what they represent: a freedom of sorts, but a different kind of freedom from that to which the rest of the world so aspires. It is a tormented Montag that returns home that night: hidden on his person is a forbidden tome, an item that to be appreciated requires him to cast off the traditions and norms to which he has been inured. The situation becomes worse, however, when Montag’s superior, Beatty, circuitously notes that he is aware of Montag’s transgression, but that all will be forgiven if Montag returns the book within the day. Beatty’s presence within the book is a terrifying one: he is astonishingly well-read, able to quote all manner of canon verbatim, but is perhaps the most vehement of the firemen when it comes to their destruction. Indeed, his description of books as being ‘treacherous weapons’ is an intriguing one–particularly when considered in light of the end of the book, where Montag’s desperate escape sees him come across a small community of learned individuals, each of whom has memorised a book, thus in a way becoming it and all that it represents. With this in mind, then, Beatty’s role as antagonist becomes more complex: although he comes across as a bibliophile torn by self-loathing and seeking some sort of reconciliation through his destruction of the books, he lives to some degree the type of life that these soi-disant ‘living books’ lead. After all, they too burn their books after having read them, arguing that the book as artefact is meaningless, but that it is what is contained within its pages that is imbued with such meaning. But still, it is not necessarily the bookishness (pardon the pun) of each individual within this group that is of the greatest importance: rather it is their shared commitment towards a common purpose, a common goal that seems most evident. There is a sense of community that despite the physical and experiential distance between them exists amongst these disparate souls, and it is one that is in painfully stark contrast to the nominal relationships we see sketched between the other characters in the book.
Some have described the ending of Fahrenheit 451 as not fitting the dystopian mould given that it allows for a sense of hope, implying that humanity will arise as a sort of phoenix from the (literal) ashes. But to me it’s quite a compelling, challenging ending. Save for our few bookish survivors, we’re told, humanity is destroyed by the war it preferred not to see coming: it’s perhaps a rather poignant illustration of the old adage ‘art is long; life short’. But it’s difficult to reconcile the massive loss of human life with the new beginning we’re told may come about. Moreover, it’s difficult to feel entirely on the side of the ‘living books’, perhaps because of the passive, defeatist way that they have approached their rebellion: there is a sense of the cruelness of fate here, and one can’t help but wonder whether anything new or important really will emerge from what remains. It’s at once a phyrric victory and an empty one: not only did the bookish people fail to actually bring about any sort of meaningful change of their own accord, but their evasive actions meant that they avoided any sort of intervention that might have resulted in a dramatically different outcome had they attempted to use their knowledge and awareness to warn their fellow citizens of the reality of war. There’s a fatalism here, a lack of agency, that sits rather uncomfortably, and I think serves as one of the many warnings promulgated by this chilling book. Fahrenheit 451 is less about censorship and more about the dangerous of ignorance, alienation, and fear.(less)
**spoiler alert** Some two years ago, I stood in a Japanese supermarket admiring the perfectly identical produce: large, robust apples, blemish-free b...more**spoiler alert** Some two years ago, I stood in a Japanese supermarket admiring the perfectly identical produce: large, robust apples, blemish-free bananas curved to a precise degree, melons rich and ruddy and designed to fit perfectly within their packaging. One can only imagine the exacting science that goes into producing such fruit, can only imagine how much defective or inadequate produce is thrown away or recycled into some other fruit-based food—pastes and preserves, perhaps. It’s not just Japan that harbours this fascination with exemplary fruit, however: did you know that there are very strict rules worldwide governing what makes a banana and what doesn’t? That in Australia we typically only have access to a few varieties of apples—the types that freeze well and transport easily without bruising? You might be surprised to find that there are some few hundred varieties of apples in the world, but most of us will never so much as set eyes on them because they do not meet the particular commercial standards of our major supermarkets. It’s strange, though, the arbitrariness of what makes a proper apple. Stranger still, perhaps, the wariness with which people treat the small and slightly skew-whiff produce that tends to be the result of a backyard vegetable patch. My grandmother is renowned for her delicious peppers, but to look at them they’re nothing special: spiralling, stunted, coloured differently from the uniform peppers found in the supermarket. But perhaps this indeed is what makes them special. Read the rest of this review (less)