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John Steinbeck is one of the great American writers. His novels and short stories frequently took place in southern and central California and often focuses on themes of love, fate and justice, with ‘everyman’ – often terribly flawed – central characters. After the world celebrated Steinbeck “for his realistic and imaginative writings, combining as they do sympathetic humour and keen social perception”, he received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1962, after a body of work containing the Pulitzer Prize winning The Grapes of Wrath, and other notable works such as Cannery Road and Of Mice and Men. But it is the epic East of Eden, published in 1952, that Steinbeck considered his magnum-opus. “There is only one book to a man”, Steinbeck famously wrote of East of Eden, a 600 page novel set in the Salinas Valley, California, at the turn of the 20th century.

eastofeden

The narrator tells the story of two families – the Trasks, headed by Adam, and the Hamiltons, headed by Samuel – as their lives intertwine over several generations in the rich farmland of the Salinas Valley. I won’t go into any more detail than that – I can’t, not without writing another thousand words – but East of Eden is heavily influenced on the Bible’s Book of Genesis, especially the story of Cain and Abel, and the struggle for their father, Adam. The title itself is taken from Genesis, Chapter 4, verse 16: “And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and dwelt in the Land of Nod, on the east of Eden.”

The Trask family end up re-enacting the rivalry of Cain and Abel not once but twice in the book. First, with Adam and Charles Trask vying for their father Cyrus’s love, and then in Salinas, where Adam raises the two twins Aron and Caleb Trask, alone. The parallels are obvious, from brothers being very different people, to the handling of rejection and the wrath of jealousy, and the consequences of these actions. I don’t think Steinbeck was trying in any way to be subtle, and while the symbolism may seem somewhat heavy handed at times, they are no less powerful, and this is testament to how well Steinbeck writes and breathes life into these characters. Lee, the Trask’s Cantonese, surprisingly philosophical servant, and old Sam Hamilton, a jolly inventor and farmer who is adored by all for his strength and heart and values, are personal favourites, and I have not felt such a strong attachment and admiration for two fictional characters in some time.

I believe that there is one story in the world, and only one. . . . Humans are caught—in their lives, in their thoughts, in their hungers and ambitions, in their avarice and cruelty, and in their kindness and generosity too—in a net of good and evil. . . . There is no other story. A man, after he has brushed off the dust and chips of his life, will have left only the hard, clean questions: Was it good or was it evil? Have I done well—or ill?

East of Eden is a strange book. To describe it as ‘biblical’ is sheer laziness, but it is a unique and beautiful read. It feels historical, mythical, magical all at once. It suffers from heavy handed characters, some of which are too easily defined as ‘good’ and ‘evil’, it can be verbose and melodramatic, but it has a strong heart. A compelling fable retelling the story of man’s original sin, the maddening way of love and the consequences of its absence, and the internal struggle that happens within all of us, that of right and wrong, and the human ability, that freedom to choose.

But the Hebrew word, the word timshel—‘Thou mayest’— that gives a choice. It might be the most important word in the world. That says the way is open. That throws it right back on a man. For if ‘Thou mayest’—it is also true that ‘Thou mayest not.

great gatsby quote

For whatever reason The Great Gatsby had never really appealed to me, both the book and the recent-ish big-budget adaptation by Baz Luhrmann. But with my determination to read through all the classics and sample the great authors (and that list growing ever and ever longer…) I finally tackled it last week. The Great Gatsby is considered by many as F. Scott Fitzgerald’s best work despite suffering from average reviews and poor sales upon its publication in 1925. A rather sad fact; Fitzgerald died in 1945 under the impression that he and his failed works were to be forgotten.

The Roaring Twenties. The Jazz Age. Whatever you want to call them, it is this period of time where the events of the book take place, and they were brought to an end when the Great Depression hit after a stock market crash in 1929. Fitzgerald’s book, published in 1925, several years before the crash, is eerily prophetic as he peers through the charades of wild and reckless parties and general decadence to see the stark truths, built up on vanity and wealth. By the end of The Great Gatsby, we are left in no doubt what Fitzgerald’s general opinion was of this era. The book is a cautionary tale; the unfairness of inequality, power and wealth, of living to excess, the inability to let go of the past, and the chasing of the American Dream.

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

The plot follows the book’s narrator Nick Carraway, as he moves from Midwest America to the east, to take a job in New York, to Long Island and the fictional town of West Egg. He lives in a small house next door to the rich and mysterious Jay Gatsby. In Nick’s first few weeks he catches up with his cousin, the flirtatious, incredibly well-off Daisy, her powerful, even richer but also a complete dickhead Tom Buchanan, and their friend, cynical but glamorous golfer Jordan Baker. We get a taste of life in the Jazz Age through a series of small parties where alcohol is drank to excess and the conversation is just awful. Power and wealth and the upper class are not exactly put in a great light here. Alcoholism, promiscuity, social prejudices, the discussion firmly kept to class and wealth. The crowd that Nick becomes involved with are not exactly the most grounded bunch.

the great gatsby

Eventually Nick is invited to a party of his neighbour Gatsby, whom owns a tremendous mansion next door to Nick’s much more humble abode. Having seen the bright lights of many of Gatsby’s parties from a distance Nick is is quickly enveloped into an almost surreal existence, full of swinging parties and audacious feats of wealth. Gatsby is the source of nightly parties that carry on into the early hours of the morning, yet Gatsby himself rarely takes part, leading to rumours about his past, how he came about his wealth, and his true desires. Nick attends more and more of these parties in West Egg at Gatsby’s mansion, and grows an attachment to the man. There is something about this Gatsby, as Nick writes:

He smiled understandingly-much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced–or seemed to face–the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.

Despite being set during prohibition, there is plenty of booze, drunk driving, car crashes and debauchery. Nick is intrigued by this man, seemingly so generous in opening his home to people he knows and knows not, yet he doesn’t participate – he doesn’t drink, hell he hasn’t even used his luxurious pool in his back garden – he is observing, or waiting. But for what, or who? Well, Gatsby is in love with Daisy Buchanan, has been for the past 5 years and in fact the two once dated before Gatsby had to fight in the war. It turns out that Gatsby has been attempting to win Daisy back. His mansion is exactly opposite hers, across the bay on East Egg, with the green light shining across the water a constant reminder of the love they shared.

