Reading too deeply into these things since 1981

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George OrwellChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Nineteen Eighty-Four
Author: George Orwell
Year: 1949

Nineteen Eighty-Four is one of the few books my father ever recommended to me. He’s never been much of a reader. He likes true crime, and he’s read a few biographies and autobiographies of musicians. But there haven’t been many novels he’s read, let alone recommended.

It’s always been difficult for my father and I to bond. We don’t share many of the same interests, or desires. He lives a life very different from the one I’d like to lead. I think he was expecting to have a different kind of son in his life, and it’s hard for me to believe that he wasn’t (and isn’t) disappointed by the one he actually got.

And so we’ve lived our own separate lives. We both got older, and found our own ways forward…whatever “forward” might have meant for either of us. Not as father and son, but as two adults who know each other, and probably don’t approve of many things the other has chosen to do with himself.

But he recommended Nineteen Eighty-Four. He may even have given me his old copy. (I can’t remember for sure, but I do recall that the copy I had was quite old, with a cover on the verge of falling off. Knowing that handling it too roughly would likely break the spine, I developed my lifelong habit of always treating books with delicacy.)

Back then I may have liked it then more than I appreciated it. In my early teens, it was easy to overlook (to some extent) the novel’s message, and to focus more on what did–or did not–happen. Big Brother is a dick, authoritarian regimes suck, and nobody will find escape or happiness. I got all that, but I wasn’t yet a reader who latched on to themes. I was raised on film and television. I wanted events.

Nineteen Eighty-Four has those as well, and I had a few friends who also had read the book. So we talked about those scenes. The torture. The Two Minutes Hate. The infamous (within my circle) sex scene. In fact, if you want to ensure that sex scenes in novels will fail to turn you on as long as you live, start with the one in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

There were two kinds of horrors in the book that legitimately got to me, though. The first was Newspeak, which the novel describes as being the only language that gets smaller and smaller. It’s a simplified variant of English, largely devoid of metaphor, very precise, and (by design) without room for artistry or even grace. I remember having dinner at a friend’s house, and discussing Nineteen Eighty-Four with him. When we talked about Newspeak, his mother laughed, as though the concept was a very good joke.

I’ll always remember that laugh. I guess it is a very good joke. But it’s far too frightening for me to laugh at.

The other horror was the simple truth behind O’Brien, poor Winston Smith’s false confidant. As Winston rebels (in small ways, yearning for larger freedoms), he finds what he believes to be a powerful friend in O’Brien. In reality, O’Brien is the enemy. It was painful and unexpected enough for me as a reader back then, but the sheer cruelty Orwell allows him…having him, specifically him, torture Winston until our protagonist is “cured” of his independent thinking…

…I’ll just say that it’s still one of literature’s great betrayals, as far as I’m concerned. It managed to hit me hard–and hit me in the correct way–before I was even able to appreciate much of the novel’s warnings. “I’ll bet you’re paying attention now,” that moment seemed to say.

I’ve read the book several times since, and I still think it’s great. I’ve heard some pushback from others, claiming, for instance, that Orwell was a better moralist than he was a novelist. And, well, maybe he was. But Nineteen Eighty-Four stands on its own merits as a piece of solid and important writing, I feel. I don’t make concessions for it; I don’t excuse its weaker moments or sloppy constructions on the grounds that it represents something larger.

No…I just don’t see weak moments and sloppiness. I see a powerful, brutal fist of a novel that exists in precisely the correct form. I see a story that genuinely could not be told any better, and the large number of works inspired by Nineteen Eighty-Four that fail to live up to it seem to be evidence of that.

What’s mainly interesting to me now–and where I think a lot of Nineteen Eighty-Four-inspired works fall down–is that Orwell doesn’t actually give any advice. He doesn’t tell you how to avoid the situation. He doesn’t tell you how to cope with it. He doesn’t tell you how to improve it. (In fact, he tells you you can’t improve it.)

