Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Infinite Jest

Infinite Jest
By David Foster Wallace

There is something (slightly) wrong with the title of David Foster Wallace's 1996 novel, Infinite Jest. It is not infinite, though there were parts of this book that felt as if they were. This, of course, is a tongue-in-cheek comment. The title itself has very definitive purpose on the narrative of this novel and I'm not implying that I dislike it. It just makes me laugh a little, is all. What I can say with a degree of assurance, however, is that if ever you wish to read a novel whereby you can confirm that you are witness to genius, Infinite Jest is your huckleberry.

Infinite Jest is, admittedly, a major undertaking for any reader, whether casual, academic or accidental. I suggest quitting your job, booking a room at a hotel for a couple of weeks and blasting through. This behemoth of a novel should not be taken lightly by anyone (how could you? if you read it in its original printed version, it's the size of a telephone book from a mid-sized American city... Say... Toledo. Mercifully, I read it on my Kindle which offered another set of problems. (I'm still only 23% done? I was on 23% three days ago!)) It's the sort of book that would scare off most readers by its sheer size and reputation. I can only imagine the physical and psychological toll this novel would have taken on DFW. 1

Now, I'm going to be honest here. I read this book over the span of two weeks. At this point in my life, I'm a casual reader. I may like to read hefty, weighty novels, but I'm reading them in the informal sense. I'm not in a position to give this novel the academic treatment. There are thousands of pages of PhD and seminar presentations on the nature of subjectivity vs. objectivity in Infinite Jest floating out there. There are perhaps dozens of thesis papers discussing the feminine archetype in the works of David Foster Wallace or psychological deconstruction of Don Gately and Joelle Van Dynne. If you want an critical analysis of the Incandenza family, O.N.A.N. and Quebec separatism please go somewhere else (especially for Quebec Separatism).

See, here's the thing... Infinite Jest, for all its reputation as a scholarly read, for all its comparisons to Gravity's Rainbow and Ulysses and such, for all of it's 1000+ pages of carefully (and weirdly) constructed sentences, Infinite Jest is a surprisingly easy read. Enjoyable too. Downright entertaining if I may be so bold. Which is quite the left turn for those in the habit of writing scholarly fiction (are you listening, Zombie Thomas Pynchon?).2  At no point in my reading (which was certainly not an accredited academic combing) was I furrowing my brow in consternation, banging my head against the wall, drooling on the page or lamenting the deficiencies of my costly education. So don't let this book give you a case of the howling fantods or anything. It's accessible.

At its heart, Infinite Jest is a novel about a video (called an entertainment cartridge in the novel). This video is so entertaining that anyone who watches it will become infinitely, hopelessly and addictively entertained. They will remain comatose in from of said video so long as it continues to play (it loops) and if it is taken away, the remainder of the viewers life is spent begging, pleading and screaming for more. Even a single glimpse. It reminded me of the Monty Python bit from ...And Now For Something Completely Different where a joke writer writes the funniest joke ever and immediately dies laughing. His wife, thinking it's a suicide note, reads the joke and also dies, as does the first policeman on the scene... and the second. It turns out that the joke is so funny that anyone who reads it dies laughing. Naturally, the military takes notice, translates it and uses it as a weapon of war.


Infinite Jest is about locating the master copy of this lethal entertainment (also referred to as the samizdat) in order to maintain the precarious stability of O.N.A.N. (Organization of North American Nations) and the precepts of Onanism. In the process it's about the Incandenza family with all its tremendous dysfunction. It's about James Incandenza, the maker of the film and his struggles with alcohol and his ultimate (grizzly) suicide (it's also about his ghost). It's about his wife Avril with all her proclivities toward hygiene. It's about Orin Incandenza, punter for the Arizona Cardinals. It's about Hal Incandenza, a highly ranked junior tennis player at an elite tennis academy and a closet marijuana addict (I never though that was even possible, but apparently it is). It's about a cast of dozens of other characters who are painted in shades and tones so vivid that even now I have a hard time understanding that these people are simply constructs of DFWs imagination.

The story is also one of addiction and all its dimensions. It's about America's addictions and America's addiction to addictions. It's about obsessions and compulsions and depression and psychological disorders. Crippling, debilitating depressions. Life-altering compulsions. I'll never watch another MASH episode in the same way. Infinite Jest made me realize that neither I nor anyone that I have ever known has ever, ever really had substance abuse problems. Not in any real, meaningful way. Not in the way in which Wallace portrays substance abuse. Not even close. Lucky me.

