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...


Josin L. McQuein said...

I hate 1984. Hate it with the hate of a thousand hateful things.

That is all.

Mira said...

Lol - Josin. That was funny.

So, reading this review - which is thoughtful and intelligent - I once again felt thankful for my special talent. I am able to skip over huge chunks of a book without a moment's pause. I feel no guilt about this whatsover. If an author wants to take five chapters to lecture me about his philosophy - well, good for him. I hope he had fun. I, on the other hand, will have fun by not reading it and getting back to the story.

In terms of 1984, I remember it vaguely, and I think Orwell's point that every individual has a breaking point is interesting, but limited. Breaks can be healed.

Mira said...

Bryan - ah, now see that's the difference between you and me. I feel like if I READ it, my "brain will collapse on itself and create a black hole which will suck in the entire world."

And I don't like sad endings. I'm sure Orwell didn't mean to be so depressing. Must re-write.

Mayowa said...

I remember that info dump very well, I read it twice.

It was definitely too long. I do think that the positives of the dump outweigh the negatives.

Throughout the story you wonder how things got this bad? How and why The Party (a character unto itself) got this far?

That info dump answers all the questions and at the end of it, I was more afraid for Winston and the society than when I began. The ideas (stopping the history engine of class struggle etc.) in that dump were too me truly shocking and I see echoes of them today (i'm talking to you Fox News).

It took a while to get through but at the end of the day, it was worth it.

I'm off to check out your other dystopia reads.

Bryan Russell said...

Well, I must say that I'm pretty sure Orwell meant to be depressing. Exhaust pipe literature!

"Dear God, I just finished that book. And now I'm gonna go put my mouth on the exhaust pipe of my over-expensive imported European car. The payments were killing me anyway, and 1984 put me over the top."

Bryan Russell said...


I totally agree there were some positives to that info dump, and some of the information was important in balancing out the philosophical and political ideas of the book.

I simply can't believe that was the best way to do it. I mean, is there no way to work that information into the plot?

It's like this writing saying I once heard - "Your characters have to want something... even if it's only a glass of water."

And there are parts of this book in desperate need of a glass of water. :)

Mira said...

Orwell meant to be depressing? No. Surely not.

I think you're missing the whole sub-context here, Bryan. This is really a treatise on the importance of acceptance and love. If Winston had embraced rats as his animal brothers - the circle of life and all that - he would be surrounded by rat love and rat support, instead of being swallowed whole by the State.

An important lesson for us all.

Mira said...

Okay, I'll stop now. :)

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

Ink - Would you simply trim up that 30,000 words (to say 5,000?) or would you (if you were Orwell reincarnated as a modern writer) put some story motion into that 30,000 word info dump? I can see you simply deleting the treatise in the middle, replaced perhaps with a quippy query-sized synopsis.

Then again, maybe Orwell would come back as a rat and simply chew the pages? :)

I sense a challenge: how to re-write classics into books sensible to modern literary standards. Wait, hasn't that been done? :)

Bryan Russell said...


Well, I think there's lots of ways to handle it. I think it could be trimmed a bit, but really the plot is on the minimal side.

Guy starts illegal affair, gets arrested, interrogated and reconditioned.

There's not a lot of events in the story, and when you consider the number of opportunities such a setting provides... all the chances for various kinds of conflicts... I really think Orwell could have taken better advantage of these. I mean, the story is at its best when the philosophy is embedded in the action, when the conflicts are realized through character confrontations. The setting Orwell created is so ripe for this... and yet he so rarely follows through. I mean, really, he talks endlessly about the dangers of these things, of the journal and the affair... and yet until they're actually caught there aren't any close calls, no almsots to heighten tension.

Have you seen the movie V for Vendetta? It's a dystopia story (I haven't read the original graphic novels) that's obviously descended from things like 1984. Now, it's not the philosophical juggernaut that 1984 is, but it has some good dramatic moments mixed a very active plot full of action, intrigue and suspense. It embodies a lot of these conflicts. Now, I'm not sure 1984 needed to go that far, of course, in terms of plot and action, but I think it could have realized more of the conflicts rather than simply having someone pondering on them in his discontent.

I think, for me, reading 1984 is one of those "what if" experiences. I appreciate many aspects, but there's this feeling of lost opportunities and wasted potential (which, I suppose, is a funny thing to say about an acclaimed classic...).

Susan Kaye Quinn said...


I adored V for Vendetta - as you say, it's dystopia personified. I think having that gritty graphic novel genesis is what drove the embodiment of the conflict of the setting into the character (and also why, maybe, it wasn't quite taken seriously as a movie? Not sure about that).

I'm thinking you need to write a dystopia next. Just so I can read it. :)

Unrepentant Escapist said...

I loved We so much. I read it in college and wondered why the schools had made me go through 1984 when We encapsulated everything a dystopia should be. We remains one of my favorite books of all time.

Steve said...

From what I dimly recall from reading 1984 years ago, the info-dump was at least readable and interesting.

Now, on the other hand, there's John Galt's 60 page speech from Atlas Shrugged..." :)

Joe G said...

I remember enjoying 1984 when I read it in middle school. I think nowadays we probably bring adult prejudices and a certain pre-awareness of what Orwell was getting at to a book that had genuinely new ideas in it when it was published. It's not meant entirely as a work of entertaining fiction, but the ideas in the text have pervaded our culture. We probably "get" 1984 and what it's trying to say before we've even started reading it.

Actually reading the book reveals a lot about the methods used to control people in society though. It's an eye opener, I think.

Stephen Prosapio said...

Perhaps 1984 isn't a riveting read by today's standards, but Thomas Jefferson isn't an upstanding person by today's standards. Bonanza and Little House on the Prairie wouldn't make it on the air.

I think there's a tendency to apply historical relativism to older novels in a way we don't with other historical or creative endeavors.

Kristan said...

You are DEAD-ON in this. DEAD. ON. I haven't read We, but Brave New World is HELLA better than 1984 in my book.

Bryan Russell said...

Unrepentant Escapist,

Yeah, I'd agree. WE is a great book. Great writing, a really good story, and still lots of philosophical and political depth.

Bryan Russell said...


All this dystopic reading has got my brain going down certain paths...

Bryan Russell said...


I haven't yet been able to bring myself to read Ayn Rand. I've read too much about her, and I think that would just get in the way of reading... plus, um, I think those giant things would drastically reduce my life expectancy.

Bryan Russell said...


Thanks for saying I'm dead on. Which, of course, makes me want to write a zombie dystopia novel now...


Bryan Russell said...

Stephen and Joe,

I'd agree with that, to an extent. I think I mentioned it in my review of Brave New World, where part of the problem is simply the passage of time and changes in novelistic form and expectation. More exposition, slower narrative builds... these were much more common then. But at the same time I think a large part of it is that both Huxley and Orwell were less concerned with telling a great story than they were in exploring certain ideas. They're very didactic, soapbox sort of novels.

Which is why WE is so interesting, in that it was written first, in a time even deeper in old style narrative traditions. And yet his dystopia novel does not fall into excessive exposition, plotlessness and info dumps.

So while I'm certainly reading from a modern perspective, there's something still to be said for simple narrative evaluations.

Matthew MacNish said...

I am beginning to wonder how much being writers and reading about publishing ruins as readers. I do not disagree with any of your analysis Bryan even though I have not read 1984 since HS but I find myself suffering through the beginning of books these days.

I am reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and I have now finally reached the VERY VERY good part but the beginning was very slow, basically quite boring and I have to wonder if a debut American novelist could even get this book published.