Literature, with the naughty bits

Saturday, May 31, 2008

American Psycho

Author: Bret Easton Ellis

First Published: 1991

Why It's Been Challenged: Ellis drops the F-bomb on page 2 and the N-bomb four pages after that. But that's mild compared with what follows: racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, anti-Semitism; rampant drug and alcohol abuse; obscenely conspicuous consumption (you can skim over the descriptions of tabbed collars the same way you do the nautical passages in Moby-Dick); masturbation; graphic casual sex, hired sex, premarital sex, group sex; porn; necrophilia and hinted pedophilia; cannibalism; misinformation about AIDS; cruelty to animals; cruelty to mimes (threatened); and of course the psychopathic violence--towards children, towards the homeless, towards taxi drivers, but mostly towards women--that gives the book its title.

Censorship History: The release of American Psycho caused a bit of a flap. Aghast advance reviewers condemned the book (it does tend to cause a rather visceral reaction in the reader), and in the face of such negative publicity Simon & Schuster canceled publication. Vintage swooped in (some say they smelled profit in the public furor) and gave Ellis a new contract. There has been much discussion over whether this sort of suppression actually counts as censorship; Roger Rosenblatt and Lorrie Moore claim it doesn't, whereas John Irving (also writing in the Times) claims it does.

In Australia the book is still restricted to buyers under 18, and it is sometimes sold in shrink wrap.

It pains me to say this, but in the U.S., some of the loudest protests have come from feminists, especially the National Organization for Women. One woman was arrested for staging a "read-in," in which she read objectionable portions of the book out loud at her local B. Dalton. I'm a feminist, and I didn't particularly like the book, but look: The humorless suppression of non-feminist texts is one of the most lamentable and counterproductive aspects of feminism. Does our own liberation have to rely on the suppression of others? God, I hope not.

Value as Satire: A review on the back cover (from Katherine Dunn) compares Ellis's writing with Jane Austen's. Though it presents several glorious comic possibilities--the 13-year-old girl who has exhausted the Austen canon turning hopefully to the romantic escapades of Patrick Bateman, or the first page of American Psycho II: Pride and Extreme Prejudice ("It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a victim")--the comparison is inaccurate. Most satire can be classed as either Horatian (generous, gentle, benevolent, à la Christopher Guest) or Juvenalian (darker, misanthropic, caustic, less likely to present a redeeming view of the world, à la Jonathan Swift). Austen can be scathing, but her sympathy for her characters puts her squarely in the Horation camp. American Psycho has no such sympathy, and nothing resembling redemption; it's Juvenalian. Austen is also, pace Ms. Dunn, a far better stylist than Ellis. Austen wields a chisel; Ellis wields a mallet, a hacksaw, and some battery acid.

Still, in its excessive depiction of excess, this has some claims to being over-the-top high satire. But is it really all that far from the truth? In the characters' amorality and self-absorption, no. (Newsweek quoted a yuppie after the 1987 stock market crash: "You don't understand. The wife expects a new Jaguar every year, and the two houses aren't paid for yet.") The 1980s, after all, were the decade that saw Dan Quayle elected vice president despite being outdebated by an 11-year-old.

And what of the central conceit, that everyone around Bateman is too awful and drugged up to notice that one of their friends is a psychopath? It's definitely funny, one of the book's most potent ideas, but again, no great departure from the truth. It turns out that pyschopaths tend to succeed fantastically in business, aided by their ruthlessness and manipulativeness. So, all in all, American Psycho is another case of a blow meant for satire landing squarely on the nail of fact.

Value as Erotica: Potentially useful, if you stop reading at the right place. But line between the sexual episodes and the violent episodes tends to blur, and if you treat this book as erotica you're probably going to feel a bit icky afterwards.

Value as Literature: Despite the initial foul press, a lot of people love this book. I think that, like Fight Club, this is a novel that (perhaps inadvertently) reveals how a generation wants to see itself and its demons. Still, for all the assurances that this is a big book, an important book, I feel cheated.