The story is essentially written in reverse with the ending at the beginning and doesn't come together until the very end. Be forewarned. The novel also has almost 400 endnotes (many of which have endnotes of their own). Casual readers may be inclined to skip the endnotes. Don't. They are infinitely (pun intended) important to the novel. A lot of character development occurs in the endnotes as well as the handy filmography of James O. Incandenza. If you read this, do not skip them.

Infinite Jest is indeed a very readable novel and so but it is still a major undertaking. David Foster Wallace is renowned for his use of arcane, obscure and invented vocabulary as well as jargon and massive, multi-clause sentences, so come into this book armed with a good dictionary and an open mind. I promise that if you enjoy reading and expect that, as Wallace is quoted as saying, that fiction is "about what it is to be a fucking human," well sir/madam/doctor you owe it to yourself to read Infinite Jest. David Foster Wallace shows use exactly what it means to be a writer. An open, honest, humanized writer whose heart and soul are splattered and smeared and spread across the page (or the 1000s of pages) and if one or two things come out wrong who cares because it's all about how it feels coming out rather what it looks like going in so just go with the flow and accept that while reading Infinite Jest you will be in the presence of absolute literary genius.

If you were to ask me: If you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life and could only have one book in which to read forever, what would it be? Infinite Jest with all its wonderful layers of text and subtext and sub-subtext would be as good a choice as any.


1. It is easy to fall into the trap of reading Infinite Jest as an insight into the emotional and psychological problems of David Foster Wallace, especially in lieu of his suicide in 2008. The novel explores substance abuse, depression and competitive tennis, all of which were important aspects of Wallace's troubled existence. But to read this novel as a microcosm for DFW's life is to sell this book short. It is quite a bit more than that.

2. Apparently Thomas Pynchon isn't dead. Who knew?

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Brave New World

Brave New World
By Aldous Huxley

I am in the middle of the biggest book I have ever read and it would have been at least another week before I updated my blog so I decided to dip into my pool of recently re-read novels that I have read with a class over the past year. I'm a little tired, so this post might seem a bit disjointed, but I'll do my best to edit it over the next few days.

Aldous Huxley's classic 1932 novel Brave New World, along with with George Orwell's 1984, set the bar for dystopian fiction. Brave New World is not a perfect book by any stretch of the imagination. The narrative is flimsy and often tedious and those who read this novel for the story are bound to be extremely disappointed. But if you read it with the Western world as an immediate comparison, Huxley seems to have has a startlingly clear vision of the future.

What strikes me as odd is that in 2012 the comparisons between Huxley's version of the future and that of Orwell not only remain valuable, they have, to a certain degree, been actualized in our world. Both of them. At the same time. I'll touch on the comparison, but I'll concentrate a good deal more on Brave New World as it is the novel I have most recently read (I haven't read 1984 in about 15 years).

Orwell's dismal notion of the future is still very much a concern especially when you look into the restrictive regimes of China and North Korea. With their social, cultural and economical restriction, China has realized Orwell's nightmare in a very real way and their culture and population suffer for it. The Great Firewall of China is the most visible symbol of China's big brother style control. Whereas, in the west, the Orwellian notion of Big Brother spoke to an entire generation raised under the ominous specter of Soviet-style governance and the possibility of Cold War nuclear holocaust, it is Huxley's version of the future that has manifested itself as our own sort of dystopian nightmare. While Big Brother certainly lives on in the West through our over-litigized court system, Google Earth, book banning and video surveillance (to name just a few), it has lost some of its steam over the years.

In Huxley's version of the world, humans are engineered in a laboratory (Bokinovsky process), spared from the aging process and divided and sub-divided into several classes and sub-classes of people who never intermingle except for hedonistically disposable encounters that have no emotional currency. Each class of human comes complete with favorite colors, a disposition for certain kinds of work, a similar IQ and a predilection for specific activities. The trade off for this eternally youthful life is a lower life expectancy and complete adherence to the rigid caste system.

