I devoured this slender, terrifying novel in a couple of days. It compels you to continue, so much do you want to finish it - both so you will find ouI devoured this slender, terrifying novel in a couple of days. It compels you to continue, so much do you want to finish it - both so you will find out how it ends and so you will be able to leave it behind. But, of course, you can't because the plot is too frightening, the villain too despicable, the heroine too sympathetic and Fowles' prose too good.
I will refrain from including a synopsis, which can be found in dozens of places online. If you have not already managed to hear too much about this classic, I would recommend not even reading the dust jacket. Just open it and begin. Prepare yourself for an emotionally wrenching ride, but do not muddle your experience with preconceived notions about what a book with The Collector's plotline should be like. Just read it.
Instead of dwelling on plot, I will make a few observations about Fowles' narrative style, which is expert. The novel contains two first person narrative voices, both English, one of a working class man in his late 20s, the other of a bourgeois 19- or 20-year-old woman who has more or less rejected her bourgeois upbringing. At the time The Collector was published in 1963 (and it was written only a year or so beforehand), Fowles himself was an academic with prep school and Oxford training in his late 30s. Naturally, it is an author's vocation to successfully mimic the narrative voices and interior monogues of people he or she is not. Like actors, they don different personalities in order to compel their audience (readers) to feel things for and about people who do not exist.
I cannot speak with any authority on the success or lack thereof with which female authors tend to write male characters. However, as an avid lifelong reader and as a woman, I have to admit that male authors only rarely write convincing female characters in the first person. Fowles is one of those rarities. His character, Miranda, thrums with life. She bears all of the complexity and fire of a young individual restlessly moving from the values she inherited from her family to those she has found or crafted for herself. Her ambitions, contradictions and confusion seem utterly real. I liked her enormously, which only helped Fowles to work his horrible author's magic on me. His sublime magic.
Inherited issues of class pulse at the heart of Miranda's feelings about her world and herself. As with many British cultural products of the 1960s, from literature to music to Monty Python, The Collector comments frequently on class divisions in English society; the snobbish conformity of upper classes and the disaffected, hopeless apathy of working classes. I still have not decided how central or peripheral to consider this aspect of Fowles' novel. Although The Collector certainly works at much more than criticizing socioeconomic issues of its day, the tension between haves and have-nots seems to fuel the psychological conflict at the heart of the story. Both protagonists' thoughts (narratives) deal much with issues of class and each of them views the other as an extreme representative of a given class.
At this point, I feel as though I ought to say something about the other protagonist's narrative. However, Fowles has already given him such life, I feel almost superstitious about it. If I talk about him too much, he will be real. Perhaps the knowledge that Fowles has left me with this sensation of shrinking but quiet dread speaks more eloquently about this character than I ever could. I will leave it at that. ...more
Nevil Shute wrote On the Beach over 50 years ago, precisely during the heyday of the Cold War's nuclear arms race. A brilliant example of counterproduNevil Shute wrote On the Beach over 50 years ago, precisely during the heyday of the Cold War's nuclear arms race. A brilliant example of counterproductive thinking that would influence such near disasters as the Bay of Pigs invasion, not to mention the release of innumerable films and novels dealing literally and metaphorically with human kind's ability to wipe itself off the face of the earth.
On the Beach, as novel and film, differs from works like the brilliant novel, A Canticle for Liebowitz, for instance, in that Shute did not choose the relative safety (or creative freedom) of rooting his meditation on nuclear holocaust within the science fiction genre. Shute chose the heartbreaking and alarmingly mundane real world for his backdrop. Another difference between On the Beach and so many other fictive post-apocalyptic nightmares is that the action of the story concerns neither the grand conflagration that ends in human extinction nor the way humankind slowly, painfully recovers after a nuclear holocaust. Instead, the plot explores what, given said holocaust, human extinction would feel like.
Shute focuses on the year or so after the northern hemisphere has annihilated itself through nuclear war. The resulting cloud of radioactivity slowly, relentlessly creeps south, promising to eventually wipe out all animal life on the planet. The story occurs in Melbourne, Australia, one of the last large cities to contain life, and it centers around a small group of people: an American submarine captain whose family back home must already have died, an Australian naval officer with a young wife and a new baby daughter, a spirited young Australian woman who dreamed big dreams and now mourns the loss of her future.
As tales of post-apocalyptic horror go, On the Beach seems extremely quiet. Of course, therein lies its power and resonance. Dialogue and character, rather than action, drive the plot, for the defining action of the piece has occurred before the novel begins. The bombs have dropped, the combatant nations have exterminated themselves. Now the human beings left alive in the southern hemisphere have only to wait. The story concerns normal human life and the psychology of average people waiting for a guaranteed untimely death; moreover, for a death that will signal the probable end of all human life on earth.
As Shute imagines it, and I tend to agree with him, people quietly go on being people. Some anesthetize themselves with drink and wait pathetically for the radioactive cloud to arrive with its sickness. Some take up dangerous hobbies and pursue them with abandon, perhaps hoping they go out on their own terms before the sickness overtakes them, and likely also managing to feel truly alive before they die. Others, the great majority, simply go on. Not naively, as though assured death were not approaching, but determinedly because what else is one supposed to do? They plant gardens the issue from which they will never eat. They take courses to prepare themselves for careers they will never pursue. They go out to lunch and shop. They take fishing trips and throw parties. They live until they die....more
A Clockwork Orange is not a morality play, but it bears enough of a resemblance to one that it seems worthwhile to consider it, provisionally, in thosA Clockwork Orange is not a morality play, but it bears enough of a resemblance to one that it seems worthwhile to consider it, provisionally, in those terms. The morality play is a medieval form of drama that utilized allegory to instruct its audience on moral questions. The protagonist in a morality play usually represented humanity as a whole, or a portion of humanity (upper classes, clerics, etc.). All of the characters with whom the protagonist came into contact were equally symbolic figures, often personifications of abstract qualities, virtues or vices. A morality play was supposed to serve as a kind of ethical tool; a set of points on which to meditate for one's own moral good.