This story is indeed disturbing and alienating; it makes you look at familiar places and people and wonder what madness lurks just out of sight. And making the familiar strange, as Samuel Johnson put it, is certainly one of the big tasks of fiction. But this is still a fairly punishing read. It kept making me think of other books that cover the same territory. For satire of overconsumption, The Bonfire of the Vanities and White Noise; for creepiness, In Cold Blood; for splatter, From Hell; for real-life accounts of excess, The Clothes Have No Emperor and The Smartest Guys in the Room.

And the actual writing? Some of the narrative devices interfere with the narrative itself, and that's a problem. Form must nearly always follow function in narrative. It doesn't absolutely have to, but the novelist departs from that path at his own peril.

It's one of Ellis's satirical conceits that people in Bateman's world are constantly mistaken for other people, because these yuppies are so slavishly devoted to the same ideals of appearance and behavior that they are fundamentally interchangeable. But this means any chance for emotional growth or catharsis through continuity of character is pretty much shot.

Also, Patrick Bateman spends a lot of time under the influence of drugs; since it's a first-person narrative, that means the drugs interfere with the order and clarity of events. But that happens in a lot of books, and there are still ways to get that information to the reader. Ellis doesn't. Either he doesn't know, or he doesn't care, or he thinks it's somehow cool that we don't know. But this is not just a matter of minor confusion. It's the biggest question any novelist ever answers: But what happens? American Psycho is a story without a climax. Yes, it's sort of the point that Bateman never gets caught, but that doesn't explain how he gets out of a situation that seems certain to lead to his arrest, at a point when the reader is rooting for him to get caught. Ellis just breaks off and jumps to another episode, without explanation or reflection. That's lazy writing, and it breaks the contract between writer and reader. The climax may not be what the reader wants or expects, but by god it has to be there. Especially after you have made me endure the same endlessly repeated jokes, and scene after scene of gore, you had damn well better include a climax.

Ellis seems to have been going for shock. But one shock awakens; one hundred shocks numb. Eventually the reader succumbs to the same deadened resentment as Bateman's victims: you just want it to be over.

Trivia: The movie version of American Psycho was also censored before its release in the U.S.

In 1991, Australian Wade Frankum killed seven people in what seems to be universally described as a killing spree. The coroner made a much-publicized report that Frankum had a "well-thumbed" copy of American Psycho. It touched off much the same debate we saw in the U.S. when it was revealed that the Columbine gunmen were fans of Marilyn Manson. (John Irving hazards a wry guess that rape and murder existed before pornographic videocassettes.)

Ironically enough, Ellis received death threats because of American Psycho.

What Else: In the funniest example of how all that money can't buy taste, Bateman worships Genesis and Huey Lewis and the News (whom he compares favorably to the Clash, Elvis Costello, and the Beach Boys) but is unaware of Earth Wind & Fire or "some Irish band called U2." Again, this--coupled with my frustrated desire for catharsis--made me think of another book. I started imagining some sort of Literary Character Death Match that would pit Bateman against High Fidelity's Rob Fleming. Granted, Fleming is mild-mannered and likely unarmed. But with Dick and Barry at his side he might stand a chance, and they could at least get in a few choice zingers about "Sussudio" before the inevitable bloodbath.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008


Author: James Joyce

First Published: 1922 (in book form); 1918-1920 (in serial form, which started all the trouble)

What Happens: Joyce uses over 700 pages to describe one day in the life of Leopold Bloom, a Dublin man convinced his wife Molly is cheating on him.

Each chapter of Ulysses corresponds to an episode of Homer's Odyssey, and scholars tend to refer to the chapters by episode ("Circe," "Oxen of the Sun," and so forth). Some characters correspond as well; Stephen Dedalus is Telemachus, the son figure to Bloom's Odysseus. For each chapter, Joyce uses a different narrative technique appropriate to the events of the episode. So, for example, when Bloom visits a friend whose wife is in labor, the technique is embryonic development, and the chapter's style therefore develops from early medieval Anglo-Saxon prose to a jazz- and slang-inflected 1920s patter.

Why The Odyssey? Well, in that story, Odysseus wanders the sea for ten years while his wife Penelope fends off suitors at home. A crucial difference: Penelope is faithful. She promises to choose a suitor when she finishes her weaving; then every night she surreptitiously unravels the day's work. (Oh, sure, it sounds a bit arbitrary, but it's actually the very same strategy the City of Chicago uses for road construction.)