The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.

The Great Gatsby’s final chapter is one of the sad and unfair endings in literature. A chain of events ends in a hit-and-run. Ironically, Tom’s mistress Myrtle is unknowingly killed by his wife Daisy, but Gatsby agrees to take the blame. However, when (finally) relaxing in his pool one afternoon Myrtle’s wife George Wilson enters Gatsby’s property and shoots him before turning the gun on himself. Nick’s efforts to arrange a funeral while gauging the reactions of Gatsby’s so-called friends is troubling as we realise just how lonely this seemingly popular and successful man was.

After that I felt a certain shame for Gatsby — one gentleman to whom I telephoned implied that he had got what he deserved. However, that was my fault, for he was one of those who used to sneer most bitterly at Gatsby on the courage of Gatsby’s liquor, and I should have known better than to call him.

What Fitzgerald succeeds in is creating terribly flawed characters that demand the reader’s attention. You may (in Tom’s case, will) despise certain characters, but you will enjoy reading about them – they are all fascinating in their own way. Daisy (who of her daughter says ‘I hope she’ll be a fool — that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool’), and Tom Buchanan in particular, who Nick describes as ‘one of those men who reach such an acute limited excellence at twenty-one that everything afterwards savours of anti-climax‘ and is prone to racist rants, come across as shallow, self-centred, careless individuals. Nick’s views on Tom after an encounter several months after the death of Gatsby:

I couldn’t forgive him or like him, but I saw that what he had done was, to him, entirely justified. It was all very careless and confused. They were careless people, Tom and Daisy—they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.

Was Gatsby great? It’s a difficult question. When compared to the rest of the supporting cast, he certainly comes across as a likeable character, and perhaps with narrator Nick Carraway’s encouragement, we the reader would be inclined to say yes.

They’re a rotten crowd’, I shouted across the lawn. ‘You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.

From the start the strange rumours of Gatsby as this almost mystical presence are exaggerated. He resembles a magician, the ‘Great Gatsby’, and even his vehicle at one point is described as a ‘circus wagon’. But how great was Gatsby, really? As Tom refers to him, ‘Mr. Nobody from Nowhere’, Gatsby came from humble beginnings and of low-birth, which doesn’t really work out well for you in this book. He is a self made man, literally making his own name, changing it from Gatz to Gatsby. What he does demonstrate is incredible ambition to make something of himself – sure, it was through bootlegging and other illegal activities, but coming from nothing to throwing the best parties in New York is pretty impressive. Gatsby got to where he was through hard work, desire, ambition and ‘an. extraordinary gift for hope’.

Leonardo Di Caprio and Carey Mulligan as Gatsby and Daisy in Luhrman's 2013 adaptation.

Leonardo Di Caprio and Carey Mulligan as Gatsby and Daisy in Luhrman’s 2013 adaptation.

But ultimately Gatsby’s doomed romanticisation of Daisy was hugely flawed. His inability to move on, to try and recreate the past exactly, was naive and foolish.

“I wouldn’t ask too much of her,” I ventured. “You can’t repeat the past.”

“Can’t repeat the past?” he cried incredulously. “Why of course you can!”

He looked around him wildly, as if the past were lurking here in the shadow of his house, just out of reach of his hand.

“I’m going to fix everything just the way it was before,” he said, nodding determinedly. “She’ll see.”

The tragedy is not Gatsby’s dedication in chasing a dream, but chasing an morally ambiguous, dishonest dream. And he shows tremendous greed too. He is not content with Daisy loving him – he wants her to have never loved Tom. To have never loved Tom the five years they were apart, as if he can erase the past. And this is his downfall.

There is plenty of symbolism within The Great Gatsby. The infatuation with money is everywhere, and there is evidence that Gatsby, when they dated all those years ago, loved Daisy’s money more than Daisy herself. He reminisces about her mansion in particular, and when he reconnects with her finally he insightfully shares with Nick that ‘her voice is full of money’:

“She’s got an indiscreet voice,” I remarked. “It’s full of-“

I hesitated.

“Her voice is full of money,” he said suddenly.

That was it. I’d never understood before. It was full of money-that was the inexhaustible charm that rose and fell in it, the jingle of it, the cymbals’ song of it.

And ultimately wealth is the ultimate power of this age. Wealth consumes the rich, and destroys the poor. Everyone is striving for wealth in the book, but in The Great Gatsby, they bring immorality and death.

While reading The Great Gatsby I enjoyed Fitzgerald’s writing and the vivid and complex characters. But it was only once I had reached the end of the book and had it clouding my thoughts for days after that I realised how much the book has affected me. It’s a tragic tale of the hollowness of the American Dream that still resonates today.

And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

Anyone unable to understand how useful religion can be founded on lies will not understand this book either.

Like all of Kurt Vonnegut’s books, Cat’s Cradle is typically difficult to nail down in terms of genre. To define his books as science-fiction is like calling Moby Dick an adventure book; there’s much more to them than that. It is science-fiction, but there’s a hearty dollop of satire. And while it’s a tragic tale, the way its written reads more like a comedy. Vonnegut’s fourth novel, the book was published in 1963.

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The narrator of this story is John, or Jonah, who is attempting to write on what Americans were doing on the day the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. We follow him on his investigation into the life of the late Felix Hoenikker, the father of the atom bomb that killed thousands in Japan and brought WWII to an end. To learn more about him he contacts thes the three Hoenikker children, still affected by their father’s life and legacy, and it is through them he stumbles across Hoenikker’s last and most deadly invention, ice-nine. A blue crystal like substance, split into three and owned by the Hoenikker children, that upon contact would crystallise every droplet of water it touched, turning the Earth into a blue frozen tundra.