What he tells you is that by the time you’re there, it’s already too late.

You don’t live under Big Brother and think, “Okay, now what?”

You rage against Big Brother ruthlessly, constantly, without pause, because the moment he takes power, there is no more hope.

You fight now. Now. As you read the book, as you’re allowed to read the book, you fight. You don’t wait until you recognize Big Brother…you fight to keep Big Brother from ever appearing.

Yes, of course, there’s a temptation to liken it to certain things happening in the world today. But there always is. That’s why a book written in the mid-40s about a “distant future” that itself is already far behind us still resonates. It still matters. Because things are always bad, always terrifying, and we can’t get complacent. We need to fight to keep them from getting worse.

My father and I never bonded much. I’m fairly sure I can use my fingers to count the number of times.

But one time we definitively did bond was with Nineteen Eighty-Four. We bonded over the eventual, inevitable, hopeless end of civilization.

The Sound and the Fury, William FaulknerChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Sound and the Fury
Author: William Faulkner
Year: 1929

It’s a fairly universal feeling to want to escape who you are. Of course, we can put a more positive spin on that: we want to do better, we want to improve ourselves, we want to achieve some level of comfort and satisfaction.

But make no mistake; we all, to varying degrees, feel the desire to escape who we are.

The Sound and the Fury is William Faulkner’s masterpiece. It’s also a masterpiece of American fiction, and one of the funniest, saddest, most astute studies anyone’s written about mankind’s driving need–and ultimate inability–to move on.

It centers on the Compson family, which, through the generations, has fallen on hard times. Mainly it centers on one group of siblings–Benjy, Caddie, Jason, and Quentin–that we watch grow up and struggle in their own ways through their own problems. But they are always stuck being themselves, always stuck being Compsons, always stuck in a world that (understandably) doesn’t quite have a place for them.

It’s a difficult novel. I need to make that clear, and it can’t be overstated. Before I left my job at the college, the senior provost and I would sometimes talk about books. He saw that I was re-reading The Sound and the Fury, and he told me he found a really nice edition and picked it up…but couldn’t finish the book. He tried multiple times but kept getting lost, putting it down, and moving on to something else.

That’s the senior provost of a major state university. An intelligent, educated, deeply patient man. He couldn’t make it through more than a few pages of The Sound and the Fury before he realized he wasn’t absorbing any of it.

I can’t blame him for setting it aside, if that’s how he felt. Nor can I blame the thousands of other readers who no doubt did–and will do–the same thing. But I can give some advice:

You won’t understand it.

Keep reading anyway.

See, The Sound and the Fury begins as a massively difficult narrative…yet slowly, gradually, gracefully resolves into a straight-forward one. It’s a modernist nightmare of clashing timelines and disconnected symbols that, perhaps without you even realizing it, literally becomes a much easier, much more familiar, much more simple book the further you go.

The novel is split into four sections, the first three of which are narrated by Compson siblings. The three narrators are successively more focused (or less unfocused) on the story they are telling, which means the most difficult passages come early, and the orientation comes much later. The fourth section is relayed in the third person, which makes it the easiest to read, as the action is no longer filtered through the very specific viewpoint of a very flawed character.

It’s actually the only novel I’ve read that becomes less complicated as you progress through it. (I’d love to hear of other examples, though, so please do share them.) Often books hover at some degree of difficulty throughout, or they become more difficult as you progress. Sometimes the difficulty fluctuates section to section, training the reader to keep going through the confusing parts with the tacit promise that clarity will return soon.

The Sound and the Fury, though, fights coherence on the first page, and embraces it on the last. It’s an odd experience, as though Faulkner was indeed weeding out readers who wouldn’t be willing to engage, to work, to struggle to understand what the characters themselves struggle to understand. Even in the easiest, final section of the book, Faulkner spells out very little. He simply presents. What you do with the information presented is up to you.

To be fair, Faulkner himself considered using some uncommon formatting that would make the text easier to parse, if not exactly understand: he toyed with the idea of using differently colored inks to identify which parts of the book were occurring in which time period.

