Monthly Archives: December 2014

Review: Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

I can’t help but think that it is presumptuous of me–li’l, nobody ol’ me–attempting a review of Fahrenheit 451 (1953), the rare science fiction book to achieve crossover “classic” status. And if a review of the book is unnecessary, given its age and fame, and even if I have nothing original to add to the conversation, well, this is my blog, isn’t it? It’s my corner of the 24 hour media cycle, and this space is devoted to my encounters with the books I read. And isn’t it better to write about good SFF than it is bad speculative fiction?

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury

Fahrenheit 451 is, of course, the temperature at which paper combusts, and the novel opens with book burning. “It was,” says Bradbury of his firemen, who, counterintuitively, start fires, “a pleasure to burn.” Thus Bradbury introduces the reader to a future of enforced censorship, in which the harboring of books is a crime against the state, resulting in the burning of one’s property, and, occasionally, the “disappearance” of the criminal. Published in 1953, Fahrenheit 451 clearly recalls what was at the time the recent history of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, as well as the American context of Joe McCarthy’s communist witch hunt.

Guy Montag, a fireman, is our hero, an everyman who is provoked into questioning his way of life by a chance encounter with his teenage neighbor, Clarisse McClellan. Clarisse is a dreamy wisp of a thing. Unlike her peers (and, indeed, her elders), Clarisse is interested in conversation, and nature, and why things happen the way they do. Montag is at first affronted and confused by his conversations with Clarisse, but his encounters cause him, too, to ask “why.” Montag is reminded of the books he has, illegally, hidden in his home–and at which he will soon begin to look.

Fahrenheit 451 is commonly interpreted as a screed against censorship, and this is undoubtedly true. Bradbury predicts a future in which the state controls media, banning certain types–books–while cultivating others, particularly television. Consider, for instance, Montag’s wife’s “family,” a living room-size, multi-walled television that projects people “conversing” (read: yelling, mumbling, etc.) incoherently all the time, in order to provide viewers company. News broadcasts periodically warn of impending war, but society takes no notice.

But Bradbury is pointing at more than censorship. Dave Itzkoff, in his review of the recent audiobook version of Fahrenheit 451, quotes Bradbury saying that the book “is less about Big Brother and more about Little Sister.” Itzkoff takes Bradbury to mean technology, particularly television. Perhaps Itzkoff is right, but it goes deeper than that. Bradbury repeatedly references the speed and preoccupation of society. Cars travel everywhere in excess of one hundred miles per hour. People are constantly tuned into some sort of media. Near the end of the narrative, one of Bradbury’s hobos–who are all former college professors–reveals himself to be an expert on Jose Ortega y Gasset, author of The Revolt of the Masses. “There are, above all,” Gasset says, “times in which the human reality, always mobile, accelerates, and bursts into vertiginous speeds. Our time is such a one, for it is made of descent and fall.” Ultimately, this is central theme of Fahrenheit 451, the allure and danger of pursuing pleasure in our attempts to flee the essential hollowness of life.

While Bradbury’s vision of a media-saturated, accelerated future was prescient, it is, also, inherently conservative and elitist. Culture, such as it is, remains the province of a small band of persecuted (or, perhaps, forgotten) resistors, who preserve humanity’s heritage by memorization and transmission. The common man can only be expected to continue to pursue pleasure. Montag’s dissent is spurred less by any choices on his part than it is his selection by Faber, an unemployed professor, to receive an illegal book. Female characters are particularly attracted to media, and teenagers, such as they are present, are mostly portrayed as murderous, perhaps a reflection of postwar America’s infatuation with “juvenile delinquents.” For all that Bradbury remains insightful, then, he also fears things that seem constant, or, perhaps, endemic to every generation.

Fahrenheit 451 is a classic not only of science fiction, but also of American literature. Bradbury’s prose is tense and tightly wound, and exhibits the tight control of language readers expect of him. Sci-fi lovers who have not read Fahrenheit 451 are advised to do so; those who read it previously, but not for some time, might consider reading it again soon. Recommended, required reading.