After the thing went off, after it was a sure thing that America could wipe out a city with just one bomb, a scientist turned to Father and said, ‘Science has now known sin.’ And do you know what Father said? He said, ‘What is sin?’ Felix Hoenikker. The bloke who invented the atom bomb. Promising. . .

John’s investigation takes him to the republic of San Lorenzo to interview Dr Julian Castle, where he is introduced to a number of strange and interesting people, including Dr Castle’s son and the owner of the island’s only hotel, Philip Castle, ‘Papa’ Monzano the island’s old and terminally ill dictator, his daughter Mona Monzano, the most beautiful woman John has ever seen, and the three Hoenikker children, Frank, Angel and Newt. And it is through his eyes and writings we witness the end of the world.

“Self-taught, are you?” Julian Castle asked Newt.

“Isn’t everybody?” Newt inquired.

“Very good answer”.

Dialogue throughout is often funny and smart.

“And Father started giggling,” Castle continued.

“He couldn’t stop. He walked out into the night with his flashlight. He was still giggling. He was making the flashlight beam dance over all the dead people stacked outside. He put his hand on my head and do you know what that marvelous man said to me?” asked Castle.

“Nope.”

‘Son,’ my father said to me, ‘someday this will all be yours”.

Vonnegut goes to town creating the wacky island of San Lorenzo, with a rich cast of characters and strange traditions and the fascinating religious movement, Bokononism. Many of the most thought-provoking quotes are Bokononist teachings, and John reveals during his tale that he too has become a Bokononist through his experiences on San Lorenzo.

cats cradle

To my eyes there are two main themes within Cat’s Cradle. Firstly, Ice-nine, Hoenikker’s technologically (or biochemically?) bewildering invention, clearly representing weapons of mass production (more specifically atomic warfare given the book was published a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis) and the threat their mere existence poses to humanity. The science involved is astounding. . .but ultimately the vast amount of intelligence and hard work has gone into creating something primarily to kill. And as is shown, accidents can happen – it doesn’t necessarily take an evil madman to destroy the world. What is somewhat amusing in the book, but terrifying in reality, is how easily this ensemble of inadequate and flawed characters have access to a doomsday device that can end humanity. We see how recklessly the Hoenikker children use it to get their wants. Angela, for example, gives some of her ice-nine to the Americans in exchange for a stunningly attractive toy-boy husband. Frank trades some of his ice-nine to Papa Monzano of San Lorenzo to be a Major in Papa’s shambolic army. The poor, poverty-stricken San Lorenzo where fatefully, ice-nine is allowed to be unleashed on the world.

I do not say that children at war do not die like men, if they have to die. To their everlasting honor and our everlasting shame, they do die like men, thus making possible the manly jubilation of patriotic holidays. But they are murdered children all the same. Vonnegut perhaps warming up his war-weariness for his most renowned work, Slaughterhouse 5.

Which leads to the second major theme of Cat’s Cradle, religion. Bokononism is Vonnegut’s calypso/Carribean themed religion, and the native religion on San Lorezno. The general theme is that we are attracted to certain people and objects throughout life, and those within the same group, a karass, are linked and somehow intertwined through the will of God. Within John’s karass is Dr. Felix Hoenikker and his three children along with many of the characters he encounters in San Lorenzo. Members of the same karass often express their love in the ritual ‘boko-maru’, where the bottoms of feet are pressed against one another. Like a sole-shake.

“Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before,” Bokonon tells us. “He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way.” Bokonon, in the Books of Bokonon, admits that it is all a lie, right off the bat. There is no deceit.

Don’t be a fool! Close this book at once! It is nothing but foma!

Live by the foma that make you brave and kind and healthy and happy. *foma = harmless untruths

Basically, Bokonon created Bokononism as a relief to those who need it. A lie can be a good thing if it promotes happiness, no? The inhabitants of San Lorezno are thin and dying, starving in poverty. They use Bokononism to make their lives more bearable.

“Papa” Monzano, he’s so very bad

But without bad “Papa” I would be so sad;

Because without “Papa’s” badness,

Tell me, if you would,

How could wicked old Bokonon

Ever, ever look good?

Bokonon’s calypso on Dynamic Tension

Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;

Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’

Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;

Man got to tell himself he understand.

Bokonon’s calypso on trying to understand

The very ending of the book shows Bokonon, sitting on the top of Mount McCabe, with a piece of paper containing scrawled handwriting. John approaches him and reads the final words of the Books of Bokonon;

If I were a younger man, I would write a history of human stupidity; and I would climb to the top of Mount McCabe and lie down on my back with my history for a pillow; and I would take from the ground some of the blue-white poison that makes statues of men; and I would make a statue of myself, lying on my back, grinning horribly, and thumbing my nose at You Know Who. The final sentence within the Books of Bokonon

That is how the book ends. Does this mean, upon reading this, John finishes his account and commits suicide? Is that the end? It seems likely. To discover Bokonon, contemplating his religion. To see him write like this, why did he carry on the charade of Bokononism all this time, if this was how he really felt? Or did he genuinely think he could make a difference, only for ice-nine and the end of the world caused by the events on San Lorenzo shatter his faith in (God/fate/mankind?)

Short and sweet, written simply with a rapid turnover of chapters, Cat’s Cradle is probably one of Vonnegut’s more accessible books. The warnings of humanity’s self-made destruction in ice-nine and the soothing falsities of religion as themes can be as shallow or as deep as the reader wants to take them. Or you can ignore that all together and read about a strange bunch of characters who together bring about the end of the world as we know it.

Someday, someday, this crazy world will have to end,

And our God will take things back that He to us did lend.

And if, on that sad day, you want to scold our God,

Why just go ahead and scold Him. He’ll just smile and nod.

Bokonon’s calypso on the end of the world

Four legs good, two legs bad.

The English classroom classic. I would imagine that Animal Farm was present on most secondary school curriculums and therefore, for better or worse, most have experienced Animal Farm. When I read the book, and I can’t remember quite how old I would have been, I recall a book about animals, mirroring flaws that we see in human nature, and struggles for power, for equality. Yes, the teacher at the time may have made some vague remark about it being very much a political book, but I wasn’t really interested and / or I didn’t comprehend it at the time.

