Mid-Century Dystopia, Part 2: Nineteen Eighty-Four

1984

Nineteen Eight-Four marks the third famous classic to disappoint me in recent years.  Along with The Odyssey and The Divine Comedy, it would have been left unfinished early on, except for its mammoth legacy and the feeling that I ought to read it.  It’s possible I lack the maturity or life experience to appreciate these books – I leave that open as an explanation.  But for the time being, I’ll express my unpopular opinion, which isn’t without basis.  (For my personal dystopian literature criteria, see part 1.)

England, Except Not England

Winston Smith, our very Britishly named protagonist, resides in England of the 1980s.  Now called “Airstrip One,” England is a mere drop in the empire that is Oceania, and its once-vivid culture has likewise been largely eaten up by the propaganda of the ruling one-party state.  All citizens are expected to revere Big Brother, the vague yet menacing figurehead of the Party, and in so doing are closely monitored by their colleagues, spouses, and even their militarized children.  Regions suffer bombings and other hardships, people are carted away for crimes against the state, and history is rewritten or erased as suits the Party’s agenda.  Winston, as it turns out, is one of the MVPs in this latter business, which becomes very difficult when he starts having serious doubts about what is Truth, both in his personal life and in the life of the nation.

1984mapoftheworld
Map by Peliministeri [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The influence of Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany on this novel are hard to miss.  Beyond obvious references such as “comrade,” overalls, and bad food, the structure and stringencies wielded in this society resemble firsthand accounts of life in those two totalitarian states.  The turning of children against their parents made me think of Mao’s China, though that occurred after Orwell’s lifetime.  The trickle-down paranoia affects even the “happy” citizens who are most dedicated to the Party, so they begin to question everything and everyone, including themselves.

There are still remnants of Britishness left, however.  We see it in a scene with a “prole” (proletariat) woman doing her laundry out in the street and singing with a Cockney accent.  It’s the thread of history running through Winston’s fascination with old nursery rhymes and the countryside.  Finally, there is also something distinctly British about O’Brien, the aristrocratic enigma who impresses and fascinates Winston.

Just imagine a Soviet dictatorship in post-war England, and you have the world of 1984.  It’s an awful place.

Anti-Heroes and Déjà Vu

Winston is meant to be the “average guy” in this situation, thrown into a mess just like one of Franz Kafka’s characters.  I guess I have more faith in the average man, because I didn’t find him to be all that average.  He’s what would today be called a stereotypical incel, an unhappily married celibate who has rape fantasies about the first hot woman who catches his attention.  He’s strangely intuitive about certain things, such as knowing he has a past that the Party denies, but he’s also bizarrely stupid and takes risks which, at times, do not make sense, even for a dissenter.  This is the character we have to identify with, or at least to sympathize with on some level, and I found that to be more of a mental stretch than I could muster.

Our other option is Julia, the young woman who passionately reciprocates Winston’s interest, in spite of him being an unattractive middle-aged loser with admittedly violent thoughts towards her.  Julia is a different kind of rebel, fairly reckless and mostly expressing her dissent in the form of black market dealing and sexual escapades (the Party is anti-sex, which Orwell explains but not very convincingly).  After meeting Julia, Winston becomes less risk-averse, to the point he decides to officially join the rebellion – which may or may not exist.

This was all vaguely familiar, reminding me of the plot of We by Yevgeny Zamyatin, an earlier Russian novel which Orwell had read.  (Would he have got away with such a similar plot these days?)  I felt Zamyatin did a better job making his characters sympathizable, especially “O,” the abandoned partner (Winston’s wife gets very little treatment here, and none too good).  For what it’s worth, the love affair was also better written in We – in 1984, it seemed quite implausible and awkward.

From Bad to Worst, and Beyond

My biggest issue with the book was the writing itself.  The first part was mostly world-building, which I don’t care for in general.  The second part focused on Winston and Julia’s unlikely relationship, plus Winston’s increasing doubts and acts of “treason.”  The last part was the stuff of bad dreams, detailing everything you did or didn’t want to know about the sadism of the Party.  In the middle, there was also a treatise about the history of the Party and the current political situation, which even I found surprisingly dull.

I don’t care to go into the ending in detail, especially since it involves spoilers, and this is a spoiler-free blog.  For reference, though, this novel joins the list of books that I really, really despise:

  1. The Castle, Franz Kafka
  2. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
  3. The Kill, Emile Zola
  4. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

As in, you could not pay me enough to re-read them.  Yes, I feel that strongly.

To wrap it up and be fair, I did find some good quotes, which are worth reading on their own:

It was not by making yourself heard but by staying sane that you carried on the human heritage. – Ch. 2

There was something subtly wrong with Syme.  There was something he lacked: discretion, aloofness, a sort of saving stupidity.  – Ch. 5

Your worst enemy, he reflected, was your own nervous system.  At any moment the tension inside you was liable to translate itself into some visible symptom. – Ch. 6

Perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one. – Ch. 7

The heresy of heresies was common sense.  And what was terrifying was not that they would kill you for thinking otherwise, but that they might be right.  – Ch. 7

What Next?