The manufacture of humanity is akin to our own ever-increasing demand for eternal youth. While we have not gone so far as to implement eugenics programs or bio-engineering Olympic athletes, were certainly have made a massive industry out of cosmetic surgery in an attempt to maintain that which cannot be maintained. Botox injections have become as commonplace as the application of mascara. Body modification has become socially acceptable. Scientists tease us with talk of frayed telomeres and their effect on aging. We look everywhere and anywhere for reassurance that we will retain our youth. It has become imperative to maintain vitality into your 50s and 60s. How many times have we heard someone say "Fifty is the new forty," or "Life begins at sixty."

I'm certainly not implying that living a healthy lifestyle into into your autumn years is somehow inhuman, but our obsession with youth and beauty has reached manic proportions. If one extrapolates this desire to remain young for as long as possible, the extremes expressed in Brave New World don't seem so far fetched.

But what of control?

The people in Huxley's novel have no inherent value other than their work. Therefore it is of the utmost urgency that those in control maintain stability among the population (in the novel the world is controlled by a vague organization of which a man by the name of Mustapha Mond controls Western Europe). Rather than implement Orwellian control measures (which, of course, did not yet exist in 1932), Huxley supposes that in this world people are given every possible distraction and pleasure they desire. Those in control (whoever they are) provide everything and anything that a person might want as a method of pacification and mollification. There is simply no reason to question anything if you are constantly entertained. However, with so much entertainment comes abject ignorance and blind adherence to the system.

When we juxtapose Brave New World with the Western world there are shocking similarities. If you take a look at society as a whole's obsession with reality television, social media, conspiracy theories, K-Pop, FarmVille, Fifty Shades of Gray, The New York Yankees (etc... etc...) and couple that with are almost constant use of technology as entertainment (just look around at the hordes of smart phone zombies completely disengaged from the world around them) one can plausibly opine that we are very much heading in such a direction. We are engorged with information and entertainment (infotainment). We run the risk of being at once the most informed and technologically advanced society in the history of the world and the most ignorant.... at the same time. That's not to say that any of these things are bad by themselves (except reality television. Reality television is to the human brain what ten gallons of Coke a day is to human teeth). But they are distractions from much of what is happening around us and we have proven to be less than responsible in dealing with what is important and what is not. We willfully distract ourselves with utter nonsense, and in turn eat up valuable time and energy. Now, I'm certainly not making a case for limiting or banning anything but we do have addiction and attention deficit issues, don't we?

This notion of ubiquitous entertainment, by itself, makes Brave New World every bit as prescient today as it was in 1932. The West is a woefully (and willfully) ignorant society. The East is too, but via very different (Orwellian) means. It's interesting that Brave New World and 1984, two books so often compared, have become more than just symbols of the American dominated Western world and the Chinese dominated East. They have become virtual trail markers on an ever-more-clear cultural trajectory. High school students for decades have compared and contrasted these titles only to discover that such comparisons and contrasts exist on a macro-scale.

While China struggles with Orwell, we wrestle with Huxley. If Brave New World can teach us anything about our own world it is that we run the risk of losing common track for some vain notion of hyper-individuality (which, at its extreme is just a form of hyper-conformity). In the process we may have derailed into a banal wasteland of nonsensical nihilism.

Well, that was uplifting. Who's up for a Soma vacation?

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Story of O

The Story of O
By Pauline Réage

The Story of O! O, my virgin eyes!

Back in the late 1980s a Canadian rock band called The Pursuit of Happiness sang these apropos lyrics:

"Adult sex is either boring or dirty."

In the case of The Story of O, I think the line comes full circle. Adult sex is both boring and dirty.

Full disclosure: I read this because it appears on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and I've been using that list as a reference for a few years. The novel dropped into my hands and I took the opportunity to read it.

So anyway... I've got a glass of wine and I'm settled down. Let's see if I can say something about The Story of O without making a complete ass of myself.

The Story of O is an erotic novel written in 1954 by Pauline Réage The pen name for French author Anne Desclos). It is considered one of the most important novels of the 1950s for its stark depiction of female sexuality and its themes of bondage, sado-masochism, body modification and sexual degradation. The narrative follows a woman, referred to only as O, who gradually descends into the depths of sexual slavery via bondage, whipping, torture, piercing and branding. O is prostituted by her lovers and in one alternate ending she asks permission to commit suicide, which her lover grants.

That about sums up the entire book right there. 


Oh, you want more, huh? Oh, OK. Let's see....

