Tag: 52 Novels

52 Novels (18): Brave New World

My goal is to read a novel a week in 2015. I’ve made it to 18.

-Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Why not two straight weeks of Huxley?

This is my second time reading the book. I decided to read it again because I want to read it and 1984 (which I’ve never read, though Animal Farm is one my favorites) in close proximity. My particular interest in this book, as well as 1984, stems from Neil Postman’s treatment of the two books in the foreword to Amusing Ourselves to Death:

We were keeping our eye on 1984. When the year came and the prophecy didn’t, thoughtful Americans sang softly in praise of themselves. The roots of liberal democracy had held. Wherever else the terror had happened, we, at least, had not been visited by Orwellian nightmares.

But we had forgotten that alongside Orwell’s dark vision, there was another – slightly older, slightly less well known, equally chilling: Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Contrary to common belief even among the educated, Huxley and Orwell did not prophesy the same thing. Orwell warns that we will be overcome by an externally imposed oppression. But in Huxley’s vision, no Big Brother is required to deprive people of their autonomy, maturity and history. As he saw it, people will come to love their oppression, to adore the technologies that undo their capacities to think.

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Huxley added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we hate will ruin us. Huxley feared that what we love will ruin us.

This book is about the possibility that Huxley, not Orwell, was right.

Anyone who’s been around my blog for a while knows that I love Neil Postman. I just ordered two more of his books to read. More on that soon; and I really need to blog through Amusing Ourselves to Death at some point. I’ve already written a lot about Technopoly (which is without a doubt one of my favorite semi-modern books). Which all reminds me that I’ve never blogged on Animal Farm. I need to at some point. Anyhow…

For this post, I simply want to record a few things about Brave New World that popped out at me this time around.

First, the ‘Ford’ worship struck this time in a way that it didn’t in the first reading. ‘Ford’ as in Henry Ford. In the future society of A Brave New World, all other forms of religion have been replaced by the veneration of Henry Ford. His brilliance for machinery and assembly lines are apparently the ideal in that future world. And so the word ‘God’ has been replaced by ‘Ford.’

So, then, the god of that future world is a secular god set up to symbolize the ideals of technology. Let’s hope we’re not venerating Steve Jobs to that level in the near future; though he already appears to have received his sainthood in modern America.

Second, the worship of Ford involves intense mysticism. That didn’t strike me as profound the first time around. But now, having seen the elements of mysticism implicit in our technological society, it takes on a bit more realism and possibility. It’s also worth noting that mysticism can go hand in hand with drug use; which leads me to my next point.

Third, as someone who worked in the pharmacy business for several years, the fact that there is an actual drug named Soma still makes me giggle a bit. I’ve mentioned the fact that this was the name of the popular drug in Brave New World to virtually everyone I’ve ever worked with; no one else had ever read the book, and, therefore, didn’t notice. In the novel, Soma is the tranquilizer all people immediately turn to in order to numb emotions (“I take a gram and only am;” “a gram is better than a damn,” etc.). Yep, we’re about there on that one. However, in the real world Soma is a muscle relaxer (and yes it is used recreationally to numb the senses, they call it a ‘Soma coma’); it’s Xanax and Ativan and Tranxene and the like that we turn to to be numbed. Interestingly, another novel I recently read, Generation A by Douglas Coupland, features a sedating drug that has the world hooked. Both that novel and Brave New World are on the short-list of fiction that I recommend.

Fourthly, the strict imposition of worldly orthodoxy stood out. We’re seeing that a good bit these days. Blasphemy in our culture is no longer religious. Blasphemy now belongs to the secular realm.

Finally, there is lots of sex, but no reproduction. Well, I take that back. There is reproduction, but there is no procreation. People have multiple sexual partners; loose sex is encouraged. No worries; all the babies are born in a lab. Doesn’t really seem that far-fetched these days. Lots of sex, hatch the babies in a lab.

Huxley’s prophetic imagination is stunning; plus he was a great writer. It’s a wonderful book, and one that I will keep turning back to.

52 Novels (17): Crome Yellow

My goal is to read a novel a week in 2015. I’ve made it to 17.