Censorship History: Unholy. This is one of the grandaddies of literary censorship cases. Ulysses caused more burning, bowdlerization, piracy, arrest, smuggling, and destruction than the MacGuffin in a Dan Brown novel. In the process, it went through so many editions and revisions that there is no single definitive text. And it's still being censored today by certain Web nanny software.

But let's start at the beginning. Ulysses might not have been published at all without the efforts of Ezra Pound, who had championed Joyce and already helped him publish A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Joyce called Pound "a miracle worker." (In one of those episodes that illustrates the way talent grows in clusters, they had met through W.B. Yeats.) Pound helped Joyce obtain serial publication of Ulysses in the American literary magazine The Little Review. But the magazine ran into censorship trouble almost immediately. Pound himself deleted about 20 lines from the fourth episode; he suggested to the editors that they run a disclaimer: "'until literature is permitted in America,' we cannot print Mr J's next sentence."

The serial raised eyebrows a few more times, but the episode that really got everyone in trouble was number 13, "Nausikaa." In this chapter, Bloom sees a beautiful young woman on the shore, and he surreptitiously masturbates. (The narrative device is tumescence/detumescence.) Clearly, the idea that a man might masturbate--especially while looking at a young woman--was too much for the American public to handle. In bringing the magazine to the attention of the authorities, John Sumner, of the New York Society for the Prevention of Vice, said that the episode was "so obscene, lewd, lascivious, filthy, indecent, and disgusting, that a minute description of the same would be offensive to the Court and improper to be placed upon the record thereof." Tell us what you really think, John.

Bail for the editors of The Little Review was set at $25 apiece. (Bail! For editors! Of a literary magazine! Of course, back then, archaeologists outran Nazis, and novelists fought bulls and fascists. How can we bring that level of adventure back to the desk job?) The ensuing trial declared Ulysses "unintelligible" but no less offensive for that; the magazine had to stop the serialization and the editors were fined.

The expat Sylvia Beach offered to publish Ulysses in Paris, with her small press Shakespeare & Company. That edition appeared in 1922, but it had some problems. For one thing, the typesetters didn't speak English. For another, Joyce's worsening glaucoma made his handwritten edits sometimes impossible to read. And there were multiple, sometimes contradictory drafts. Beach estimated that the 1922 edition contained one to six errors per page.

Shakespeare & Company sent 500 copies to the U.S., but they were nearly all confiscated or destroyed. In 1923, English Customs seized the replacement shipment and burned 497 of its 500 copies. Some copies were smuggled into the States in the literary equivalent of a plain brown wrapper--a binding bearing the title The Complete Works of William Shakespeare.

Through no effort of the author, Ulysses popped up in serial form again in the late 1920s. The U.S. magazine Two Worlds had pirated it and published it, heavily bowdlerized. Artists everywhere protested.

In 1932, the Odyssey press brought out an edition that it claimed was definitive, edited by Joyce's friend Stuart Gilbert. Though others have disputed the edition's definitive-ness, there's no doubt that Gilbert is one of the most useful authorities on Joyce; woe to the solo reader who attempts Ulysses without Gilbert's guide to the chapter-by-chapter narrative schemata. But whether his edition is definitive is unfortunately moot, since the printer's plates were probably destroyed when Hamburg was bombed in World War II.

Finally, in December 1933, the U.S. lifted its ban on Ulysses. In the same week, Prohibition was repealed. It's not hard to imagine one hell of an editorial party.

What Else: Ulysses is one of the watershed moments of modernism. Many people consider it the greatest novel of the 20th century. By most standards, it's a masterpiece of experimental prose. To my mind, looking for smut in a novel like this is like visiting Fallingwater and checking under the upstairs mattress.

But let's be clear: The average reader, working unassisted, will probably never make it to the passages that provoked such an uproar. The paragraphs are dense. The allusions are tricky and obscure. Bloom's stream of consciousness, like Bloom himself, wanders all over the place. In the hallucinatory "Circe" chapter you just have to accept that for the next hundred pages you won't know what's going on. The American reader must further get used to the Irish dialogue device of em dashes rather than quotation marks. Most readers give up long before Bloom discovers the Greatest Love of All.