I'm no prude, but seriously... if sex is consuming this much of your physical, emotional and psychological activity (never mind the actual time and energy one would need to devote to it), I think someone might be in need of a course in time management. And I'm not talking about just the characters in the novel but also Pauline Réage (or Anne Desclos or whatever) herself. I mean I'm a red-blooded male so I certainly understand... um... aspects of this sort of behavior but hell. I just simply couldn't relate to the vast majority of this stuff from both the male or female perspective. I'm sure there is some sexually liberated sort out there that might scream down my throat about this, but I'm perfectly happy with my limited (and entirely standard) sexual mores. To me, sex just isn't worth so much hassle unless, of course, you work in the adult entertainment or prostitution industry, in which case it may be considered a career decision. But I refuse to go down that road. We are talking literature here, right?

I tried to read the novel metaphorically at one point. I tried to read the story as a parallel for the history of the Christian Church (that worked for a time), as a diatribe on feminism (I'm not the best person to be giving The Story of O a feminist reading) as a discourse on the 1912 U.S. presidential election (I have no idea why), but nothing seemed to stick. It all seemed so utterly pointless. Who would go to so much trouble for their sexual proclivities? Anyone? anywhere? If so, I can't imagine I would overly interested in meeting them. Not for any moral reason, but I figure I'd have very little to talk to that person about. Sex is an extremely boring topic of conversation. Six seasons of Sex in the City proved that.

Perhaps you just had to be there. After all, this novel was published in 1954 and I can imagine it would have caused quite the stir at the time. I remember reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac in 2005 and not getting it. I thought it was a pretty pedestrian account of bumming around the country, something a lot of people I know have done or are currently doing. I had the same experience with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I get the idea that these are the sorts of books that spoke to the zeitgeist and have subsequently echoed poorly as they have aged.

Given the pervasiveness of pornography on the Internet, The Story of O loses a good amount of its ability to shock. In fact it is downright pedestrian compared to what a six-year old can find in half a second via a Google search. I'm aware that much of pornography in the early 1970s (Deep Throat, for example) was modeled after The Story of O (and I'm not too sure how comfortable I am admitting to the fact that I know this) but in recent years pornography has far surpassed even the most extreme realms of Pauline Réage's imagination.

Anyway, I'm not terribly interested in delving much farther into this novel. I really have nothing of substance to say about it. I'm glad I read it due to its literary significance, but, like Kerouac and Deep Throat, I think The Story of O was a product of its time and place... nothing more. At this point the only thing I can really say about The Story of O is that it was boring and dirty. In that order. 

Oh well, at least now I don't have to read Fifty Shades of Grey

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

A Spot of Bother

A Spot of Bother
By Mark Haddon

One of the principle reasons that George Carlin remained a relevant comedian well into his later life is that he never once compromised his freedom of speech for the comfort of others. Carlin's brand of social commentary pulled no punches and he was more than willing to spell out the inconsistencies in our system and within ourselves. Although his primary purpose was to entertain an audience, he certainly left his audiences with a lot to think about. A good deal of his celebrity had to do with the ability to make his audience uneasy about the things he said. In the paraphrased words of Louis C.K. , good comedy takes people to dark places and makes them laugh about it. Or, to put it more succinctly, good comics joke about things that people just don't joke about.

Just ask Tig Notaro.

Good comics understand that everything can be funny in the right context, even issues as categorically unfunny as rape, abortion, cancer and death. I tend to agree with Carlin. Comedy is all about delivery and timing. In the right hands, anything can be rendered not comedy. But it's a tricky business, comedy. If the subject matter is handled in any way incorrectly, the crash and burn can be spectacular. Just Michael Richards.

To be sure, comedy in literature isn't at the same level as stand-up comedy. Carlin, Notaro and C.K. have to make an audience laugh with a degree of consistency over a one/two hour period without fail and much of that has to do with pace, timing and delivery of the comedy. Ask an untrained comedian to get up on stage and do a Jerry Seinfeld routine verbatim and I suspect they'd bomb. Writers, I think, garner a little more forgiveness from their audience. That's not to say that writing comedic novels is a breeze. The same pace, timing and delivery inherent in stand-up exist in writing, it's just that readers can choose to put a book down quietly and walk away mid build. They just don't work under the same stressful conditions.