The problem–in addition to the fact that this would be a pretty superficial gimmick that would artistically cheapen the near-perfect novel Faulkner produced–was that this would really only be helpful to the novel’s very first section, which is narrated by Benjy, a developmentally disabled adult who has difficulty keeping himself oriented.

Once the reader progressed past that section, there’d be very little use for the differently colored text. Section two, narrated by the depressed and hopeless Quentin, also drifts through time, but is far easier to keep track of, as Quentin himself is both well-read and well-spoken. What’s more, even if one does get lost a bit in Quentin’s jumbled chronology, the emotional arc of his section–his doomed pining for his sister Caddie–comes through clearly. There’s more than enough to Quentin’s section for it to register, even if certain passages slip by.

And then…that’s it. The third section is narrated by the cruel, self-important, manipulative Jason, but he’s also the most straight-forward of the Compson clan and his narrative requires almost no unraveling. After that we detach from first-person narration altogether, and we’re squarely in traditional Southern novel territory. The Sound and the Fury isn’t easy, but it definitely gets easier.

This is a I’ve wanted to cover for Fiction into Film as long as I’ve been doing the series, and I’m pretty sure I’ll get around to it. It’s a novel worth gushing about, and there’s at least one interesting adaptation floating around to cover. (I can only vouch for one, in other words; I haven’t seen the others.)

But really it’s because I want an excuse to talk about it. I want to talk about how the Compsons–major and minor–each rebel against what their family is, what their family has been, or what their family is becoming. They yearn to be both rooted and rootless. They push and pull and struggle and fight without really quite knowing what they want.

There are great conversations to be had about those things.

Unfortunately, almost everyone I know stops reading in section one.

I don’t blame them.

But I’d sure enjoy having someone else to talk to. The topic of escaping who you are could lead to some truly important conversations.

The Devil in the White City, Erik LarsonChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Devil in the White City
Author: Erik Larson
Year: 2003

It’s rare that I read a recent novel, unless it’s been written by an author I already love. I understand that this is both massively unfair and foolish, but…

I don’t know. I know that I’ll only be able to read some finite number of books before I die. Every choice of book I made, I’m choosing not to read literally millions of others. And this worries me. There’s not time enough to read everything, and when you add in the fact that there are bound to be (and have certainly been) books I’d like to re-read, the number of books I’ll ever possibly get to dwindles further.

So I read older books, almost exclusively. I do this because time is an excellent curator. Something still in print after a hundred years is likely worth reading, and more likely at least of some merit. The older a book is the more likely a critical consensus will have been reached. The more likely it’s entered the cultural lexicon and I can have some indication of whether or not I’ll enjoy it before I pick it up. The more likely somebody I know has read it and might give me some indication of whether or not it’ll mean anything to me.

The Devil in the White City, though, is just a book that interested me. I rolled the dice. It was an investment of time I’ve already convinced myself I do not have.

And it was one of the most riveting, fascinating novels I’d read in a long time.

I’ll circumvent any concerns about this not being fiction up front. It is fiction. Period. It’s based on true events, it features (as far as I can tell) exclusively characters who actually existed, it’s the product of incredible amounts of meticulous research. Fine.


But it’s a novel. It’s the product of an author’s imagination, however near to reality that imagination preferred to hew.

Erik Larson necessarily must fill in the gaps. Must structure this dual history as a narrative. Must choose when to break chapters, which details to focus on, which events to gloss over. He must decide which tragedies will be described most horrifically, and which triumphs are most worthy of celebration. He must choose where to begin, where to end, how much to share and when to share it.

With The Devil in the White City he’s providing a necessary, overdue, and incredibly helpful historical narrative…but he’s also providing a novel.

And he’s providing one hell of a good novel.

It’s a page-turner. It’s deeply interesting. It’s enriching. And it’s terrifying.