First, while not a stand-in for all of mankind, Alex is certainly more representational than he is idiosyncratic. In Burgess' pseudo-communist, authoritarian and lawless future (present? alternate universe?), Alex symbolizes autonomous and unguided male adolescence. We discover that Alex, though self-appointed leader of his small gang of friends/thugs, is not a rare creature in this brave new world. For one thing, bands of violent male gangs ("the teaming up was mostly by fours or fives," we are told) roam all over the city after dark and, for another, a couple of Alex's own gang members covet his power as leader as much as he revels in it. The only thing that sets Alex apart for the reader is that he is our narrator...and that he has a pristine sense of aesthetics, albeit one intimately woven into his appreciation for violence.
The other characters who populate Burgess' novel also seem symbolic and not literal. Our Humble Narrator interacts with types more than with distinct personalities - old drunks, young girls, maniacal prison doctors, disgruntled intellectuals - and with abstract concepts more than with people - authority, obedience, revenge, pain. Few of these characters actually come across as individuals and, accordingly, many of them do not have names but are simply referred to via a relevant characteristic (a physical feature, age, and so forth), for example, "young ptitsas" or "starry prof type". Most characters in the book are interchangeable with any other characters of their type and Burgess (via Alex), in fact, treats them this way. The old man whom Alex and his droogs harass at the novel's outset might be any old man. In fact, once the Ludovico Technique foils Alex's will to destruction, this former victim, along with a host of other irate old people, assault Alex at the public library. The individual victim's anger becomes the group's communal anger, his vengeance becomes their vengeance and, conceptually, they symbolize the weak and helpless seeking vengeance on the cruel and strong.
The most potent characters in the novel (and the ones most likely to bear actual names) are the figures of authority. Yet they are still representational. From prison guards to the Minister of the Inferior Interior, authority is symbolized by relatively flat characters who primarily serve to represent normalizing forces of a repressive society. They pursue the imposition of order at all costs, including the elevation of one-time hooligans to law enforcement officers. Authority, in A Clockwork Orange, exhibits no altruism or interest in ethical subtleties, but instead is bent on perpetuating its own power and enforcing capitulation with that aim. Tellingly, even the would-be revolutionaries, who at first seem so sympathetic to Alex's plight, seek merely to employ him as an instrument in their own quest with no regard for his own wellbeing. And therein is a central theme to A Clockwork Orange in its capacity as a sort of inverted morality play - the narrow margin between the just and the wicked. As hoodlums become authority figures, perpetrators become victims (and likewise victims become perpetrators) with alarming ease.
Then comes the ending. I read the complete version; the one with 21 chapters; the one that was not truncated by the American publishing industry and then preserved forever in film my the esteemed Mr. Kubrick. Without this ending, A Clockwork Orange feels like a bleak, but daring meditation on violence. With the ending, it feels considerably less daring, no longer bleak, and it really takes on this "morality play" aspect I've been toying with. [SPOILER WARNING] In Chapter 21, Alex-as-unguided-youth finds guidance within himself that he did not find in the state's medical manipulation of him. He grows spiritually tired of violence, realizes he's growing up, and decides he wants to stop beating up people and have a child. So the violence in this young man does fizzle as he discovers a desire to release productive rather than destructive energies. After this revelation, characters remain stand-ins for larger groups or ideas and do not grow into people: "But first of all, brothers, there was this veshch of finding some devotchka or other who would be a mother to this son." It is completely irrelevant to Alex who he finds to mother his child, because who would "everyman" want? "[S]ome devotcha or other," naturally.
And what do we learn here? A morality play does not mean supplying a moral, as in a fable, where the lesson you're supposed to have learned is spelled out. Rather the morality play presents a set of situations where abstract concepts interact in personified forms and questions arise regarding the rightness, wrongness, or consequences of a given act. As with a morality play, one gets the feeling that Anthony Burgess wants us to use the piece as an object for consideration more than he seeks to entertain or necessarily enlighten us. We are not supposed to identify emotionally with anyone in this story, but to react mentally to the substance of the story. At least I'm hoping that's the case, because the final resemblance of A Clockwork Orange to a morality play is that it feels so aloof and distant and (ironically for such a violent book) bloodless. It feels didactic. ...more
Despite considering myself an adventurous, morbid and patient reader, I remember disliking this book intensely when I first put it down. I struggled oDespite considering myself an adventurous, morbid and patient reader, I remember disliking this book intensely when I first put it down. I struggled over whether to rate it according to that initial emotional response or to my present one. Strangely, this book has fared better in my memory. It's essentially a family story - a family of sideshow entertainers - told from the point of view of the family's most "normal" member...an albino dwarf, who has left sideshow life and her family. It provides thoughtful commentary on what makes one fit in, or feel as though they fit in, in any group - social, professional or familial. It's about difference and perceived difference, handicap and perceived handicap, the need to feel useful and accepted. As I said, despite my initial reaction toward the negative, I reference it in my thought and conversation not infrequently for these topics that it broaches so creatively. It is, at the very least, a standout for its uniqueness...at least in my experience as a reader. I recall having some issue with the pacing, which I found dragged intermittently. That's the worst I can remember about it at this late date. Timid readers need not apply. ...more