When literary comedy is done right (Shakespeare's comedies, The Importance of Being Earnest, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) it is virtually impossible to put the book down mid-stream (lest you break the rhythm). In the true Carlin tradition, Mark Haddon hit the comedic nail on the head in 2003 with his novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. It was poignant yet hilarious novel told from the perspective of an 11-year old autistic child. Certainly, in most circumstances, autism isn't anything to joke about. Just ask the parents of autistic children or those that work with them. Yet Haddon handled the subject matter with both tender gravity and brutal levity, finding the perfect balance between what was acceptable and hilarious and what was unacceptable and categorically un-funny.

I have to imagine that when Haddon took the challenge of writing a comedy about a mentally disabled child he did so with the utmost care to walk the razor's edge. Building an empathetic cast of characters helped immensely. The novel was a commercial and critical success and deserving of the accolades it has received. Mark Haddon had written a comedic novel about a subject that people don't joke about. I'm not sure whether George Carlin ever read the book, but I'm going to imagine he would have enjoyed it.

In his latest (as of the writing of this blog-post) novel, A Spot of Bother, Haddon tries to do with dysfunctional families and mental illness what he did with autism. A Spot of Bother is a story of a family that doesnt seem to communicate all that well. George, the father, is very quickly loosing his mind, his wife, Jean has been carrying on an affair with a colleague of her husband for 15 years, Katie is the emotionally unstable daughter who is poised to get married for the second time and Jamie is the emotionally distant homosexual son. The family makes my family seem like a walk in the park by comparison. A bunch of things happen, there's quite a lot of blood, irrational behavior and a few good laughs along the way. But it doesn't work.

While there are moments of awesomeness in this novel (George rationalizing that cutting a growth off his leg with a pair of kitchen scissors, for example), A Spot of Bother doesn't really follow through in the same manner as A Curious Incident did. In fact, it falls way short. I tried to pinpoint the problem and the best I could come up with was that they elements he used in The Curious Incident that made it such a pleasure are absent in A Spot of Bother. And I don't mean to judge Haddon's book based on his previous success. That's not fair. It's just that the comparison sort of works with what I'm trying to convey, and this is a bit more about my point than it is about Haddon's novels. Bear with me.

First, in A Curious Incident, Haddon created a wonderful cast of characters in which the reader could relate. This is not so in A Spot of Bother. The entire Hall family are so entirely unlikeable. It's hard to relate to dysfunction if you can't relate to at least one of the characters involved in said dysfunction. The characters are universally selfish, self-absorbed and rude. One wonders how they were all able to find any success in the working world and life in general with those character traits. The parents, George and Jean, continuously allude to Katie's fiancee as being "inappropriate," but I struggled to understand why. Ray seemed like a legitimately wonderful man with very few character flaws. I couldn't understand why anyone, anywhere would dislike the guy and yet the entire family and a few friends seems to instinctually understand he is perhaps wrong for Katie. I thought she should consider herself lucky. I got the impression that the editors (or Haddon himself, edited out an entire section where we would all understand what was so wrong about Ray.

Which gets me to Ray. His one and only moment of irrationality seems so entirely out of character from  the rest of the book I figured it was tacked on to create a couple dozen extra pages of drama. Actually, a lot of stuff seems to be tacked onto this book then forgotten. The story was full of unresolved holes. Did Katie get fired for taking the day off work? What happened to Graham after his and Katie's talk? What about the guy that went blind? Perhaps these were examples of how self-absorbed the characters are, but I kept waiting for the repercussions of their actions to catch up with them and they never seemed to.

Don't get me wrong, Haddon is a great writer. He is articulate and his style reminds me a lot of Douglas Adams (which is a good thing, obviously). It's just that instead of taking the reader into dark places and make them laugh about them (i.e. mental illness, cancer, fear or death, etc...), Haddon simply takes us to dark places, drops us off, says a few quick words and drives off, leaving the reader to wallow in the pathos left in his wake. There seems to be a half-hearted attempt to make light of the subjects and a sort-of but not-quite attempt to create a comedy of errors as a frame, but it all seemed to fall flat on its face. This wouldn't be all that bad, really, if Haddon was treading on safer ground. But it left me with the distinct impression that he had little to no empathy for those suffering from real mental illness or those coping with a truly dysfunctional family.

Given the fact that he wrote The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time I give him the benefit of the doubt. Some of the dialog is quite astute and there are some really funny scenes interspersed throughout but the novel was hardly chortle-worthy. By way of comparison, it's not Michael Richards embarrassing himself on stage, but it's certainly not Carlin-esque either.