-Aldous Huxley, Crome Yellow

The title initially puzzled me. The name of the town/estate in which the story takes place is Crome; that’s easy. But after going back and reading the introduction, I learned:

The term ‘crome yellow’ describes a yellow pigment that has an initial brightness that tends to fade when exposed to sunlight and turns brown or green over time. Hence, the title’s symbolism refers to the novel’s characters who at first appear flashy, but will soon turn dark or fade away. As Peter Bowering has said of the novel, the “yellow” of Crome is more than a little jaundiced (p. ix).

Judging by the (modern) reviews of this book I’ve seen online, a lot of modern folks don’t seem to care as much for it as you would expect with what is considered a ‘classic’ (written in the 1920s). As for myself, I really enjoyed the book. I think some of the writing is quite beautiful; I also think that some of the characters developed in the story are intriguing caricatures of the types of folks Huxley was likely dealing with in his day, especially in the artsy-fartsy circles he ran in. And I think there is a good bit of wisdom to be gleaned from the narrative.

First off, Mr. Barbecue-Smith, the most famous of the ‘artists’ in the story, is almost a dead ringer for G.K. Chesterton. He’s a heavyset guy with no neck that waxes poetically about everything, has an opinion on everything, writes prodigiously, and majors on mystical experience. I don’t think Chesterton was really anything close to a mystic, but he was certainly accused of it at times by his opponents. From my online searches I couldn’t find anyone who has made a connection between Barbecue and Chesterton, but I can’t help but be suspicious (maybe the idea of Chesterton and Barbecue just go hand in hand). I do know Chesterton wasn’t fond of Huxley’s pessimistic vision of the world, and wasn’t afraid to say so (let’s just admit that Huxley was a quack, but a great writer nonetheless; and I actually sympathize with his pessimism in some ways). Here’s one example of the ruminations of Barbecue; apparently he was portly enough that he didn’t have much of a neck:

In his earlier middle age he had been distressed by this absence of neck, but was comforted by reading in Balzac’s Louis Lambert that all the world’s great men have been marked by the same peculiarity, and for a simple and obvious reason: Greatness is nothing more nor less than the harmonious functioning of the faculties of the head and heart; the shorter the neck, the more closely these two organs approach one another… (p. 28).

Next, I mentioned beautiful writing. One of the early portions of the book is one of the most eloquent pieces of prose I’ve ever read. The main character, Denis, a young poet, tries to describe some hilly scenery:

Curves, curves: he repeated the word slowly, trying as he did so to find some term in which to give expression to his appreciation. Curves – no, that was inadequate. He made a gesture with his hand, as though to scoop the achieved expression out of the air, and almost fell off his bicycle. What was the word to describe the curves of those little valleys? They were as fine as the lines of a human body, they were informed with the subtlety of art…

…But he really must find the word. Curves curves… Those little valleys had the lines of a cup moulded round a woman’s breast; they seemed the dinted imprints of some huge divine body that had rested on these hills…He was enamoured with the beauty of words (pp. 4-5).

There are also some deep thoughts tucked away in the narrative, such as,

Parallel straight lines, Denis reflected, meet only at infinity. He might talk forever of care-chamber sleep and she of meteorology till the end of time. Did one ever establish contact with anyone? We are all parallel straight lines (p. 18).

and

Mr. Barbecue-Smith stood with his back to the hearth, warming himself at the memory of last winter’s fires (p. 30).

Both of those lines will probably get individual posts from me in the near future.

I also love the description of one fictional writer:

‘I say,’ said Gombauld, ‘Knockespotch was a little obscure sometimes, wasn’t he?’

‘He was,’ Mr Scogan replied, ‘and with intention. It made him seem even profounder than he actually was’ (p. 83).

I relate to that because it seems that many of our postmodern authors seem to think that obscurity is the mark of genuine art. I am rather old school in the sense that I still think you should write in order to be understood.