Review: The Open Curtain, Brian Evenson

I have perhaps become spoiled by my time splashing in the shallows of genre fiction, seduced by the promise of easy entertainment and little cognitive output. This is not to say that either fantasy or science-fiction are, on the whole, mindless. Of course not. We have seen over the past decade (or a bit more), the ascension of Tolkien to literary classic, and, if sci-fi remains somewhat ghettoized, it nonetheless has shown its potential for inspiring scientists and technologists and raising questions about urgent social issues. But, and of course there’s a but, most genre fiction is of little value beyond the amusement it initially offers the reader. The mid-range of SFF, in which (I think) I most often wade, can be hit or miss, and, consequently my brain…thing has atrophied…or something. In any case, when presented these days with a novel that can be identified both as genre (horror) and literature, I am befuddled. Intimidated. Unequal to the task. Thus was my experience with Brian Evenson’s The Open Curtain (Coffee House Press, 2006).

The Open Curtain, Brian Evenson

The Open Curtain, Brian Evenson

The plot is simple enough. Rudd, whom, the reader will quickly learn, is a troubled adolescent, discovers that he has a “long lost” half-brother, Lael. “Lyle?” You might ask, as will every other character in the novel. “No,” Rudd calmly repeats, “Lael.” Rudd is both attracted to and repulsed by Lael, who is a manipulative bully. Rudd severs ties with him, only to be drawn back to him when they both become fascinated by the 1902 murder of a woman committed by Brigham Young’s grandson. The boys see in the murder the rite of “Blood Atonement,” a violent ritual, the existence of which the Church of Latter Day Saints denies.

Without going into too much detail (no spoilers!) Rudd ends up the lone survivor of the violent murder; the other victims are a family unrelated to Rudd. It’s at this point that the reader encounters Lynn–whose family was killed. Lynn begins visiting Rudd in the hospital, where he lies in a coma. She becomes obsessed with watching over Rudd, protecting him, since he was the last person to see her family alive, and may be able to identify the killer. Rudd awakens. Eerily, a love affair blooms between the two, and Rudd moves in with Lynn. With increasing horror, the reader questions every decision Lynn makes, as it is clear that Rudd is, to put it mildly, “not quite right.” The ending imagery of the second section is nightmarish.

The third section of the novel–well, I won’t go into much detail. Suffice it to say that it is surreal, and jumbled, and confusing, perhaps the best a sane person can do to imagine what it might be like in the mind of a man who is not sane. (Confession: I was helped along here by handy notes and marks left in the margins by the previous reader.)

Brian Evenson

Brian Evenson

And, really, it’s that last scene in the second section, and the entirety of the third section, that made me question my ability to do The Open Curtain justice. I recall thinking, while not yet very far into the third section, thinking, “Just what the f*** is going on?” It’s startling, and puzzling, and, I realized, it’s meant to be. Evenson isn’t a lazy writer, and he’s not merely messing with his readers’ brains. Rather, he’s using the vehicle of his story, and the literary devices that comprise it, to demonstrate for readers what it might be like to be mad. It’s shocking, and disorienting, and confusing, and troubling–as it should be.

Can I effectively describe the subtle ways in which Evenson draws his characters, how he makes them real? Probably not. They are all, in their own ways, busy making the wrong decisions, even as the reader’s frustration builds. No, Rudd, don’t go visit Lael. Lynn, please stop trying to “fix” Rudd. Hooper Young–well, I’ll let you get to Hooper on your own.

Evenson closes The Open Curtain with an Afterword that (blessedly) sheds light on his intent. Evenson was raised Mormon, and the book is, he says, his “farewell” to to the LDS, from which he increasingly felt estranged, and from which he ultimately requested excommunication. Most people would simply walk away; that Evenson requested to be cast out speaks to the strength of his feelings. Indeed, Evenson avers that there is at the heart of Mormonism a kernel of violence that, he feels, colors the entire faith. The Open Curtain is about a Mormon ritual (of questionable historicity), and, more generally, religious violence. Devoted members of the LDS, or readers with especially weak stomachs (gore is present, but not excessive) are advised to steer clear of this book.

When I first heard of Evenson and The Open Curtain, it was a reference made in an article about the “new Gothic.” I haven’t been able to rediscover the piece that first piqued my attention. But now, having finally had the opportunity to read The Open Curtain, I better understand the reference; the book is brimming with darkness, madness, and violence–all in the best possible way. Evenson bends readers’ minds. I look forward to whatever phantasmagoria he pursues next. Highly recommended.