It's just that this novel left me saying: "Meh."

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day
By Kazuo Ishiguro

This is the third Kazuo Ishiguro novel I have read in the past twelve months. If there is one overriding theme throughout them (the others being An Artist of the Floating World and Never Let Me Go) it is that Ishiguro is not interested in the story that appears on his page so much as he is interested in the story going on in your head whilst you are reading the words he put on his page. More directly, Ishiguro's novels are about the story not being told as opposed to the story being told. Furthermore, like his other novels, The Remains of the Day may not even really be about what it's about but rather may be an elegantly crafted metaphor about something entirely different. If I've sufficiently confused you, good. Let's get on with it, then.

The Remains of the Day is Ishiguro's third novel. Published in 1989, it was the winner of that year's Man Booker Prize and has garnered the status of classic since then, and for good reason. The novel is a thematic work of genius that examines (but doesn't examine) the subjects of dignity, loyalty and social constraints in post-colonial Great Britain as well as being a metaphor for the very same Great Britain.

The story centers upon Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall, an old country house occupied by a preeminent English gentleman prior to World War II but currently (1956) owned by an American who bought the house (complete with authentic English butler) after the death of its former occupant. The story is ostensibly about short motor car trip undertaken by Stevens from Darlington Hall to the West Country in order to visit a former colleague. The story progresses as a series of journal entries along the way in which Stevens elucidates on the finer points of the domestic services industry and what (not who) makes a good butler. He also recounts several key events that occurred during his tenure at Darlington Hall that speak volumes about himself, his staff, his employer and the world around him. Though Stevens seems like a trustworthy character and one would hardly call his judgment into question, one must continuously question his ability to recall instances with the clarity this story requires. This gives the entire narrative a subconscious haze that must be navigated at all times.

The entire narrative is written in the stiff colonial language of the gentleman class and Stevens, like the people he has worked for in the past is obsessed with how he is perceived. Language and decorum are , therefore, tools in his profession as a way in which to cultivate an air of dignity benefiting a house such as Darlington Hall. ItThey are also self-constructed walls of social and class constraint that willingly bind Stevens to the house and the gentleman therein, regardless of his own opinions.

In lieu of thinking for himself, Stevens adopts an unconditional trust in his employer. Loyalty, dignity and professionalism trump all personal issues. In one particular scene which plays out as both comedy and tragedy, Stevens carries out his duties on a especially busy evening while his father falls ill and dies. It is an apt description of the social constraints that bound the class conscious British between the wars.

Buried deep within the bedrock of Steven's recollections is a more personal account of Darlington Hall's housekeeper, Miss Kenton. It becomes plainly apparent to the reader that Miss Kenton and Stevens have significant feelings for one another, but their professionalism, coupled with Steven's inability to read subtlety and nuance (to the point that I began to think Stevens might simply be mildly autistic, but I'll leave the psychological analysis of this novel to more capable reviewers) conspire to keep them apart. Even when a simple word or gesture might have broken the proverbial ice, they remain colleagues throughout, much to the consternation of this reader.

There are a lot of levels from which a reader might read this novel, but the most interesting (at least for me) was that The Remains of the Day is a brilliant metaphor for the end of the British Empire. In fact, the metaphor is so apparent (once you notice it) that it rivals Animal Farm in its bluntness. The novel itself is set in 1956 and although it is never mentioned in the book, that year coincides with the nationalization of the Suez Canal by General Nasser in Egypt. In Great Britain, the loss of the canal marked the end of the Empire. The era of the gentleman, country houses and the butler was over and Stevens himself is has become a relic of the past, a quirky historical curiosity sold along with a house to an American with a great deal of knowledge about colonial Britain but no idea how to actually be a gentleman.

But at a deeper level it is a social commentary on the relationship between crown and Empire. Lord Darlington represents the crown and the butler Stevens represents the Empire in this exquisite analogy of pre- and post-war Britain. Much like the pre-war British colonies in Asia and Africa, Stevens places an undue and undeserved amount of trust in Lord Darlington only to find that, in the end, Lord Darlington was involved in affairs far beyond his scope of understanding. Indeed, Lord Darlington represents a bygone England and his views are not even remotely in tune with the times. Naturally, Stevens remains unconcerned with his lord's affairs and serves him any way he can.