Any commentary on Soviet history and communism would have been completely lost on me.

animal farm

Still from the 1994 live action adaptation. “Politics? I thought it was just a film about some animals”

Now of course, it’s a bit clearer. Animal Farm is a satirical novel, written by Orwell during the Second World War. Swimming in allegory and symbolism, it describes the situation in Europe and Russia, but takes away the main players of Stalin, Trotsky, Marx and Tsar and replaces them with an ensemble of animals; pigs, horses, dogs, sheep, and of course humans. It could be considered a dystopian novel too, in the same vein as Orwell’s other masterpiece, 1984.

We are given a short and direct sequence of events that occur at Manor Farm over the course of several years. Mr. Jones is the farmer and owner of Manor Farm, and his cruel and drunken handling of work and treatment of animals. Old Major, an old boar, prophesies a world where animals are no longer ruled by humans, deriding them as parasites who consume but do not contribute, and teaches the farm the song ‘Beasts of England’. He later dies, and this spurs the animals into revolt.

Their lives now, they reasoned, were hungry and laborious; was it not right and just that a better world should exist somewhere else?

They drive Jones and his farmhands from the farm and rename it Animal Farm. They set out a set of rules to ensure life on the farm is fair and better than under the rule of Jones. Named the ‘Seven Commandments of Animalism’, they are as follows;

Whatever goes upon two legs is an enemy.

Whatever goes upon four legs, or has wings, is a friend.

No animal shall wear clothes.

No animal shall sleep in a bed.

No animal shall drink alcohol.

No animal shall kill any other animal.

All animals are equal.

Cool cover design by John Holcroft http://crean.es/tag/john-holcroft/

Cool cover design by John Holcroft http://crean.es/tag/john-holcroft/

The animals are overjoyed at their revolution, and news of their victory over the humans soon spreads far and wide. Morale is high, the farmyard tasks run smoothly and life is better than ever before. The pigs are elevated to the leaders as they are naturally the most intelligent, and two young pigs Napoleon and Snowball seem to begin a political rivalry for leadership of the farm. Snowball seems the more educated with rational and well thought out ideas, keen for the farm to prosper and develop. Upon announcing plans to build a windmill, which could provide electricity to light stalls and keep the animals warm in the winter, Napoleon ousts Snowball and declares himself leader of the farm.

Slowly, under the rule of Napoleon, a more controlled and ordered rule of the farm comes into play. The pigs seem to have more and more benefits over the rest of the animals.

This work was strictly voluntary, but any animal who absented himself from it would have his rations reduced by half.

Napoleon also begins to manipulate the thoughts of the animals, primarily through a young pig named Squealer, who claims that the windmill idea was Napoleon’s idea all along, and the animals are required to start working hard (very hard) on the construction of the windmill right away. When the partially constructed windmill is destroyed in a storm, Squealer tells the animals that this was an act of sabotage from Snowball.

“No one believes more firmly than Comrade Napoleon that all animals are equal. He would be only too happy to let you make your decisions for yourselves. But sometimes you might make the wrong decisions, comrades, and then where should we be?”

Squealer becomes the charismatic mouthpiece for Napoleon’s regime is Squealer, a pig who spouts propaganda which is lapped up by the animals who have doubts and concerns but ultimately are too afraid of Animal Farm failing, and the possibility of the return of Farmer Jones.

“Surely, comrades, you do not want Jones back?”

Once again this argument was unanswerable. Certainly the animals did not want Jones back; if the holding of debates on Sunday mornings was liable to bring him back, then the debates must stop. Boxer, who had now had time to think things over, voiced the general feeling by saying: “If Comrade Napoleon says it, it must be right.” And from then on he adopted the maxim, “Napoleon is always right,” in addition to his private motto of “I will work harder.”

Snowball soon becomes the scapegoat for any and every problem that the farm encounters, and Napoleon begins to rule with an iron-fist. Any animal suspected of collaborating with Snowball are deemed traitors of Animal Farm and sentenced to death. Boxer the carthorse, the most faithful and hardworking of all the animals, strives to work for the benefit of the farm and collapses, injuring his hoof and unable to work any longer. He was close to retirement, and looks forward to a peaceful end to his life. Napoleon however, sells him to the slaughterhouse, disposing of him cruelly and for his own profit, as the pigs use the money to buy whisky. Instances of cruelty and inequality from Napoleon’s dictatorship continue but through Squealer’s propaganda and the animals fear, the farm reverts back to a state not seen since the days of Jones’ rule.

As the years pass, the pigs have taken on many human traits, such as sleeping in beds, drinking alcohol, wearing clothes – even walking on two legs and carrying whips. And all this despite the initial commandments stating otherwise…but when the animals return to the wall of the barn where the commandments were initially painted, they have been replaced by just a single line, reading:

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

The animals, exhausted and starving, leave their pens one night to a raucous event occurring within the farmhouse. Napoleon and the rest of the pigs are celebrating an alliance with a local human farmer, and together men and pig are drinking, gambling, laughing. Napoleon announces that the farm shall return to being named ‘The Manor Farm’. As the animals are about to leave the farm for good, they hear curses and shouts and return to the farmhouse window.

There were shoutings, bangings on the table, sharp suspicious glances, furious denials. The source of the trouble appeared to be that Napoleon and Mr Pilkington had each played an ace of spades simultaneously. Twelve voices were shouting in anger, and they were all alike. No question, now, what had happened to the faces of the pigs. The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig, and from pig to man again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

animal farm cover mine

Animal Farm demands a reread. Orwell achieved something special, with a story that can be as simple, or complex as you like. Take it as a sort of fable at face value, a reenactment of the Russian Revolution leading into the Stalin era, or a commentary on the nature and perils of revolution. I believe the book is not strictly a warning on communism, or criticising the Stalin era, (the Russian Revolution and events leading up to WWII), but of all forms of rebellion and overthrowing those in power. Benjamin, the aged donkey who has lived longer than anyone on the farm, speaks very little. He is distant and disgruntled all of the time, and is heard cryptically saying that a donkey lives a long time. He is cynical and wise, and has perhaps lived through many a regime, thus perhaps he has seen this all before. I think he sees that revolution and struggles for power are always inevitable, but in the grand scheme of things living rarely changes or improves for the masses.

