From the Novel Nine: Triple Crown of Dystopia

The Novel Nine met in October to discuss the Triple Crown of Dystopia: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (1932), 1984 by George Orwell (1949), and The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood (1985). We had a lively discussion, requiring multiple bottles of wine. [It’s probably no accident that we chose for our next book Birds, Art, Life by Kyo Maclear to put us in a quieter, more contemplative state from which we can consider creativity and beauty.]

The three dystopian novels differ markedly in the future worlds they portray. In Brave New World humans are no longer born; they are “unbottled” – grown in artificial wombs on an assembly line to precise specifications so that everyone, alphas to gammas, is satisfied with his or her lot in life and kept happy with the drug soma. Children are conditioned in their sleep by the repetition of messages. Discontents are exiled to islands. Orwell, influenced by the communist revolution in the Soviet Union, depicts in 1984 a totalitarian world in which the proletariat is kept uneducated and poor, but marginally free, whereas the “managers” are continually monitored by Big Brother and the thought police; stepping out of line costs you your life. Language is so degraded (Newspeak) that complex, democratic ideas cannot even be expressed, history is continually revised, and there is no truth. The Handmaid’s Tale is a world created by religious zealots. Everyone is controlled by the government, and women have been stripped of any rights or agency. There are four categories of women: those married to the Commanders; the handmaids, who are divvied out to the Commanders and whose sole purpose is to bear children; econo-wives, who are married to lower echelon men, and the un-women, who are either eliminated or sent to clean up toxic waste sites. Reading and books are prohibited to women.

Although there are big differences among the futures depicted in the novels, one common thread we saw was the obsession with sexuality. In Brave New World “everyone belongs to everybody,” sexuality is open, but becoming attached to any one person has become unacceptable. In 1984, the proletariat are relatively free to have sex and marry, but among the managers, marrying and reproducing are controlled by the Party. And in The Handmaid’s Tale sexuality is strictly controlled. For a handmaid to have a sexual relationship with anyone other than her Commander is tantamount to a death sentence. She is even named for her Commander: Offred, Ofglen, and so forth, and the “relationship” with her Commander is meant to be mechanical, with his wife cradling the handmaid between her thighs while the sex act is performed. The handmaids are not even permitted to have friends.

Another commonality we saw was that in all three societies, those in the highest echelons could disobey the rules. They could have prohibited books and better food and alcohol; they can engage in prohibited sex and other behaviours.

Most of us had read these novels when we were in high school or university. The differences in how we read the books this time around were interesting. Some of us found the novels far more disturbing now than when we were younger – perhaps because those worlds seem closer and more plausible now.

Many of us found The Handmaid’s Tale to be the most engaging, perhaps because the protagonist was a woman or, somehow, that world seemed more real and plausible to us. Others preferred 1984, which they found horrifying and gripping, with excellent writing –“vivid and detailed” – and with scenes that were easy to picture.

All of us drew parallels with what’s happening in the world today, and that may be why both The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 seemed more chilling and real to us than Brave New World.

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From the Novel Nine: Away by Jane Urquhart

We read Away by Jane Urquhart for our August meeting. Set in 19th century Ireland and Canada and present day Ontario, the novel is an entrancing combination of myth and history. Multi-generational, the narrative begins with a shipwreck in a small community in Ireland, then moves through the famine and emigration to settlement in an inhospitable Ontario near Port Hope. The present day story is that of Esther, a descendant of the family. Esther is watching as quarrying destroys the family home on Lake Ontario, a home filled with history and memories. The writing is beautiful and haunting, as well as imaginative, with striking imagery throughout.

The novel is a meditation on what it means to be ‘away’ in one’s life. The reader, in addition to learning about each character’s personal struggles and journey, also learns about the political struggles of the Irish in both Ireland and Canada, political struggles that are quite personal for many characters.

For many of us, this was a second read of Away. We had read – and loved – the novel shortly after it was published in 1993. This time around, we were struck, despite our fears, by the fact that we liked Away just as much, but that we found ourselves drawn to different sections this time and to different characters. It was a lovely illustration of how much the reading of a novel is determined by what the reader brings to the novel and where she is in her own life.

 

From the Novel Nine: By Gaslight by Steven Price

July’s book was By Gaslight by Steven Price. The characters in this novel are even more wonderfully complex and well-drawn than the disparate settings: gritty, foggy Victorian London, the brutal American Civil War, and a South Africa booming with diamond mines.

William Pinkerton of the infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency is grieving his father’s recent death. Even though he’s not quite sure whether he loved or despised his father, Pinkerton feels driven to solve the mystery that haunted his father’s life: the notorious thief Edward Shade, who may or may not actually exist.