My next dystopian reading will be Brave New World, which is on my physical to-read shelf.  I also plan to read Jack London’s The Iron Heel.

So far, I’m finding I don’t dislike the genre per se, but am struggling to find a dystopian book that I like (except for Lord of the Flies, which isn’t totally comparable).  Lord of the World was interesting, but ultimately not very compelling.  We was well written but carries some of the same flaws as 1984.

I would like to see a book where the protagonist is neither as perfect as Percy Franklin nor as imperfect as Winston Smith… maybe a Syme who lacks “saving stupidity.”  I want to see some light at the end of the tunnel, even if it’s just a speck.  It would be great if the female character were likeable, too.  Make me care about the people at the end of the world.

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.

Lord of the Flies Revisited

William Golding 1983
William Golding – [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl],
via Wikimedia Commons

However Simon thought of the beast, there rose before his inward sight the picture of a human at once heroic and sick.

Earlier this year, I considered the question “What Is a Classic?”, in part as a mental exercise and in part to determine what I could reasonably talk about on my podcast.  With a detour to Ishiguro, my general conclusion was that classics are determined by the culture, and as “the culture” in a generic sense becomes surpassed by infinite subcultures, the classics will eventually consist of whatever disparate books are revered by those subcultures.

If you’re still with me… I didn’t really talk about the books I, as a subculture of one, consider to be classics.  If I created a personal list of classics, it would not be equivalent to my “axes” or favorites, though there’d likely be some overlap.  I guess that’s because I see the former list evolving as my values evolve, and the latter list comprising fixed milestones.  Anyways, more on that later.

I first read Lord of the Flies as assigned reading, around the age of 13, I think.  I was a faster reader back then, with a higher tolerance of grim plots, having binge-read most of Agatha Christie in my tweens.  That’s not to say I wasn’t disturbed by Lord of the Flies.  But the finer points of the novel were lost on me, and due to the subject matter I wasn’t itching to pick it up again until very recently.

For those who don’t know the premise: A massive war – either WWII or its successor – is being fought, and in the middle of this, a plane full of British boys is shot down over the ocean.  It crashes horrifically on a desert island, leaving the boys without any technology, supplies, or communication with the outside world.  To their mixed terror and delight, they are also left without any grown-ups to tell them what to do.

In an effort to survive, the boys begin organizing themselves, and soon there are two factions: the introspective Ralph, his reluctant sidekick “Piggy,” and all those who follow the rule of the conch shell, versus the aggressive Jack and his loyal following of ex-choir boys.  What begins as a game morphs into a very real battle for resources, shelter, and, most importantly, power.  At the same time, sightings of an ambiguous yet terrifying enemy – known as the Beast – further divide the survivors.

Reading this short novel as an adult, I found much to unpack in the story and so many angles you can read it from.  What had been particularly lost on me as a younger reader was the buildup of horrors from the very beginning.  Something awful happens in nearly every chapter, but if you’re not reading carefully, you might not realize the weight of it.

In chapter one, we have the crash of the plane and the brutal albeit “off-screen” death of the pilot.  In chapter two, “Piggy” is denigrated to being a nonperson, the object of cruel jokes, while the disappearances of several little boys – and the cause of their disappearance – is a tragedy just alluded to.  In chapter three, there is Simon, probably suffering from trauma, who goes off to hide by himself.  This is just the beginning of the book; already the moral breakdown is in motion.

Golding’s style is masterful in both its approach and its execution.  The book is written in third-person but clearly from Ralph’s perspective.  While we have the benefit of an omniscient narrator, we’re also left with the raw, flawed lens of Ralph’s experience.  That is why we are never told Piggy’s real name, and why we always see Jack as if he were standing beside us, but not as if we were inside his head.  The one exception to this is Simon, through whose eyes we are confronted with the most primal horrors of the island, except at the ultimate crisis.  We are “stuck” with Ralph, and through this limitation of the narrative, feel sharply his misery of being stuck on the island.

While Lord of the Flies is a potent human drama, it’s clear from the subtext this is an allegory about the world more than about an island, and about adults more than about boys.  The biggest crime in the book is there is no civilization to return to.  The physical and psychological machinery of WWII has destroyed whatever respect for human life had existed before, while at the same time, Ralph discovers the intrinsic violence of mankind, which depending on your viewpoint is traceable to either evolutionary adaptation or original sin.

Overall I was deeply impressed and still believe Lord of the Flies is a true classic.  The writing alone made me want to drop everything and read everything by William Golding as soon as I can.  Certainly, I’ll be looking for other books by him in the near future.

Liberty: Ayn Rand vs. Truman Capote – Episode 15

Two runaways, two worlds, and the pursuit of freedom.  This week’s episode covers Anthem and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, two American classics with surprising similarities.

Sources / Further Reading:
Biography of Ayn Rand (Gale)
Biography of Ayn Rand (Encyclopedia Britannica)
Biography of Truman Capote (Encyclopedia Britannica)
“The Legendary Friendship of Harper Lee and Truman Capote”
About Truman Capote (PBS)