Only old Benjamin professed to remember every detail of his long life and to know that things never had been, nor ever could be much better or much worse–hunger, hardship, and disappointment being, so he said, the unalterable law of life.

The cynical, pessimistic but wise Benjamin.

Life will go on as it always has gone on – that is, badly.

If you haven’t read Animal Farm since you were a young mind in school, take another look. It will be a totally different read to what you remember. If you haven’t read it at all, and you aren’t interesting in such a politically charged piece, give it a chance. It still has Orwell’s simple, easy to read prose, and the short length combined with its fairytale feel means it can be digested quickly and easily. And by digging deeper, one of the most read and arguably important books of the past century awaits.

Four legs good, two legs better.

Meet the Bundrens. A dysfunctional family who struggle with the death of Addie Bundren, mother and wife, in their own ways while each plagued by their inner demons.

As I Lay Dying, written by American author William Faulkner and published in 1930, is considered a classic, one of the great twentieth century novels. One of Faulkner’s most renowned works, it is best known for its wide cast of narrating characters (over 59 chapters there are 15 different narrators…!) and unorthodox structure, with lengthy chapters interjected with sentence-long chapters. Faulkner too utilises a writing technique known as stream of consciousness, where the actions and speech of the characters is connected and dispersed with thoughts, ramblings and inner monologues.

While by no means the first to use such techniques as stream of consciousness and multiple narrators, Faulkner is considered somewhat of a pioneer in his ability to evoke such an emotional and intimate piece. We are given the monologues of the flawed Bundrens, and the observations rife with (or without) sympathy from outsiders who watch as they pass.

Any dysfunctional family needs a struggling father figure. Anse Bundren is a stubborn, self-obsessed, god fearing man. He is preparing for the death of his bedridden wife, Addie, who watches from her window their oldest son Cash as he slaves away on a coffin, the very coffin which will carry Addie Bundren to Jefferson, Mississippi, the home of her family, when she dies.

Sons Darl, a strange, almost omnipotent entity, and Jewel, the illegitimate but favoured son of Addie, bastard born of a preacher, are taken away on an errand during their mother’s final days. When they return, Addie is dead and together the Bundrens set off on a long trip to Jefferson, coffin loaded in their wagon.

It takes two people to make you, and one people to die. That’s how the world is going to end. DARL

Due to the methods Faulkner uses during As I Lay Dying there is no real central protagonist, but Darl narrates the most chapters and would be the leading candidate for the role. Darl is perhaps the most intriguing character, for Faulkner seemingly gives him internal thoughts high above his actual intellect, for his external diction comes across as simple and few. He is even given an air of omniscience as he is able to report back on events happening while he is not there. Hard to pin down as he seems somewhat unstable, this is mentioned several times by characters who seem to agree Darl has a somewhat mystical quality. He burns the barn and appears to lose his sanity towards the end (carted off to a mental asylum), he is disconnected from the family and perhaps his experiences during the war in which he fought have led to his unhinged state. He taunts Jewel while they are both away from the Bundren household for work, questioning his parentage, something that is apparently unknown to the rest of the family.

In a strange room you must empty yourself for sleep. And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you. And when you are emptied for sleep, you are not. And when you are filled with sleep, you never were. I don’t know what I am. I don’t know if I am or not. Jewel knows he is, because he does not know that he does not know whether he is or not. He cannot empty himself for sleep because he is not what he is and he is what he is not. Beyond the unlamped wall I can hear the rain shaping the wagon that is ours, the load that is no longer theirs that felled and sawed it nor yet theirs that bought it and which is not ours either, lie on our wagon though it does, since only the wind and the rain shape it only to Jewel and me, that are not asleep. And since sleep is is-not and rain and wind are was, it is not. Yet the wagon is, because when the wagon is was, Addie Bundren will not be. And Jewel is, so Addie Bundren must be. And then I must be, or I could not empty myself for sleep in a strange room. And so if I am not emptied yet, I am is. DARL

Indeed, it could be that Darl’s perception is so strong, rather than being crazy, that leads him to act the way he does. We see him crying after Jewel has saved their mother’s coffin from the fire, and perhaps, seeing the arduous task that lies ahead (and perhaps Anse’s selfish intentions), he attempts to end this farcical trip that threatens to tear the family apart.

How often have I lain beneath rain on a strange roof, thinking of home. DARL

Jewel is a man of action, devoted to his mother and her memory. We always see him proactively attempting to move forward. Singlehandedly getting the coffin onto the wagon, rescuing it from the burning barn, and even selling his beloved horse in order for the Bundren’s to keep on their way to Jefferson. A product of an affair between Addie and Reverend Whitfield, Addie has a child she does not share with Anse and therefore has a bond with him stronger than any of Anse’s biological children.

The reason for living was to get ready to stay dead a long time. ADDIE

Addie’s chapter, roughly halfway through the novel, is haunting. Are we hearing Addie from beyond the grave, or are these her thoughts before she died? Either way, her morbid pessimism and discontent with life is hard-hitting. Some of the bleakest quotes in the book come from Addie.

He had a word, too. Love, he called it. But I had been used to words for a long time. I knew that that word was like the others: just a shape to fill a lack; that when the right time came, you wouldn’t need a word for that any more than for pride or fear….One day I was talking to Cora. She prayed for me because she believed I was blind to sin, wanting me to kneel and pray too, because people to whom sin is just a matter of words, to them salvation is just words too. ADDIE
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That was when I learned that words are no good; that words dont ever fit even what they are trying to say at. When he was born I knew that motherhood was invented by someone who had to have a word for it because the ones that had the children didn’t care whether there was a word for it or not. I knew that fear was invented by someone that had never had the fear; pride, who never had the pride. ADDIE

Cash is the eldest of the Bundren children, and a skilled and dedicated carpenter. One short chapter Cash purely dictates in detail the process of building the coffin for his mother. Logical and understanding, Cash seems the most balanced of the Bundren children, but for all this he near drowns crossing the river and has lost the use of a leg by the time Addie is in the ground.