Moving on, one of the more interesting twists in the narrative involves a book of sketches drawn by a deaf woman who is living among this colony of artists. Denis has always pictured her as absent-minded and withdrawn. After looking at her private book of sketches (unbeknownst to her), he realizes that she, as evidenced by her drawings, has pegged him to a tee. She manages to reveal his character perfectly with one sketch. This leads him to the before unrealized conclusion that other people in the world were able to see through him in the same way that he believes he is able to see through him:

[Her drawings] represented all the vast conscious world of men outside himself; they symbolised something that in his studious solitariness he was apt not to believe in. He could stand at Piccadillly Circus, could watch the crowds shuffle past, and still imagine himself the one fully conscious, intelligent, individual being among all the thousands. It seemed, somehow, impossible that other people should be in their way as elaborate and complete as he in his. Impossible; and yet, periodically he would make some painful discovery about the external world and the horrible reality of its consciousness and its intelligence (p. 141).

I relate to that point.

Denis also expresses another sentiment that I often share. Quotes repeatedly pop into his mind:

Oh, these rags and tags of other people’s making! Would he ever be able to call his brain his own? Was there, indeed, anything in it that was truly his own, or was it simply an education? (p. 142).

I wonder if all my reading has killed any hope at originality. But, then again, is originality really possible, or even desirable? C.S. Lewis would say no.

We also get a preview of Brave New World in the character of Mr. Wimbush. I plan on rereading Brave New World in the next few weeks and sharing some thoughts. Needless to say, I enjoyed Crome Yellow and found it to be well worth the time. I’ll share some more on it in the near future, Lord willing.

52 Novels (16): Notes from Underground

My goal is to read a novel a week in 2015. I’ve made it to 16.

-Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from Underground

I determined not to know anything about the book going in. Even with that as the case, you can quickly tell that the ‘underground’ he speaks of is essentially the life of the mind, or psyche if you will. I hesitate to use the term psyche; and that is what makes it all the more interesting. I’ve studied a good bit of psychology myself, and realize that this Mid-19th Century predates anything like what we would call psychology.

Dostoyevsky takes us on a journey deep into the inner ruminations of a full-fledged basket-case. For the first time I can think of, I found myself gritting my teeth as I read the thoughts of the narrator. Some of his emotions were relatable (who hasn’t wanted to intentionally bump into someone who has made you mad), some weren’t. But the overarching idea that sterilized Scientific culture has stripped man of his full-orbed humanity rings true.

Parts of the book remind me of Fight Club (I’m not sure if Palahniuk drew anything from Underground). You have a man stripped of his dignity, working in a cubicle, craving for anything raw and guttural. Your psychologists and scientists will never be able to quantify raw angst. You will never be able to turn man into a machine moulded by natural cause; he will defy you; he will marvel you with his nervous breakdowns that defy quantification, that no troubleshooting tool or amount of chemicals can fully squelch.

He needs a good fistfight. He needs to visit a brothel. He needs a good drunken binge. He needs to pass out in his own vomit. He needs to tell off an authority figure. Put that on a chart.

He calls Behavioral Psychology, Wikipedia, and Fitness Apps well before they exist:

All human actions will, of course e classified according to these laws- mathematically, like a logarithm table, up to 108,000 – and entered in a special almanac. Or, still better, certain edifying volumes will be published, similar to our encyclopedic dictionaries, in which everything will be calculated and designated with such precision that there will not longer be any actions or adventures in the world (1.12).

This will lead to “halcyon days,” in which “everything will be extremely reasonable” (Ibid).

A pharmacist once gave me a lesson on Halcyon. Halcyon was a mythical bird. There are different versions of the story, but the central idea is that either the bird, or one of the gods, was able to calm the wind and waves of the sea in order for Halcyon to hatch her young. Hence, years after Underground, when scientists constituted the drug Triazolam, which was (and is) a nervous system-depressant that aided with sleep, marketers (or whomever) decided to name it Halcion. Halcyon days indeed. Such calmness; such tranquility; all in a little pill. The storms have ceased as though a god has waved his arm over your bed.

Dostoyevsky warned us: it wasn’t that calm and restful days awaited; rather days of sedation awaited. Tranquilizers lay ahead.

