Mid-Century Dystopia, Part 1: Pan’s Labyrinth

There was no intention on my part to read two dystopian novels at the same time.  I was already in motion to read 1984 – an embarrassingly long-overdue attempt – when I heard a novelization of Pan’s Labyrinth was to be released in July.  I got in the library line quickly (these things go like hot cakes), and soon, with del Toro/Funke’s fantasy horror in one hand and Orwell’s bleak dystopia in the other, made the abrupt leap from “light summer fluff” to “not-sure-if-I’ll-sleep-tonight bedtime stories.”

So… What Were You Thinking!?

1984 requires little introduction.  In Western culture, at least, terms such as Big Brother and doublethink flavor our vocabulary as glib reminders that a British author back in 1948 foretold the existence of increasingly powerful, monolithic, and tech-savvy governments.  We see signs of it everywhere today, from more innocuous instruments such as traffic cameras to the disturbing birth of China’s Social Credit System.  At this point, it is hard to say if the book is still futuristic.

Pan’s Labyrinth, marketed as a dark Alice in Wonderland with a historical backdrop, is a story that’s long piqued my interest. I had some vague awareness of the movie release in 2006, but since I’m highly squeamish and generally avoid R-rated films, it was never a film I had an overwhelming desire to try.  In my college Spanish course, we saw the introduction to the film, with subtitles, and once again, I was curious about the story.  The novelization by YA author Cornelia Funke and the movie’s director, Guillermo del Toro, presented the perfect chance to experience the story without watching gruesome reenactments on the screen.

Battle of the Two Totalitarian States

As mentioned, the settings of both these novels are as bleak as you can imagine.  1984 is Orwell’s picture of England under a North Korean-esque dictatorship, where everyone is trained to march in time to the Party’s tune and anyone who even breathes differently is liquidated and blotted out from history.  Pan’s Labyrinth is set in real-world Franco’s Spain (not unlike Hitler’s Germany, for those unfamiliar with 20th-century Spanish history).  In both novels, the sense of being watched, of being victim to your overlords’ whims and paranoia, and finding a double meaning in the few close relationships you have, overwhelm the reader with a claustrophobic dread that evil is winning and may always win.

I do not enjoy horror for the sake of horror, so if I read a book with violence in it, I look for some deeper meaning to make it worth my time.  I have read a few dystopian works in the past few years – in particular, Lord of the World, We, and Lord of the Flies – and have developed some personal criteria for this genre:

  1. Accuracy to logic and historical or contemporary precedence.  There must be some realism for me to take it seriously.
  2. Depictions of violence which are purposeful (to teach a lesson, to strengthen the character, or as a necessary part of the plot), not gratuitous or purely sensational.
  3. The presence or possibility of salvation, either physical or metaphysical. (My Christian background makes this necessary.)

I was impressed by the writing in both books but disappointed when it came to a serious evaluation of their content, message, and characterizations.  Pan’s Labyrinth held a slight edge (1.5 stars) over 1984 (1 star), so I’ll start by going into that one in a bit more detail.

The Lost Girl and El Capitán

There are two stories going on in Pan’s Labyrinth.  One is the quest of the Faun to find the Underworld King’s long-lost daughter, who vanished many years ago following her fatal curiosity about the over-world.  Second is the plight of poor Ofelia, a bookish child whose widowed mother Carmen marries Captain Vidal, the father of her forthcoming son and one of the most sadistic officers serving under General Franco.  Carmen’s naive hope is that love will conquer all and that Vidal will accept Ofelia as his daughter.  Ofelia knows better…knows in fact that Vidal is a heartless “Wolf,” just like the monsters in the stories she reads.  The Faun gives Ofelia a chance to escape the terrible life awaiting her, but she must do everything he says and face other, less human monsters in the forest.