When war breaks out and Darlington finds himself on the wrong side of the line, it is Stevens that suffers most. And when Lord Darlington passes away, Stevens remains, left alone to pick up the pieces under the watchful eyes of an American. The parallels between this story and the demise of the Empire are so plentiful it probably merits a second reading at a later date.

The fact that Kazuo Ishiguro can write novels with so much nuance and subtlety is extraordinary. It takes a very gifted writer to write novels that work on a multitude of levels. Off the top of my head I can only think of a handful that have that capacity. I would hazard a guess that this novel wouldn't appeal to everyone due to its verbosity and pace (it is rather slow in bits) but The Remains of the Day really pays off in the end. I know that Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children has been deemed the Booker of Bookers but I'd give the nod to The Remains of the Day as the best Booker winner I've ever read.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Fahrenheit 451

Fahrenheit 451
By Ray Bradbury

As part of Banned Book Week I am honored to be taking part in an event hosted by Sheila at Book Journey. When she posted the notice a couple of weeks back I was compelled to participate. I mean, how do you pass up the chance to get up on your soapbox and rain invective upon those who would ban books? It sounded like fun and indeed... it was a pleasure to write.

I chose to write about Fahrenheit 451 because I've read it almost a dozen times over the last three years (mainly with students). I have a real affinity for this book and I wanted to take the chance to delve a little deeper into it, flesh out a few of my ideas and theories concerning the novel, why it has gained such a controversial reputation and what it has to offer. In short, this is a long overdue review. Sorry... No giveaways. I'm way over in Asia and sending books off this continent is cost prohibitive.

First, the nuts and bolts...

Fahrenheit 451 was published in 1953 at the very start of the television generation. In 1953 television was just beginning to establish itself as a viable mass media. Approximately 44% of American households had televisions in 1953 compared to only 9% three years earlier and over 70% three years later. Certainly, television was at the front and center of American popular culture at the time of publication and obviously a subject of much debate. If you listen to Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 is ostensibly a simple science fiction story about the incursion of television on society and a possible future hyper-focused on the newfound instant mass media. In Bradbury's version of America, books have been banned in lieu of the rise of television and a cadre of "firemen" have been formed to root out and burn all remaining books.

But the novel is also so much more than that. It is a veritable tirade (oft-times strident) against censorship, populism and government control. It is a constant reminder of the responsibility inherent in the concept of free speech and how our worse enemy in this world are not governments or corporations but rather ourselves. The agent of governmental and corporate change always and forever boils down to public pressure. They ostensibly work for the majority whether for votes or profits and they act in accordance to our wants and needs (whether we know what they are or not). In the immortal words of Radiohead: "We do it to ourselves."

And for that, Fahrenheit 451 is one of the most often banned books in North America.

Just imagine this. A book about banning books is a banned book in real life. Sounds to me like there is a host of parents, teachers, legislators and concerned citizens out there that don't understand the definition of irony. Talk about meta-banning! Banning a book about banning books? If it wasn't so infuriating, it would be the pinnacle of hilarity.

So, why is Fahrenheit 451, the book about banning books, banned?

Well, I have heard a few reasons. First, Fahrenheit 451 contains strong language. Second, there are instances of violence in the story. But let's be serious here. These are merely excuses. Books don't get banned for language or violence. If they did, the Bible itself could be banned.

Well, damn! There has to be more, right?

There sure as hell better be!

Montag does burn a Bible at one point in the novel and it has been banned for that particular reason in the past. But that doesn't seem to make much sense either since the main characters are trying so very hard to make sure the Bible is not burned and go to great pains to save it the best they can. The novel itself seems to speak favorably of the Bible and the reader is expected to feel a great sadness when the Bible is finally incinerated. So it would seem that those offended by a burning Bible are missing the point a bit.

Another reason for the ban that I found was the negative portrayal of women in the novel. Admittedly, Mildred and her friends are shallow, callous, stupid and weak to the extreme. When compared to Montag, Faber and even Captain Beatty, these women are nothing more than pathetic, television-obssessed cutouts who represent the pathetic, television-obssessed populace of America in this particular world. Mildred's idea of a good time is sitting in front of her three televisions all day watching inane programming then nagging her husband to buy a fourth television when he gets home. If things escalate with Montag she is liable to head out into the county in her car and run down dogs and rabbits for fun and one of her friends has had ten abortions. But then again, Clarisse McClellan is the catalyst for Montag's spiritual awakening and she's a woman. Furthermore, there are any number of books out there with no strong male characters. Those books surely aren't banned.