If you do make it through, you'll be rewarded. The book justifies months of study and re-reading. It is part novel, part word puzzle, part song. Joyce's prose is some of the best ever committed to paper, and the catharsis of the final chapter is breathtaking.

Value as Erotica: If you're looking for a one-handed read, look elsewhere; your other hand may indeed be occupied, but it will be taking notes.

Trivia: Joyce wasn't the only writer who got a boost from Ezra Pound. Pound also helped Robert Frost and another censors' darling, D.H. Lawrence.

Though early opponents of Ulysses were particularly concerned about the book's effects on young ladies, young ladies--Sylvia Beach, and The Little Review's Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap--were responsible for actually putting it in print.

Ulysses tends to evoke some rather strong responses from other writers. George Bernard Shaw, playwright and professional crank, called it "a revolting record of a disgusting piece of civilization." E.B. White admitted he had attempted to read it but been unable to finish, and Vladimir Nabokov--another master prose experimentalist with his own share of run-ins with the censors--claimed that Joyce had never influenced him "in any manner whatsoever."

Random House published the first U.S. edition in 1934, but it used as its basis a pirated ninth edition from Shakespeare & Company, so it duplicated many typos and passed them into modern Joyce scholarship. Gabler's 1984 "synoptic" edition sought to correct many of these errors, and though many Joyce scholars endorsed it, others attacked its accuracy.

There have been at least two attempts at creating a hypertext version of Ulysses, but there has yet to be an electronic version free of the errors that have dogged the print versions. The Internet Ulysses includes Joyce's chapter-by-chapter schemata.

McSweeney's posted a fantastic spoof of Joyce's feedback from his writing workshop. (Surely, the MFA is part of why the adventure has leached out of desk jobs.)

Joyce had more say in his cover design than many writers do today. The first edition appeared as he wanted it, with the word "ULYSSES" in white letters against a deep Aegean blue, to evoke the Greek islands against the sea.

Characters from Joyce's earlier works Dubliners and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man appear in Ulysses.

A 1935 edition, now rare, was illustrated by Henri Matisse.

June 16--the day on which Ulysses takes place--is now known as Bloomsday. Dublin observes Bloomsday with a festival, public readings, costumes, and walking tours. But Joyce originally chose that date because it marked his first excursion (some say his first sexual encounter) with the woman who would become his wife, Nora.

Nora, for her part, is said to have asked her husband, "Why don't you write books people can read?"

A postscript

The Onion just published this delightful op-ed by Atticus Finch.

And now that I've searched for To Kill a Mockingbird, The Mammoth Hunters, and Mein Kampf, Amazon's Book Recommendations feature has no idea what to make of me.

Monday, May 12, 2008

To Kill a Mockingbird

Author: Harper Lee

First Published: 1960

Censorship History: Surprisingly, this was #41 on the ALA's list of the most challenged books of 1990-2000. Now, To Kill a Mockingbird is on a lot of high school curricula, and I have friends who read it as young as 12 or 13. Chicago's City of Big Readers program--in which all city residents are encouraged to read the same book--used it as its inaugural book in 2001. On Amazon, it has nearly 1,800 reader reviews, and it appears on lists with titles like "My Favorite Childhood Books." And the film version is equally beloved: With no disrespct to anyone's actual father, Gregory Peck's Atticus Finch is everyone's ideal surrogate dad, in much the same way we all want to be in Remus Lupin's class. It's safe to call this one a classic, cemented in the canon and in the hearts of readers everywhere. So why are people still challenging it?

When I saw it was on the list, I reread To Kill a Mockingbird to find out what could be causing all the ruckus. It doesn't exactly deal with easy subjects (but then, what good novel does?). There's alcoholism, morphine addiction, illiteracy, domestic violence, rape, poverty, religious conflict, violence toward children and animals, and widespread racism. And we see all this through the eyes of a child, Scout, who is herself just beginning to understand the jarring facts of the world. (I'd argue that's part of the book's genius: Through Scout's curious eyes the senselessness of human cruelty is far clearer.)

But the efforts to ban the book, it turns out, center on its use of one word, common enough in its day--and in fact, common enough in this day, but whispered as "the N word" in polite company. Can you reduce this rich, complicated novel to a single word? Apparently you can. Schools from California to Oklahoma to Nova Scotia have removed it from their reading lists.