Blood, blood, blood, and more blood.  Amazon tells me this book is for grades 6-9, but I’m pretty sure twelve-year-old me would have been properly traumatized by the tortures and killings that Vidal relishes in inflicting.  The authors are none too subtle about the sanguine imagery, and at times the references to “blood red” become almost laughable in their frequency.  Other brutalities, such as rape and cannibalism, are alluded to if not depicted, though the authors seem to want you to know they’re coming close to it, over and over again. I have read books about North Korea which treat similar subjects in a more restrained manner.  The way violence was depicted here really felt gratuitous.

There is plenty of magic going on, though the why’s and the how’s are never made quite clear.  You just have to accept what the Faun says.  I find this frustrating, perhaps because I’m used to the magic of Lewis’s Narnia, which is fairly clear-cut and almost logical, or even the supernatural elements in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, which carry some sense of purpose and structure.  I had a fair amount of questions by the end of the book which I suppose can never be answered, because other reviewers say the movie and the book are nearly identical in plot.

I will say, I was sympathetic to Ofelia, her friend Mercedes, and Mercedes’s brother Pedro.  I cried a couple of times because the plot was just one bad thing after another, and it is hard to watch a child suffer.  Even the ending, which is vaguely “happy,” seemed cruel.  That is the theme of the book: cruelty is pervasive and there is nobody on earth or in Heaven to help you; suicide is mentioned a couple of times as an escape.  I don’t doubt this as an accurate portrayal of how some people feel in those kinds of situations.  But is that really the whole picture?  If it is, that means evil always wins, and I can’t believe that.

Overall, I felt the concept and protagonists of Pan’s Labyrinth were strong, but the writing and storyline did not hold up for me.  I did appreciate the authors’ ability to create a fairytale-like story with atmosphere and a likeable protagonist.  It was more than I could say for 1984… that review will be coming soon.

When We Were Orphans – A Study in "Meh"

It’s London in the 1930s, and Christopher Banks has what most people want: his dream job.  After a childhood of playing detective with his best friend Akira, Christopher grew up to be one of England’s leading private investigators, highly sought after both professionally and socially.  In spite of his success, he can’t forget the life he left behind him in Shanghai, nor the fact that his parents remain missing there and unaccounted for.  Christopher’s greatest hope is to go back to Shanghai to find them, even if it means returning to a war zone.  It turns out, however, that new relationships – including his love for a lonely socialite – make committing to his past the hardest case to solve.

This book could not have had a more promising premise.  I’ve raved about the nuances of Empire of the Sun (another story about an English boy in Shanghai), and I know Ishiguro can be incredibly subtle.  I also love a good mystery with a Sherlock Holmesian character.  Put all three together and what could possibly go wrong?  After hoping I’d be able to disagree with Ishiguro’s own comment, that it’s “not his best book,” ultimately I had to go with the consensus on When We Were Orphans (2000). 

While Ishiguro does not dwell on my #2 historical fiction pet peeve – in-your-face exposition – I’m afraid my #1 pet peeve is here, and that is anachronisms.

For example: Christopher’s voice.  There is something very post-war about Christopher’s voice, and I don’t mean word choice.  (The word choice is stereotypical but tolerable.)  Rather, the problem is his whole outlook and attitude.  Christopher is a strangely placid character, from his first run-ins with the irritating Sarah Hemmings to his later handling of his personal investigation.  This serenity does not translate to cool-headedness, however; he behaves irrationally when push comes to shove, even in the middle of a battlefield.  Additionally, his sense of morality has a modern tone to it, which seems unlikely coming from someone who was close to his strongly religious mother.  None of this makes sense, and I feel like I’m watching some 21st-century time traveler going through the motions of being Christopher, as opposed to an actual person with character integrity.

As for Sarah – well, she epitomizes the cringe-worthy female protagonist.  I’ll say no more.

The plot starts out extremely well.  We get flashbacks of Christopher’s youth, most importantly of his friendship with Akira – a boy torn between his Japanese culture and his life in International Shanghai.  We also get a glimpse of Christopher’s mother, a fierce yet kind Victorian woman with strong Christian values.  (It’s easy to trace the parallel between Christopher’s altruistic career choices and his mother’s campaign against the opium trade.  He’s simply carrying on the work she started, but in a different sphere.)  Furthermore, we find half of his clues are just memories – foggy, unreliable memories.  This is a fantastic conflict because it’s one we all encounter at some point.

