Monday, June 7, 2010
How Did Big Brother Forget to Mention that Info Dumps are a Thoughtcrime?
Winston Smith begins to write illegally in a diary.
This is basically, um, the entire plot for the first 120 pages of Nineteen Eight-Four. Mr. Orwell, why is it so? Why, Mr. Orwell, why?
Yet there's certainly some briliance about this book. But it's like Mr. Orwell wants to intentionally slap me in the face while enticing me onward, the sadist tickling the masochist on from page to page.
These first 120 pages are, shall we say, philosophically and psychologically oriented. And there's some fine writing and even finer thinking in this section of the book. This is certainly the best psychological portrait of the three dystopian books I've looked at during Dystopia Month. Yes, it's still a rather didactic novel, and Winston Smith still feels a bit like a speakerphone at times... and yet it charts the course of his thoughts, his struggles with conformity and the authoritarian control of the Party. There's certainly some human realism here, that sense of a mind under pressure from all sides, endlessly seeking release.
The problem is that nothing happens in the opening. And, yes, part of this is likely to reflect that sense of containment in the culture, that sense that nothing really can happen. The bolts have been tightened down on everyone. They can't move, can't speak, can't think. An original and real action, a new thought... this is crime, and the Thought Police will arrive and spirit away the offender. So the structure, in a sense, reflects this. And yet I can't help feeling that this could have been done in less than 30,000 words.
Structural reflections of theme can be effective, and yet to me there's always a sense of clumsiness, or, perhaps more accurately, of an over-heavy hand. I think the reader often "gets it" fairly quickly, with that "Okay, already, everyone's locked up tight, I get it already, please please please get on with the show."
This plotlessness gives the opening a more abstract feel, less vivid and experiential than it might have been, though the prose is fine at times and tries to tune the reader into the dark mood as a way of creating a sort of dramatic tension, an aura of contained violence. And there's that sense almost of claustrophia as we're pulled through Winston Smith's unsettled mind. Yet I found myself frustrated with the lack of movement, the static nature of the narrative and character. The themes and ideas are pounded in heavy indeed, and I don't think I needed so much to get the picture. Though, perhaps, this was more difficult for me, since I'd just read the book's predecessors, and many of these ideas (or their forefathers) were already spinning around my head? It's certainly a possibility, I think. Yet the lack of movement, at times, is almost overwhelming.
After that first section, however, things begin to pick up. Winston begins an affair, which creates both character and narrative movement (thank you, God and Orwell). That sense of isolation is relieved a little - Winston is not alone, not the only one who still thinks, who still seeks some sense of personal freedom. And the affair with young Julia is dangerous. If discovered, the Thought Police will arrest them.
I found the story here much more effective, for now the tensions between the individual and the culture are being dramatized rather than merely expounded upon. We have action instead of exposition. Tension builds. The affair leads Winston and Julia (though mostly Winston - I need a good feminist critic again, folks...) to new thoughts, new desires. A bit of stolen happiness is not enough, and they seek out active resistance, trying to join the Brotherhood (a supposed underground rebellion) through a man named O'Brien.
And then, of course, we get the mother of all Info Dumps. Dear Orwell, I almost do not know what to say... Almost. Orwell, dear sir, never do this to me again.
Winston gets a book, supposedly expounding the history of the Party and the goals of the Brotherhood. And Mr. Orwell provides a big section of the book just for us to read! For thirty pages. He pretty much shuts down the story for thirty pages to give us some worldbuilding, with a few philosophical sidenotes.
This is a cruel thing to do to someone reading late at night. Why, Mr. Orwell, why?
Okay, let us just say that I do not think the minor positive values of this section are well balanced against the large narrative negatives. I shall shake your hand, Mr. Orwell old chum, and clap you on the shoulder and smile nicely.
And luckily the best part of the novel is still to come! Luckily, as soon as The World's Grandest Info Dump is completed both Winston and Julia are captured by the Thought Police. And never have I been so happy for some torture. Okay, yeah, that sounds bad, but you know what I mean.
The last section, I think, is the strongest of the book. It is still full of philosophical and political arguments, but now they're well embodied in characters and scene. Conflict! There are some interesting psychological dynamics at work here, both realistic and non. Orwell, I think, is partly interested in a realistic understanding of a character under interrogation and conditioning, and yet he's also operating on a symbolic level, making a statement on the nature of totalitarian regimes. Yet the ending is certainly vivid, the character of O'Brien both fascinating and disturbing. And Orwell's philosophic calculations here are all the more profound for how they're rooted in the story, in the specific experience of Winston.
The last section, I think, is truly a fine and interesting achievement, a fitting captstone for a fascinating (though often uneven) book.
It's been interesting, too, to see how We and Brave New World and Nineteen Eight-Four have built on each other, extrapolating and expanding on earlier ideas. Nineteen Eighty-Four is the most difficult and frustrating, and yet it's also the best psychological portrait and the most philosophically advanced. Brave New World has a fascinating world and ideas, and reads quite well for all its flaws. And yet I'd have to say that We is still the best book, first written and certainly not last in achievement. I think it has the best synthesis of idea and story. It has the most interesting prose, and it was certainly the most pleasurable to read. Though even as I say that I know that the last section of Nineteen Eight-Four is what will stay with me longest, lingering and haunting itself about my skull. Oh, the rats, the rats, the rats...