See, America has the odd tendency to ignore its atrocities. To pretend that things are not as bad as they actually are. To shrug off some of the most heinous acts imaginable, to which our name should be rightfully attached. For instance, you’ll see in Germany a largely respectful, solemn acknowledgement of its immensely wrongful behavior during World War II. You won’t see in America a comparable regret for dropping atomic bombs on innocent civilians in Japan.

A similar correlation can be seen in The Devil in the White City. We all know about Jack the Ripper, because England wasn’t silent about it. They weren’t proud that a madman was on the loose, gorily murdering prostitutes, but they were never secretive about the tragedies that unfolded. Which is why this novel is so chilling: we had our own Jack the Ripper here in America. Only he was even worse. And we hushed it up. Refused to speak of it. Never educated anybody as to the dangers. Kept it just quiet enough that it could, easily, happen again. We deliberately forgot our own warnings, and pretended it never happened.

For roughly half of its pages, The Devil in the White City is the largely factual account of H. H. Holmes, a charming psychopath who builds a hotel full of secret passages, gas jets, torture chambers, and other terrifying things you’ve only ever seen in horror films. The difference is that this actually happened. In real life. To real victims. Holmes was an actual serial killer, one of the worst in American history. And yet, before this book, he was almost entirely unknown to anyone other than crime aficionados.

He was a true and mortifying American horror story, but, for whatever reason, he was never more than a footnote, overshadowed, as he was, by something parallel that we preferred to discuss instead: the 1893 World’s Fair.

That’s the other half of the book: architect Daniel Burnham and his team of engineers, artists, planners, marketers, cultural experts, and many more working together to bring the greatest event in history to life. Not just in America, but in Chicago.

I have a good friend who grew up in Chicago, and she told me that she skimmed through most of Burnham’s chapters in the book. It didn’t hold her interest as much as Holmes’ did. I enjoyed these sections, however. They were important to the story, of course, and they framed the historical context for what we were reading, but I also loved the real-life irony of a grand celebration that provided a murderer with a bottomless well of anonymous victims. Burnham worked tirelessly to build a fair so impressive that people would journey to it from around the world.

They did.

And Holmes may have murdered as many as 200 of them, who never journeyed home again.

In many ways, the World’s Fair was a triumph. It was a social triumph, for sure. It was debatably a triumph of culture as well. It was a triumph of planning and of constant action.

But it also invited a tragedy.

One we’d prefer not to speak about.

We focus in our history on those who left the World’s Fair with a smile on their face. We ignore those who never left at all. We ask everyone to focus on the fireworks and the music and the food. We ignore the adjacent, gruesome crime scene.

America isn’t responsible for the crimes of H. H. Holmes. It’s only responsible for keeping them quiet. For refusing to condemn them. For making it known that, for a while at least, this country might allow you to get away with murder.

Of Mice and Men, John SteinbeckChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: Of Mice and Men
Author: John Steinbeck
Year: 1937

A good many works of art have hit me like a brick, but Of Mice and Men might have been the first one to really, truly get an emotional response out of me.

Like many of the books that dug deeply into me, I didn’t know at first what to expect from it. It was a summer reading assignment at some point in middle school. It was a short book, so I read it first. That was, I say in all truth, a great lesson for me to learn as an early reader; short doesn’t necessarily mean easy.

Not that it was difficult to read, per se. Rather, it was difficult to process. With that ending–my experience of that ending–still so vivid to me. I’ve read it many times since. The ending still gets me. But I remember the first time I experienced that ending. It happened to also be the first time I was left speechless by a book. The first time I had no words. The first time I found my emotions truly stirred by the work of another.

Of Mice and Men left a mark on me. It’s hard for me to enjoy books now that don’t affect me in some deeper way. Once I learned–or realized; it could be either–that books could do that…well…why bother with the ones that don’t? If reading a book can be a transformative experience, why spend time on the ones that aren’t?