Still, the ‘underground’ cannot be silenced. The alpha anti-hero calls us to wake up before we all end up like him – shells, miserable, fighting to break out from the dull life of cubicle drudgery and attempted quantification. The book is a gloomy call for us to remember our humanity.

52 Novels (15): The Sense of an Ending

My goal is to read a novel a week in 2015. I’ve made it to 15.

Julian Barnes, The Sense of an Ending

I saw this one on a book list and thought it looked interesting. It is indeed.

The story follows a group of friends passing from adolescence into adulthood. The focus narrows to a couple of relationships: boyfriend/girlfriend; breakup; girlfriend begins dating ex-boyfriends friend; enmity and bitterness ensue.

Tony, the main character and narrator, is he boyfriend who is quasi betrayed. He writes a scathing letter to his former-friend, who is now dating his ex-girlfriend. He has no idea of the prophetic powers carried by his own words of cursing.

The book is an intriguing exploration of the power of words in the form of self-fulfilling prophecies and maledictions. It reminds us to choose our words wisely. I’ve heard someone say that we should make our words soft and sweet in case we later have to eat them; but the fact of the matter is that others have to eat our words all the time, even when we ourselves don’t have to.

The story is also an interesting look at how we remember our own lives. The book is filled with flitting memories and self-conscious introspection: am I remembering that event rightly or is my memory only serving my own self interest? Why do I suddenly remember things that had been suppressed from the memory for so long? The theme of such remembering is introduced in a maxim about history that is repeated throughout the book:

History is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.

History, the narrator says, is much easier to study when it is distant:

Perhaps I just feel safer with the history that’s been more or less agreed upon. Or perhaps it’s that same paradox again: the history that happens underneath our noses ought to be the clearest, and yet it’s the most deliquescent.

The big question the narrator is faced with is his own failure to accomplish anything in life. His friend had committed suicide, which was, perhaps, a valiant act. What had he ever done besides accumulate dust?:

We muddle along, we let life happen to us, we gradually build up a store of memories. There is the question of accumulation, but not in the sense that Adrian meant, just the simple adding up and adding on of life. And as the poet pointed out, there is a difference between addition and increase. Had my life increased, or merely added to itself?

That suicide turns out to not be quite so valiant as he thought, but I won’t get into that. Let me point out a couple more highlights:

Barnes uses beautiful descriptive language. Like the way he describes a suburb:

They lived in Kent, out on the Orpington line, in one of those suburbs which had stopped concreting over nature at the very last minute, and ever since smugly claimed rural status.

Or the way he describes a woman’s choice of shoes:

I wondered about the fact that she never wore heels of any height. I’d read somewhere that if you want to make people pay attention to what you’re saying, you don’t raise your voice but lower it: this is what really commands attention. Perhaps hers was a similar kind of trick with height.

Aside from a surprise ending that will leave you reeling and make you want to go back and read the story again to see what you have missed, the main things I’ll take away from this book are the power and subjectivity of memory, and the power of words. The story ends with unrest. The Hebrews have always spoken shabbot (rest) and shalom (peace). Speak words of blessing. Keep your words soft and sweet because people are constantly eating them whether you yourself have to or not.

52 Novels (14): Girlfriend in a Coma

My goal is to read a novel a week in 2015. I’ve made it to 14.

-Douglas Coupland, Girlfriend in a Coma

Ah, postmodern stories. Girlfriend in a Coma starts out as a moving narrative about a young woman who falls into a 17 (or so) year coma. Strangely, she had foreseen that something was going to happen. The first half of the story chronicles the lives of her friends during the time of the coma. Her boyfriend, as he floats from job to job and battles alcoholism, seemingly numbing himself as he hopelessly waits for her to wake up; her child being born while she lay unconscious in the midst of the coma; another becomes a supermodel; another a doctor; two are drug addicts who eventually take up heroine; another is a vagabond who floats across the United States in search of who knows what.