Sometimes I aint so sho who’s got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he aint. Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way. It’s like it aint so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it. CASH

I feel like a wet seed wild in the hot blind earth. DEWEY DELL

Dewey Dell is the second youngest of the Bundren’s, and the only girl. She is pregnant, and much of her chapters focus on her own problems and how she plans to deal with them. She comes across as naive, and her age dictates much of her behaviour. She struggles with her identity, with her sexuality, and seems to have similar feelings about children and motherhood that her mother had. What’s worse, she is to be a single mother; the father, a worker on their farm, has given her ten dollars for an abortion, but Dewey’s lack of understanding and knowledge on the subject, as well as being unable to speak to anyone (for noone except Darl knows – and he shows little sympathy) make her life unbearable. Her chapters come across as selfish and careless about the situation around her but it is hard not to feel any sympathy.

I said to Dewey Dell: “You want her to die so you can get to town: is that it?” She wouldn’t say what we both knew. “The reason you will not say it is, when you say it, even to yourself, you will know it is true: is that it? But you know it is true now. I can almost tell you the day when you knew it is true. Why wont you say it, even to yourself?” She will not say it. She just keeps on saying Are you going to tell pa? Are you going to kill him? “You cannot believe it is true because you cannot believe that Dewey Dell, Dewey Dell Bundren, could have such bad luck: is that it?” DARL

The youngest Bundren child is Vardarman. His mother is a fish. At just seven years old his chapters are difficult to comprehend. He is just a kid, but a traumatised and confused kid. His attempt to give Addie breathing holes in her coffin only to bore into her face is almost grotesquely amusing, as well as tragic.

My mother is a fish. VARDARMAN

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There are a number of set pieces that build up platforms for the characters to stand upon and they either stand or fall. Some can handle the pressure and sorrow, others fall by the wayside, lose themselves on the journey.

It can be difficult to follow the narrative. Some scenes overlap and are described from different perspectives. From a different point of view the same scene can come across very differently. The river crossing and the burning of the barn; some of the details are lost and not immediately revealed. It can take a while for the current situation to be clear, and past events clarified. Throughout, Faulkner scatters some beautiful prose, often through Darl’s stream of thoughts.

The river itself is not a hundred yards across, and pa and Vernon and Vardaman and Dewey Dell are the only things in sight not of that single monotony of desolation leaning with that terrific quality a little from right to left, as though we had reached the place where the motion of the wasted world accelerates just before the final precipice. DARL

The ending is almost comical; Anse returns with another woman, a new wife, taken just hours after Addie has been put in the ground. You can sense the children staring with mouths agape, and while his philosophy of isolation is flawed, at the end of the novel he has new teeth, and he has a new wife. His dishonorable actions have worked in his favour. And this, the father of these characters. He has ultimately used his family for his own wants.

“It’s Cash and Jewel and Varadaman and Dewey Del’, pa says kind of hangdog and proud too, with this teeth and all, even if he wouldn’t look at us. ‘Meet Mrs Bundren’, he says.” ANSE

As I Lay Dying can be a challenging read. Not immediately accessible, it may require patience. Still, I enjoyed it and appreciate the style and the feel Faulkner has used masterful effect.

Introducing We, the godfather of the dystopian novel. Written by Russian author Yevgeny Zamyatin in 1921, it has endured a troublesome publication history to say the least. At the time of writing Russia had recently undergone revolution, the rise of the Bolsheviks and the governing of the Soviet Union.

We is thought to show Zamyatin’s disapproval of heavy labour and industry witnessed in England, along with the strict censorship becoming apparent under the Bolshevik regime. Zamyatin’s work was initially, and perhaps unsurprisingly, denied publication in Russia; its first publication came in 1924, an English translation by Gregory Zilboorg. Zamyatin was banned from writing and exiled numerous times. His work was not published in his native country until 1988, three years before the fall of the Soviet Union and an incredible 51 years after Zamyatin’s death, in Paris, in poverty, in 1937.

A man is like a novel: until the very last page you don’t know how it will end. Otherwise it wouldn’t be worth reading.

We is set in the twenty-sixth century A.D., in the walled up nation of the OneState where a totalitarian system presided by ‘The Benefactor’ rules a society where logic and reason preside over emotions and freedom. Taking place a thousand years after the Two Hundred Year War, where it is suggested weapons of mass destruction wiped out the majority of the population, the OneState is a city made almost entirely of glass; thus allowing the Guardians to keep a constant eye on the subservient public. People are given numbers rather than names, and the narrative focuses around the journal entries of D-503, a mathematician and lead engineer of the spaceship INTEGRAL, upon which is a mission to locate and bring happiness to (see: invade and conquer) life on other planets.

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Life in those early diary entries doesn’t seem so bad, at least not to D-503. He is assigned a lover, O-90, who must obtain pink slips in order to draw the blinds in his glass apartment and make love. The numbers work and outside of work they visit the auditorium or take part in controlled, synchronised marches across the city. There are public executions. The sky is always blue…

But then, the sky! Blue, untainted by a single cloud (the Ancientes had such barbarous tastes given that their poets could have been inspired by such stupid, sloppy, silly-lingering clumps of vapour). I love – and i’m certain that i’m not mistaken if i say we love – skies like this, sterile and flawless! On days like these, the whole world is blown from the same shatterproof, everlasting glass as the glass of the Green Wall and of all our structures. On days like these, you can see to the very blue depths of things, to their unknown surfaces, those marvelous expressions of mathematical equality – which exist in even the most usual and everyday objects.