I like being challenged, and not just intellectually. In fact, at the time I read Of Mice and Men…at the time it spoiled me as a reader…I wasn’t ready to be challenged intellectually. I needed exactly what it was: a simple story, told simply, that just happened to sting like a bastard.

Emotions I understood. I just didn’t realize that words on a page…words about people who never existed, made up by a man I didn’t know…could trigger them so easily. I felt helpless. I felt as though John Steinbeck had reached into me and done something without me knowing what it was. It was a unique feeling…one I remember well. And I know I give a lot of the credit for that to the book’s unforgettable ending, but the ending wouldn’t have had nearly the impact it did if not for the strength of the story that led to it.

Of Mice and Men is a bit of an oddity. I’ve read quite a bit of Steinbeck since, and at least one of his books prior, but it’s Of Mice and Men that I can most easily return to in my mind. I can quietly revisit the characters, the setting, the clothes…I can hear the voices…I can feel the sticky breeze…I can envision the rabbits right along with Lennie…

And yet, it uses the simplest–and most compact–language that I’ve ever personally experienced from Steinbeck. It’s his simplest tale. When you’re reading it it seems like something that could have rolled off the tongue of a storyteller. It doesn’t feel as complex or intricately crafted as Steinbeck’s other work…as deliberate…as aware of its own importance.

It is, however, his most effective.

It’s as though Of Mice and Men is a more naturally affecting work. One that resonates so well in simplicity that it doesn’t need to span hundreds of pages. One that is so immediately, so urgently, so poignantly recognizable that we can lose every one of Lennie and George’s adventures except for their last one and still understand, completely and thoroughly, everything that they’ve been through. Everything that led them to where they are. Everything that prevents them from going back. Everything that’s driven them to what absolutely, without question, has to be their end.

I’ve never known an entire history to be so effectively woven with so few words.

A few years ago I met someone who had read A Prayer for Owen Meany. That’s another novel that I love, so I was happy to talk about it with her.

She struggled a bit for words. I think she was trying to express something that she felt, but had never said out loud before. What she told me was that the characters she met in that book didn’t feel like characters; she felt as though she had come to know real people.

I can’t speak for her, but something like that isn’t really important to me as I read. My favorite author is Thomas Pynchon, and I think it’s fair to say that “realistic characters” aren’t high on his list of priorities when he sits down to write a novel. But I could understand and appreciate what she was saying; Of Mice and Men made me feel the same way.

In fact, I’ll take it further and say that these are real people. The fact that Steinbeck invented them doesn’t mean anything.

They are real people. Heck, they’re more real than Steinbeck himself is in Travels with Charley. Being real and being fictional aren’t mutually exclusive when it comes to literature.

And that’s why the tragedy in Of Mice and Men–when it hits, as it must–stings as deeply as it does.

It’s because we know these people. In just a few dozen pages, we know these people. Over just a handful of events, some evocative description, a bit of telling dialogue and accidental slips of the tongue, we know these people. Through lost tempers and honest hopes and dreams large and small clasped tightly to the characters’ chests, we know these people. From the distance between what these characters want and their chances of ever getting it, we know these people.

I don’t know what Of Mice and Men is about, really. At least, if I had to boil it down to a theme, I wouldn’t be sure what to pick. Loyalty. Humanity. Trust.

I don’t know.

I’m not sure George, at the end of the novel, knows either.

But he knows how he feels. And he didn’t expect to feel that way any more than I did.

The Road, Cormac McCarthyChoose Your Own Advent is a yuletide celebration of literacy. We’ll spotlight a different novel every day until Christmas, hopefully helping you find one you’d like to read in the new year.

Title: The Road
Author: Cormac McCarthy
Year: 2006

We’ve reached a stage in which video games are just about accepted as the art that they actually are. Not all of them, of course; it’s the medium that has artistic possibility, and just like any medium the individual artists will embrace or squander that opportunity as they see fit.

But I think it says something about how far the medium has come when a very impressive work of literature–say, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road–puts me in mind of a certain video game, and the comparison is all around favorable. Neither the book nor the game look poorer when evaluated next to the other.