This is where things get difficult. You sort of want to assume that people who ban books are all hard-line Nazis, or over-the-top nutjobs like the reverend who was convinced that Mighty Mouse was subliminally endorsing drug use, or the principal who torched Ramones albums in Rock 'n' Roll High School. That is, they are all Bad Guys. They are not on the side of truth and rightness. So it's disheartening when it turns out the people who are lobbying to remove the book are the NAACP.

Can we pretend that racism is no longer a problem in the United States? Not at all. It may not be as overt as it was when Scout was a girl, in 1935, but it's just as subtle, just as casual, just as insidious. It still calls for an Atticus Finch to stand up and name it and say it is wrong. All the same, a book about racism is hardly the same as a book advocating racism. Does anyone actually think that To Kill a Mockingbird is on a par with Mein Kampf?

This is a book about a community slowly learning to stand up and confront its own racism. Yes, it uses the N word. But there is never any doubt that it is an ugly word, or that the circumstances leading to its use are anything less than tragic.

I don't want to suggest that people are wrong to be offended by that word. People have the right to be offended by whatever offends them, and that word, more than most, is freighted with a repellent history. However, if we go about banning whatever offends us we'll never get anywhere, and the brave new world we create will be an intensely boring one. In the face of oppression, the healthy response, the constructive response, is not more oppression but honest discourse. And no discourse can be honest while it censors itself.

I do think there's a dicussion to be had about the more subtle racism of characterization, here and in many Southern narratives. Why is Calpurnia so devoted to the Finch family? Doesn't she ever resent her work? Is the accused, Tom, depicted as a man in full? If the book has shortcomings in that area, are they because Lee's vision is somehow unconcsiously limited by her background? Studying the evolution of white Southern writers' views of black characters would make a fantastic class, in fact. You could build a semester's curriculum out of that history, from colonial writings to Twain to D.W. Griffith and Gone with the Wind and "Everything that Rises Must Converge." (Then compare those works with black writers' views from the same period, and marvel that the country hasn't erupted into a full-scale race war.) But that doesn't seem to be the approach anyone is taking. It's far easier to remove one book from the shelf than to add a bunch of supplemental reading.

That said, I don't believe for a minute that Lee intends to imply that racism is somehow okay, or that she sees blacks as simpler souls in need of white protection. I think she wanted this book to fight the good fight. And in a very large part it succeeds.

Books like To Kill a Mockingbird teach us what racism looks and sounds like. How can we confront what we do not recognize? How can we find the courage to stand up to it if we have never seen an example of that courage? If anything, this is an opportunity for everyone who objects to the N word to become a hero in the style of Atticus Finch--to say, "Yes, this is an awful thing people do, but we will look at it unflinchingly in the hopes of making things a little bit better."

In fact, here's a start, since it seems hypocritical for a blog about censorship to submit to the soft censorship of politeness: The N word is nigger. Like all words, in and of itself, it has no power over anyone. It is six letters long. It is derived from the French and Spanish words for "black." All the rest is context and long, bitter history.

What Else: It can be hard to reread childhood favorites, because the books aren't always as good as you remember them being. I am delighted to report that this one holds up. If anything I appreciate it more now. As fiction, it works on every level. The voice is authentic and true. Lee's intimate knowledge of the community is so sure you can feel the dirt road under your feet. The characters are every bit as contradictory and mystifying as your own family. The story is a page-turner, propelled along by the intrigue of the Radley place and the growing doom of Atticus's trial. And though all these details are painfully specific, the book does what all great books do: it opens a world of greater truths. This isn't just the story of Scout's childhood but a meditation on childhood itself; on what exactly we mean by innocence and knowledge and freedom; on what children learn from our flawed examples; on justice and injustice; and on what it means to have a conscience.

I wept when I finished it.

I want to weep again when I think that people want to deprive young readers of this experience--a book that is a cardinal example of why we read books at all. I hope those kids are lucky enough to find the book on their own, or to wise up, like Scout:
"[A]s I inched sluggishly along the treadmill of the Maycomb County school system, I could not help receiving the impression that I was being cheated out of something. Out of what I knew not, yet I did not believe that twelve years of unrelieved boredom was exactly what the state had in mind for me."