And then the narrative turns into zombie apocalypse. Well, not exactly. People simply start falling asleep and dying, leaving this group of friends to watch the world die; leaving them as the only remaining survivors on the earth; leaving them to be guided by the ghost of a departed friend who will point out their emptiness and lead them on the right path, or something.

It’s an interesting story about a fragmented and meaningless world; like Ecclesiastes, except everybody dies at the same time. Karen, the girlfriend in the coma, awakes to find this soulless world; and she, as an outsider, as it were, has a more acute sense of it because of the distance in time afforded by the coma:

“Okay, but answer me this: Would you have believed in the emptiness of the world if you’d eased into the world slowly, buying into its principles one crumb at a time the way your friends did?” She sighs. “No. Probably not. Are you happy now? Can I have my body back?”

A few choice quotes:

“The future’s not a good place, Richard. I think it’s maybe cruel. I saw that last night. We were all there. I could see us—we weren’t being tortured or anything—we were all still alive and all … older … middle-aged or something, but … ‘meaning’ had vanished. And yet we didn’t know it. We were meaningless.” “What do you mean, ‘meaningless’?” “Okay. Life didn’t seem depressing or empty to us, but we could only discern that it was as if we were on the outside looking in. And then I looked around for other people—to see if their lives seemed this way, too—but all the other people had left. It was just us, with our meaningless lives.

Next,

He sat on the bed. “Don’t you understand, Richard? There’s nothing at the center of what we do.” “I—” “No center. It doesn’t exist. All of us—look at our lives: We have an acceptable level of affluence. We have entertainment. We have a relative freedom from fear. But there’s nothing else.” I felt I was getting the bad news I’d been trying to avoid for so long.

Next,

“I know—I remember when I first woke up how people kept on trying to impress me with how efficient the world had become. What a weird thing to brag about, eh? Efficiency. I mean, what’s the point of being efficient if you’re only leading an efficiently blank life?”

Next,

“I thought back in 1979 that in the future the world would—evolve. I thought that we would make the world cleaner and safer and smarter, and that people would become smarter and wiser and kinder as a result of all the changes.” “And …?” “People didn’t evolve. I mean, the world became faster and smarter and in some ways cleaner. Like cars—cars didn’t smell anymore. But people stayed the same. They actually—wait—what’s the opposite of progressed?” “In this case, devolved.” “People devolved.

Next,

“Hamilton,” Richard says, “tell me—have we ever really gotten together and wished for wisdom or faith to come from the world’s collapse? No. Instead we got into a tizzy because some Leaker forgot to return the Godfather III tapes to Blockbuster Video the day of the Sleep and now we can’t watch it. Have we had the humility to gather and collectively speak our souls? What evidence have we ever given of inner lives? Karen perks up: “Of course we have interior lives, Richard. I do. How can we not have one?” “I didn’t say that, Karen. I said we gave no evidence of an interior life. Acts of kindness, evidence of contemplation, devotion, sacrifice. All these things that indicate a world inside us. Instead we set up a demolition derby in the Eaton’s parking lot, ransacked the Virgin Superstore, and torched the Home Depot.”

Interestingly, the idea in the end is like a reverse It’s a Wonderful Life (or like a reverse A Christmas Carol). The apocalypse has allowed them to see life without the world:

“Uh-huh. You’ve all been allowed to see what your lives would be like in the absence of the world.” Silence while everybody bites their lips. “This is like that Christmas movie,” Pam says, “The one they used to play too many times each December and it kind of wore you down by the eighteenth showing. You know: what the world would have been like without you.” “Sort of, Pam,” I say, “but backwards. I’ve been watching over the bunch of you ever since Karen woke up, to see how different you’d be without the world.”

It’s not, How different would the world be without you? but, How different would you be without the world? The apocalypse allows them to see what life is like without neighbors. And in the end they’re afforded a second chance to actually try to have a positive impact upon the world.

What does such a transformation look like? I love this line:

She has never been able to help others, and the sensation is as though she had opened her bedroom door and found an enormous new house on the other side full of beautiful objects and rooms to explore.

I love the idea of opening a door into the same house, but finding that the house is different than you remembered it. I’ve felt like that almost every day since I became a Christian.