The Road made me think of Fallout 3. The Road came first, but I didn’t read it until later. When I did, I was reminded of that great game, and I saw how both works of art rendered their post-apocalyptic wastelands with masterful bleakness. Neither world, strictly speaking, had to be without hope, but it sure was difficult to trudge through either of them and keep hope alive.

They did a great job of thrusting us into a world that was both recognizable and long past death. We witness humanity in its final throes. We see what passes for civilization. We see how unwelcome (and unwise) selflessness is. We see people we respect turned to monsters, and the monsters we already feared grow even more monstrous by the day. We see what people have to resort to just to buy themselves another hour.

And for what?

Both Fallout 3 and The Road raise that last question. Neither seems especially optimistic about the answer.

Later, I played a video game that reminded me of The Road. That game was The Last of Us, which had an even stronger tie to McCarthy’s themes. Like the unnamed protagonist in the novel, The Last of Us focused on a man without any expectation of a brighter tomorrow, shepherding a child through the ruins of a world he used to know.

I don’t mean to draw connections where there aren’t any. Imagining the aftermath of societal collapse has been fueling media as long as there’s been media to fuel. There are dozens of ways to approach the topic (at least), and between those there are shades of difference, of intent, of morality, of tone…

In short, it’s a story that can be told a limitless number of ways, yes, but there’s also bound to be some overlap, especially as the genre remains as popular as it does.

The subject matter is also quite affecting. Even in its more humorous incarnations, the apocalypse is, by default, still dark comedy. When it’s more overtly tragic, like much of The Road, it can feel oppressively so, just because we know that nobody else, anywhere, is having any easier a time than our characters are.

Post-apocalyptic fiction has always intrigued me, even if I haven’t read all that much of it. Complete social collapse is the sort of thing that automatically sparks the imagination. I suppose it’s because we each have our own personal ideas of how and where the pieces would fall. We each have our suspicions as to which aspects of humanity would survive (spoiler: they seem to be the negative ones), and which would never be seen again. We each have our own theories as to how–and where, and to what extent–civilization might rebuild.

But the one thing we all agree on is the fact that it won’t be pretty. It won’t be easy. It may not even be worth pushing through to see the next sunrise.

So, then, what’s the appeal? Is it just misery? Do we, in some way, like to believe that we won’t be here forever? That, yes, we will lose a lot of the great things that humanity has accomplished, but with it we’ll sweep away the pettiness, the greed, the idiocy?

I think it’s just the fact that a post-apocalyptic context gives an artist a fairly unique opportunity to explore what humanity is. Someone like Cormac McCarthy never held himself back from probing the darkness inside of men, from seeing how far they could be pushed and still keep their souls, but working in an unexpected genre gave him a chance to boil his characters down even further.

Strip away their names, their histories. Rob them of even basic goals. Oppress them so that they may not even desire survival. Ensure that no day is brighter than the last. Construct for them not only a situation they can’t win, but a situation nobody can win.

And then see what you’ve got.

That’s mankind.

Whatever is left when everything else is gone. Everything. Yes, even that, and that, and anything else you can think of.

Everything that we turn to in order to help us understand our world. Every scale by which we gauge ourselves and our behavior. Everything that made life on this Earth–whatever life, wherever on this Earth–what we know it to be.

Take it all away.

See what you’re left with.

That is mankind.

The Road is haunting. Devastating. Harrowing. But it’s also unforgettable, simply for how remorseless it is. McCarthy doesn’t pretend that there is anything left. Whatever might, at some point, have been worth fighting for…well, we chose to pick a different battle.

And now it’s gone.

All of it is gone.

But what’s left?

Every artist would answer that a different way, and I think that’s why the concept endures. We will see the world crumble again and again. To invaders from outer space. To disease. To nuclear war. To–often–no definable cause at all.

I’m not surprised that the apocalypse brought out the best in video games. It brought out the best in our great authors, too.

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