Many people who attempt to ban books do so because they consider childhood a fragile time of uncorrupted innocence and purity. Harper Lee, bless her, never makes that mistake. As Scout figures out her world, she is as casually racist as many of the adults around her. It's clear that the older Scout recounting the story recognizes that flaw, but she never apologizes for it; it's the sort of mistake that teaches.

Trivia: Harper Lee is one of the great one-hit wonders of literature. This is her only novel.

Some claim that the character of Dill is based on Lee's childhood friend, Truman Capote.

In a thrilling example of People In Charge Who Get It, Chicago's library commissioner said that the city chose To Kill a Mockingbird because of the city's history of problems with racial and social justice. Yes! That's exactly how novels can help us understand ourselves and change things. The Chicago Tribune reported that, at the beginning of One City, One Book, Lee wrote to the organizers:
"When people speak their minds and bring to discussion their own varieties of experience, when they receive respect for their opinions and the good will of their fellows, things change. It is as if life itself takes on a new compelling clarity and good things get done."

Thursday, May 8, 2008

The Earth's Children series

Author: Jean M. Auel

First Published: 1980 (Clan of the Cave Bear)

Caught by the Fuzz: A lot. This series is #20 on the American Library Association's list of the 100 Most Challenged Books of 1990-2000. That means it's received more challenges--attempts at banning or censorship--than, for example, The New Joy of Gay Sex (#28) and The Anarchist's Cookbook (#57). (Where's Waldo? comes in at #88, for no reason I can fathom.)

Trivia: An archeological dig actually found a Neanderthal skeleton in the position described at the end of Clan of the Cave Bear, curled fetally and clutching a giant ochre rock. Some archaeologists claim that Neanderthals and Early Modern Humans did indeed mingle and even interbreed.

What Happens: I have to admit that I've only read the first three books. By the time The Plains of Passage and The Shelters of Stone came out, I had moved on as a reader, and I'm not patient enough to go back for those two now.

Anyway, in the first three books, Ayla, a precocious blonde Early Modern Human, is orphaned and adopted into a Neanderthal tribe. She learns their ways but is eventually exiled; she is too headstrong and independent to conform to their very strict gender roles. She lives on her own for years before meeting Jondalar, who has embarked with his brother Thonolan on a foot tour of Eurasia, bedding women wherever they go. Thonolan dies. Ayla and Jondalar fall in love and join a tribe of Early Modern Humans. Along the way Ayla turns the Ice Age steppes into a sort of prehistoric Menlo Park; she invents domestication, sewing needles, several major weapons, flint rocks, one method of tanning leather, quite a few herbal remedies, and birth control. Presumably by The Shelters of Stone she has moved on to agriculture and the Roman arch. But it's the birth control that's really important, because she and Jondalar have a whole heck of a lot of S-E-X.

It becomes necessary to invent a word. Biblioscoliosis is the condition a book acquires when its spine becomes so bent that the book automatically opens to certain pages. That is the condition of my copy of The Mammoth Hunters, and I am willing to bet that every copy of that book that falls into the hands of an eighth grader acquires the same condition in more or less the same places.

The writing is, unfortunately, pretty sloppy. Occasionally a contemporary idiom clashes with the prehistoric setting, so you'll have a stampeding mammoth indirectly compared to a freight train. As you reread the salacious passages, you notice that all sorts of modifiers are dangling along with the naughty bits. This means that sometimes someone who is clearly supposed to be performing a certain act on another character is, thanks to a trick of wording, actually performing the act upon himself. It is glorious when feats of grammar correspond with feats of anatomy.

What Else: Thonolan sounds like the name of a birth-control drug, doesn't it? Ask YOUR doctor about new once-a-week Thonolan!

Value as Literature: Negligible, I'm afraid.

Value as Erotica: Earth's Children : Internet :: flint rocks : Zippo. But when you are in eighth grade and you don't have the Internet and oh my god, did he really put his hand on her Plains of Passage?--then these are the best books EVER.