Another reason I discovered was the negative portrayal of minorities in the book. Contrary to popular belief, it is not the government itself that bans the books in the world of Fahrenheit 451 but rather it is pressure from the people themselves, specifically minorities (and here Bradbury is referring to literally any group of people who don't represent the majority be they black, white, doctors, hairdressers, cat lovers etc...). Captain Beatty lays it out in explicit detail when he notes that minorities don't want to be offended and the government obliges them in their quest for social equality. In bending to the will of minorities the government is pressured into banning literally every book ever published, owing to the fact that literally every book ever published has the capacity to offend someone, somewhere. In this way, Fahrenheit 451 can be seen either as a polemic against un-fettered democracy or perhaps a reminder that un-fettered democracy can theoretically give rise to populism which, in turn, can give rise to fascism. Interesting notion, that.

But that doesn't really work either, and here's why:

Throughout the novel the populist fascism that has overtaken American society is represented by fire. Fire is the agent of forgetting. It is the force in which the powers that be destroy unwanted social friction (i.e. books). The alternative to this is the ragtag group of intellectuals roaming the country outside the major urban areas. There are thousands of former professors living a feral life in the woods. After Montag hops into the river (Montag's baptism) to escape the Mechanical Hound, this ragtag group seems to be represented by water.

But water, just like fire, has the ability to destroy a book. So what is Ray Bradbury trying to say? Is he saying the the opposite of forced equality is also dangerous? I haven't worked that out. Probably nothing literal, but I'm sure there is something metaphorical in the shift from fire to water. It all sounds vaguely ominous at the end anyway. I've never seen the end of Fahrenheit 451 as hopeful or uplifting. It's as bleak as the beginning. Perhaps bleaker. But Bradbury isn't offering easy answers to these questions.

Anyway, back to why the book is banned.

My guess as to why Fahrenheit 451 is really banned is just as ironic as the the fact that it's banned in the first place. The novel itself is a very long diatribe against censorship. And those in the censorship game, be they parents, teachers, or legislators, would be hard pressed to censor anything with anti-censorship books mulling about. Let's call it a literary pre-emptive strike. Ban the books about free speech before they can gain a foothold in order to pave the way for more bans. One might imply that Fahrenheit 451 was simply banned for promoting anti-establishment sentiments, but I think it goes a bit deeper than that. Fahrenheit 451 is a virtual beginner's guide to critical thinking and the Socratic Method. As a teaching tool, it allows students to use reason, logic and their own judgment to formulate conclusions. Kids that master these skills tend to make up their own minds about things and don't swallow whole what parents, teachers, and legislators have to say. In effect, Fahrenheit 451 has the potential to promote open dialog, create free thinkers and encourage creative and dynamic thought.

Of course, trying to wrap your head around all this irony is akin to watching every episode of Twin Peaks on twelve hits of acid. Perhaps it's not worth the time and effort trying to understand the ban. It's meta-crazy!

If I were designing a one year intensive course in English literature for students between 14-17 years of age, Fahrenheit 451 would be a non-negotiable inclusion on the course syllabus. As far as I'm concerned, Fahrenheit 451 is required reading for all high school kids. As I mentioned about, it's a veritable textbook in reason. It's a brilliant introduction to the Socratic Method (I tend to teach Plato's Allegory of the Cave along with the book) and it literally begs students to think for themselves.

School isn't something to simply be endured for 13 years. It's a lifelong concept of human growth and discovery. The humanities in general (and English in particular) aren't simply a series of bird courses peppered between the job-creation subjects (math, science, business). They are the fundamentals tools that teach us how to remain students long after our institutional schooling is finished. In that respect literature plays an important role in teaching us what it means to be human. We can't simply pick and choose from the human experience.

In an age of ultra-accessible information via the Internet, Wikileaks, Occupy Wall Street, The Arab Spring, the Westboro Baptist Church, scandalous Mohammed cartoons, and any number of other examples, Fahrenheit 451 remains more important than ever. It continues to promote reason, reflection, critical thought and intellectual judgment in the face of irrational belief, superstition, greed and control. We owe it to our students to extol such questioning of authority rather than submission to it. Banning books such as Fahrenheit 451 sends a clear message to our kids that we simply don't trust their judgment.

Their judgment couldn't possibly be worse than our own....

Could it?