When on one of these walks, D-503 encounters the strange woman, I-330. Through her eccentric and rebellious behavior (in which, among other habits, she takes to smoking and drinking alcohol) she makes him feel sick and angry yet has a strange pull on his mind. One day she takes him to the Ancient House, a property (the only one in the OneState not built of glass) on the outskirts by the city walls, filled with antique goods and pieces of history. Steadily his mind is opened to the possibility of the soul, to the happiness and individuality he had not previously experienced under the disguise of the many, the army of ‘we’.

D-503 is torn and both loves and detests I-330, vowing to report her to the authorities but never able to bring himself to do it.

In the widely open cup of the armchair was I-330. I, on the floor, embracing her limbs, my head on her lap. We were silent. Everything was silent. Only the pulse was audible. Like a crystal I was dissolving in her, in I-330. I felt most distinctly how the polished facets which limited me in space were slowly thawing, melting away. I was dissolving in her lap, in her, and I became at once smaller and larger, and larger, unembraceable. For she was not she but the whole universe. For a second I and that armchair near the bed, transfixed with joy, we were one.

Everything used to revolve around the sun; now I knew it all revolved around me-slowly, blissfully, squinting its eyes.

Written as a series of journal entries, the reader witnesses the confusion and conflict as D-503 experiences them. So desperate is he for this account to be used and read by future generations, historians, even other species…he is determined to keep all the crippling doubts, the insane dreams, the sickness he feels as his mind is opened to a freedom the OneState has denied him for his entire life.

And a question stirred within me: What if he, this yellow-eyed creature, in his disorderly, filthy mound of leaves, in his uncomputed life, is happier than we are?

[Directed at D-503] You’re in a bad way! Apparently, you have developed a soul.

And everyone must lose his mind, everyone must! The sooner the better! It is essential — I know it.

After a series of riots and rebellions, D-503 discovers that I-330 is a member of MEPHI, an organisation intent on destroying the iron fist that rules the citizens of the OneState. In response The Benefactor reveals the ‘Great Operation’ – basically, a lobotomy for all citizens, so that they can experience true happiness. As D-503 observes, ‘like tractors in human form’.

D-503 is finally forced, like the rest of the citizens of OneState, to be tied down and submitted to x-rays which removes emotions and imagination from the brain, in order to prevent future riots and discontent. We ends bleakly. D-503 is indifferent. He willingly informs The Benefactor of MEPHI, giving up information willingly on all known members, including the woman whom he loved so dear, I-330. He casually informs of the torture and execution of the MEPHI members, but registers some surprise that despite extensive torture, I-330 gave up nothing.

There is some hope. Through the actions of MEPHI social rebellion is on the rise, and the Green Wall cannot keep out the wilderness beyond forever as birds flock in through the cracks.

We is not an easy read. The narrator admits himself – he is not a poet, not a writer. He is an engineer, a mathematician. He works in equations, calculations, fractions. There is a logical and mathematical answer for everything, and so when his eyes are forced open by I-330 and MEPHI he can barely understand what is happening, let alone explain this coherently. But the more journalistic style Zamyatin has chosen to report his narrative gives a personal feel. The first person perspective allow us to tap into the doubts D-503 experiences, the feelings that are within his very nature, hardwired into the human spirit but that have been repressed, by years of manipulation and engineering. It is sad but fascinating to watch D-503 struggle between what he has always known and what he starts to feel.

Parallels with Orwell’s 1984 are unavoidable, and Orwell is widely known to have been inspired by Zamyatin’s tale. Winston Smith is D-503. Julia is I-330. Big Brother, the anonymous, almost mythical figure of power, is the Benefactor. An intimidating dictator but more human – he is shown to the numbers and to the reader, and D-503 even has a conversation with him. The telescreens replace the glass rooms and buildings. 1984 follows We’s plot and characters with unnerving accuracy.

A portrait of Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1923 by Boris Kustodiev

A portrait of Yevgeny Zamyatin, 1923 by Boris Kustodiev

‘Now I no longer live in our clear, rational world; I live in the ancient nightmare world, the world of square roots of minus one.’ D-503. Not at all dissimilar to Winston’s dilemma in 1984 of 2 + 2 =5.

Orwell is quoted as saying ‘This is a book to look out for when an English version appears.’ Perhaps he got tired of waiting and wrote his own version. This is by no means a slight on Orwell. It is written better than We, which I at times struggled to read for the reasons I have criticised previously.

Zamyatin’s future is more mathematical, more precise, more sterile. Technology has fuelled it. Whereas Orwell’s feels more like a response to the threat of war. Both are disturbing in the futures they portray but Orwell’s is darker, bleaker, filled with pessimism. Suitably Orwellian. Zamyatin allows for D-503 to provide an informality, a lighter tone – dare I say a slight more humour, in the way that only the first person narrative of a diary can achieve.

With We, Zamyatin seemingly accepts that together, the collective can grow strong and accomplish incredible technical feats, such as the INTEGRAL. But a stark warning remains within, that the cost of such technology and precision could have on the individual, the happiness and the soul of each.

Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 … may all be more compelling, arguably better constructed stories, more complete in their attempts to illustrate a future that nobody wants. But We got their first. We blazed the trail for dystopian futures, as a platform to air concerns on events that were happening at the time and predict and warn what we stand to lose if these ideals are carried out.

Ubik is a dazzling science fiction novel, which is as unsettling and hard to pin down as it is ambitious and visionary. When it comes to creating worlds and futures, imaginative and brave beyond belief, Dick is right up there. His writing may be somewhat lacking in comparison to the greats. He doesn’t have a distinctive style; a relatively simplistic prose that rarely leaves the reader breathless. Rather, he lets his visions and ideas do the talking, and it is these that compel the reader to continue.

Dick describes to us another fantastic manifestation of his wild imagination. In Ubik, the year is 1992 and space travel is commonplace, with humanity capable of colonising on other planets, including the moon. The protagonist is Joe Chip – an employee of the Runciter Association. They are a ‘prudence organisation’, and Joe is a tester, whose job is to measure and verify the potency of ‘intertials’ or anti-psis. These are individuals who can negate the psychic powers of individuals with psionic abilities, who are often hired to commit acts of business sabotage. Joe’s boss and employer, Glen Runciter, runs the association with help from his deceased wife, Ella. Yes – deceased. Another aspect of the future presented in Ubik is the ability to cryonically store the dead and communicate with them, albeit in a slightly limited fashion. This suspension, known as ‘half-life’, allows the dead a limited state of consciousness and the ability to speak to former loved ones, family and friends.