Credit Where It's Due: Auel has done some serious research. She's thought about almost every aspect of the societies she describes. She knows the purpose and growing season of each herb in Ayla's remedies. These details succeed fantastically. You do have a sense of being there as some sort of privileged observer of cavemen (and -women). And nearly 20 years after I first read Clan I still remember many of the characters' names; that definitely counts for something. The story's implausible, the writing is lowbrow, the sex is dirty--so very dirty--but that's sort of the definition of a fun read, isn't it?

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Fahrenheit 451

Author: Ray Bradbury

First Published: 1953

Censorship History: Funnily enough, the book whose title is now synonymous with censorship was once censored in roughly 75 places by Bradbury's own editors at Ballantine. Conscious of the book's young audience, they sought to remove content that seems mild by today's standards--"all the damns and hells," as Bradbury puts it.

Bradbury says it's not actually about censorship, it's about how TV is killing public discourse; but in his Coda (first published in 1979) he does say that the novel "deals with the censorship and book-burning of the future." In any case, censorship is a main topic of the book, central enough that at least one library (Forsyth County Public Library in Winston-Salem, NC) has chosen it for its annual Banned Book Week public reading project.

Trivia: Men must not walk too late: Clarisse mentions that her uncle was once arrested for walking alone at night. Bradbury's short story "The Pedestrian" describes, if not this exact incident (the last names are different), at least a similar one. For what it's worth, an acquaintance who used to work as a cop in the suburbs of Chicago (around Downer's Grove) once told me that foot traffic was so rare that he and his colleagues would indeed stop any pedestrian they saw.

Though many people consider Bradbury a scifi writer, Bradbury claims this is his only science fiction book. As he sees it, much of his writing (such as The Martian Chronicles) is fantasy.

Eerily Prescient Bits (an important part of any scifi): "If the government is inefficient, topheavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. . . . Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them so full of noncombustible 'facts' they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without motion."

"We've started and won two atomic wars since 1990! Is it because we're having so much fun at home we've forgotten the world? Is it because we're so rich and the rest of the world's so poor and we just don't care if they are? I've heard rumors; the world is starving, but we're well fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we're hated so much?"

The "seashell" radio earpieces sound quite a lot like those Bluetooth things, though people don't use them for two-way communication in the book--their media consumption is fundamentally passive.

What Else: The dystopia of Fahrenheit 451, like the one of Brave New World, has not come about because of a totalitarian despot. In the streets of this city, you don't hear the solemn gongs and basso choirs you associate with 1984 or Stalinist Russia. No, you hear ad jingles. This dystopia came about because of the ceaseless pursuit of fun and distraction.

That fun and distraction are not substitutes for joy and substance is clear: There are so many suicides and suicide attempts that, when people overdose, the hospital no longer sends medical professionals, just technicians who know how to pump stomachs. (You'd need more scientific training than I have to find a causal link between the distractions of American society and the rise in prescriptions of antidepressants, but I don't think I'm altogether amiss in suspecting societal causes for much of the ennui I see.)

The connection between distraction and forgetfulness--both short-term forgetfulness and the long-term forgetfulness of Bradbury's ahistorical society--is interesting. Distraction actually does impede certain cognitive processes. In other words, those blinking banner ads for IQ tests will lower your scores on the tests themselves. And distraction is a big theme in contemporary literature and film. Kurt Vonnegut explores a more sinister dystopia of distraction in the short story "Harrison Bergeron," in which people of above-average intelligence are forced down to average by being fitted with radio devices that periodically release squawks of static, so as to prevent the mind from lingering on any one thought too long. Plenty of scifi (Strange Days, The Fifth Element, Minority Report) assumes advertising will rule the future (though in other scifi it's curiously absent: Star Wars is something of a Ren Faire in space).

It's also worth noting that in Bradbury's world the banning of books didn't start out as a top-down decree (at least not according to Captain Beatty; as Beatty's discussion of Ben Franklin shows, though, the official version is not always to be trusted). No, people simply stopped wanting to read books. They're not illiterate; comic books are still allowed. (I'd say that's a rather unjust view of comic books, but unjust views of comics were rampant in 1953.) People simply wanted easier reading materials--whistles and bells. Clearly Bradbury was commenting on trends he saw in society at the time he wrote. If you look at the evolution of newspapers' front pages from 1890 to 1990--particularly if you take USA Today into consideration--you'll see that he was onto something. Why, then, do we read, if we are so resistant to new information?