This solid beginning is gradually replaced with a let-down, first by Christopher becoming aggravating, then finally by the resolution to the core mystery.  I won’t divulge spoilers, but the “solution” is horribly sensational and not particularly believable.  It reads like the first draft, or the first idea out of a brainstorming session…  I felt like Ishiguro could have done much better if he’d given it more time, and I’m puzzled that his editor approved it.

Is there anyone I would recommend this to?  Unfortunately, no.  There’s some morally questionable elements which I’ve alluded to, and if that didn’t bother you, the characterization and plot twists are so unlikely, you won’t be able to suspend enough disbelief.  1.5 stars is generous.  If you’re new to Ishiguro’s work, start with The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World, or A Pale View of Hills instead.

9 ♠ A Sound of Thunder

In this second round of the Deal Me In challenge, I was excited to read a classic by Ray Bradbury, whose works are new to me.  “A Sound of Thunder” is one of his best-known science fictions, and it’s about a man named Eckels who signs up to go back in time on a safari – hunting dinosaurs, that is.

I guess I will always compare these kinds of plots to The Lost World by Conan Doyle, a big favorite of mine.  My overall feeling about “A Sound of Thunder” was that, in scope, it was trying too hard.  It covered the two big topics, prehistoric life and time travel, but there wasn’t a lot of development, and the reader was asked to take a lot at face value.  For example, (spoiler in white):  Eckels’s behavior seemed perfectly natural to me, and it’s hard to imagine him being the first offender.  There were some good descriptions throughout, but also gratuitous cussing that felt like filler.

1.5 stars.  Decent read for waiting at the doctor’s office, not worth it if you have more time.

Wieland

Wieland 1811 cover

When I chose Wieland: or, The Transformation for my history class, I was not expecting a masterpiece of plot, philosophy, or characters.  I did expect a good old-fashioned Gothic tale with a dash of melodrama, an eerie edifice, and maybe a ghost or two.  Sadly, this is the third book connected to my class that disappointed me, and while it was vastly more fast-paced, it was also quite a bit worse than The House of the Seven Gables or The Prairie.  Would I read more Charles Brockden Brown?  Maybe, someday.  Not in the near future.

Wieland introduces us to the narrator, Clara Wieland, her brother Theodore and his family, and their mutual friend, Henry Pleyel.  These characters live in a surreal sort of isolated, literati circle, centered around Theodore’s home, Mettingen (which would seem to fit better in Victorian England than its actual setting: pre-Revolutionary America).  Their perfect lives become interrupted by seemingly supernatural occurrences and the arrival of a mysterious stranger, Carwin.  Tragedy accompanies transformation, as more than one character experiences hallucinations that they feel lead them to the most horrible conclusions and, in one character’s case, crimes.

I give this 1.5 out of 5 stars.  The extra half star is for the writing style, which was a breath of fresh air after Cooper.  Anybody could read Brown, because his sentences are short and tend to get straight to the point.  The story moves along at a good clip, with plenty of action (the downside being, much of it is gory). 

What I did not realize when I chose this book is that it is about demonic possession and/or insanity.  It’s not as disturbing as more modern works or accounts of true crime, but if it’s not your cup of tea, then by all means be forewarned and skip it.  It seemed to me that the treatment of religion in this book was typical for the genre – i.e., used for effect rather than substance. And frankly, the way things were supposed to tie together did not come across as credible.  The “transformation” appeared to happen out of the blue; I was left unconvinced, which is where the story more or less lost my interest.

I will be writing a paper comparing/contrasting Wieland with The Prairie.  Two books could hardly be less alike, so my theme will probably be a comparison of female characters.  At first, I really, really liked Clara, who seems unusually independent and (on Brown’s part) well-written.  Towards the end of the book she became unbearably morbid.  I think in the long run, Ellen from The Prairie is more courageous (even if she does cry more easily).

The good news?  Now I can finally devote my reading time to the Turn of the Century Salon.