It touches on, but never really investigates this new culture of psychics and inertials. It’s a fascinating subject – and the fact that Dick goes down a path where they aren’t fully explained is bold. Like I said, I would have expect this great battle between Runciter Associates’ inertials and Hollis’ psis on Luna. But on Luna, the situation changes, and the narrative begins to revolve more around the method of half-life.

Personally, there was some slight disappointment that the plot didn’t go in the direction I expected to. But whose fault is that? Certainly not Dick’s. The pieces were being arranged for a battle between Hollis’ psis, and Runciter’s inertials. And we do get that – kind of. But I expected these psychic and psionic abilities to play a much more forward role, and the half-life technology to take a backseat (as interesting and imaginative as it is).

When reading a book, the majority of the time you have an idea of what type of book it is shaping out to be. A hunch of what is going on, who the main players are, where the plot is going. Ubik is different. As a reader, moments are few and far between where you feel ‘safe’. I attribute safe to understanding. Dick is a master at pulling the rug out from under you. But in Ubik, he yanks that rug chapter after chapter. You will feel battered and bruised, and thoroughly confused.

There are a multitude of characters; the nature of the narrative means some are, not underdeveloped but perhaps underused. The focus remains on Runciter and Joe Chip throughout, with a few more key players being introduced later on. Glen Runciter is a well respected, experienced businessman who is admired by his employees. After the events on Luna there seems to be a real sense of shock at the loss of this great man. But he is resourceful and cunning – the trail of breadcrumbs he leaves for Joe and the group allows them to ‘wake up’ and realise the danger and reality of their situation. And Joe Chip – a faithful employee of the Runciter Association, he is clearly talented and rated highly by his boss and friend Glen Runciter. But he is not without his faults. There is a hint of unused potential, and his poor handling of personal finances and disorganised living quarters is a cause for some ridicule and disrespect.

From the drawer beside the sink Joe Chip got a stainless steel knife; with it he began systematically to unscrew the bolt assembly of his apt’s money-gulping door.

“I’ll sue you,” the door said as the first screw fell out. Joe Chip said, “I’ve never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live through it.”

The Runciter Association’s main rivals are run by a man named Ray Hollis, who runs an organisation of psychics. Given a lucrative contract by the powerful businessman Stanton Mick, Runciter organises a party of 11 of his inertials, as well as Joe Chip and himself, to travel to Mick’s lunar facilities on the moon, where the anti-psis will be used to negate the telepaths ability and enforce privacy. However a trap has been set, no doubt orchestrated by Hollis to cripple his rival, and a bomb kills Runciter and leaves the rest of the employees in complete disarray. They panic and flee Luna, desperate to escape with their lives and to get the dying Runicter into ‘cold-pac’, so he can continue to advise and run the Runciter Association from half-life.

When that bomb explodes, everything changes. Runciter is killed. Or is he? What follows is a pseudo- crazy trip through time and the past. Reality is seemingly changing radically all around the group, and it becomes clear that not all is as it seems.

A bizarre state of decay and rapid ageing is following the group everywhere. Stale cigarettes that crumble when taken out the packet. And more grotesquely, dried-up and desiccated corpses of the Luna expedition.

Bizarre, existential questions then start being asked within the group. Was Runciter killed in the explosion? Is it, in fact, the group that died, and Runciter that survived? Did anyone die…or are they all dead, communicating with each other in half-life?

At the same time, it appears Runciter is attempting to contact his former employees. Joe Chip hears him through his hotel telephone. His face appears on currency. And most importantly, Joe Chip witnesses an advertisement featuring Runciter promoting a bizarre product; Ubik. At the start of each chapter, an advertising slogan is featured, praising Ubik as some sort of wonder product that can be used for anything and everything. Yet in the narrative it is not introduced until the last act.

Instant Ubik has all the fresh flavour of just-brewed drip coffee. Your husband will say, Christ, Sally, I used to think your coffee was only so-so. But now, wow! Safe when taken as directed.

My hair is so dry, so unmanageable. What’s a girl to do? Simply rub in creamy Ubik hair conditioner. In just five days you’ll discover new body in your hair, new glossiness. And Ubik hairspray, used as directed, is absolutely safe.

It appears that Ubik is an agent (most consistently found in the form of a spray can) which can ‘restore the effects of aging’, and has possibly been created by those in half-life – as a way of protecting themselves from stronger, hungrier minds that can devour others in half-life to extent their own time in this bizarre limbo.

I am Ubik. Before the universe was, I am. I made the suns. I made the worlds. I created the lives and the places they inhabit; I move them here, I put them there. They go as I say, then do as I tell them. I am the word and my name is never spoken, the name which no one knows. I am called Ubik, but that is not my name. I am. I shall always be.

There are several theories but the strongest comes from Dick’s wife Tessa, who in her essay ‘Ubik Explained, sort of’, she wrote “Ubik is a metaphor for God. Ubik is all-powerful and all-knowing, and Ubik is everywhere. The spray can is only a form that Ubik takes to make it easy for people to understand it and use it. It is not the substance inside the can that helps them, but rather their faith in the promise that it will help them.”

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This is a difficult book to write about. Having read some Franz Kafka recently, I would describe Ubik as incredibly kafkaesque. A spiralling sense of confusion and incoherence. The unease you will feel of an impending danger or doom.

Ubik is a book I suspect the reader would benefit from reading more than once. If I didn’t have such a huge backlog I’d probably be reading it now. But it might benefit from a few months on the shelf as my subconscious tries to figure out what the hell just happened.

We are served by organic ghosts, he thought, who, speaking and writing, pass through this our new environment. Watching, wise, physical ghosts from the full-life world, elements of which have become for us invading but agreeable splinters of a substance that pulsates like a former heart.