The novel opens with Pinkerton travelling to London to find Charlotte Reckitt, a woman who reportedly had a relationship with Shade and who may hold the secret to his whereabouts. When pursued by Pinkerton, however, Reckitt jumps off a bridge and into the Thames, and Pinkerton is left to search for other clues from people who worked with his father at the Pinkerton Agency. Meanwhile, Adam Foole has returned to London to search for a lost love from an affair ten years earlier in South Africa. With Charlotte Reckitt gone, Pinkerton believes that Foole may hold the key to finding the elusive Edward Shade, who may be a ghost who never existed.

From what seems at first a relatively straight-forward story line, the plot, the characters, and their backstories become increasingly complex and entangled. There are also a number of side characters who are intriguing and entertaining in their own right. No one is without his or her charms and virtue, but each possesses plenty of vice as well. At every turn, the reader is faced with uncertainty about whose accounts of his or her history are true. Eventually, you’re forced to accept that all of them are true — and false — in their own way: there are many shades of truth.

By Gaslight is beautifully written, with fresh and inventive language that never feels contrived. Even at 731 pages, no one thought the book was too long. All of us enjoyed this novel. (Dare I say loved?)

From the Novel Nine: Effigy by Alissa York

For June’s meeting, we read Effigy by Alissa York. This novel is an incredibly complex story inspired by the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857, perpetrated on western-bound settlers by Mormons disguised as Paiute and Ute men, as well as some of the native men. In the novel, there is one survivor, a little girl, who is adopted by one of the Mormons who participated in the massacre.

The novel takes place ten years after the massacre and centres on a Mormon family — Erastus Hammer and his four wives: Ursula, who’s still in love with the late Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons; Ruth, an immigrant from London who just wants to raise silk worms and make silk thread; Thankful, a former actress who sees in Hammer a safe place; and young Dorrie, who has developed an obsession with taxidermy. Although she does not know it yet, Dorrie is the lone survivor of the massacre, something the reader discovers through her adoptive mother’s letters to Dorrie, which have remained unsent. Hammer’s interest in Dorrie is limited to her ability to preserve his kills. Once a skilled hunter, Hammer, because of failing eyesight, is now dependent on the Tracker, a Paiute man whose name the reader never learns. The Tracker also participated in the massacre, and in some ways, he is at the core of the novel. He feels a ‘sickness of soul’ over what he has done as well as the killing he continues to do for Hammer. There is also Bendy, a former rider in the Pony Express and the man Hammer hires to take care of his horses.

Although the subject matter is difficult — there is a great deal of violence to people and animals — some of us loved Effigy for the sheer inventiveness of language, intricacy of story, and fascinating character development; each character has a complex and interesting backstory. Others of us, however, found it difficult to engage with the novel, partly because of the dark subject matter, but also because they found the language and story inventive to the point of feeling contrived — all of which provided great fodder for discussion of a novel with an abundance of complex relationships but precious little love.

From the Novel Nine: Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels

We met in April to discuss Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels. It was a long, thoughtful discussion of a novel we considered beautifully written, poetic, and profound. It was a discussion difficult to encompass in just a few paragraphs.

Fugitive Pieces is about a young boy, Jacob, who, at the beginning of WWII,  manages to hide when German soldiers come into his home in Poland and kill his father, mother, and beloved sister Bela. Jacob hides in the woods, burying himself in the soil. He finally walks out of the woods and into the arms of Athos, a Greek archeologist/polymath working at a site in Poland. Athos, at great risk to himself, hides Jacob and takes him back to Greece where he hides him from the Germans. Eventually, Athos and Jacob immigrate to Canada.

The first half of story centres around Jacob’s lingering grief for Bela, which shapes his entire life. He didn’t actually see her die, so even though he knows it’s impossible, he occasionally imagines that she might still be alive. The second half of the novel is about Ben, born after the war, the only son of Holocaust survivors. Ben meets Jacob and becomes fascinated with his story. He also discovers more about his own parents’ story. The entire novel is about the profound grief that haunts Holocaust survivors and all the generations that come after them.

The novel is also a meditation on memory. One reader pointed to a quote from Jacob’s narration. “History is amoral: events occurred. But memory is moral; what we consciously remember is what our conscience remembers… History and memory share events: that is they share time and space.”

For some of us who had read Fugitive Pieces when it was first published in 1996, the second reading was interesting. When we read it the first time, we thought mainly of the Holocaust. Twenty years later, the novel also brought to mind Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, Armenia, and the genocide directed at Indigenous people in North America and elsewhere. … On and on and on it goes, and we spent a long time trying to puzzle out what circumstances prompt “ordinary” people to commit such atrocities. There are a lot of theories, but no clear answers. Are we all vulnerable to becoming monsters? And yet there are always people like Athos, who are courageous enough to refuse to be part of atrocity.

Fugitive Pieces was well worth the second read and even, perhaps, a third.

From the Novel Nine: A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter and Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock

For the February meeting, we discussed A Woman in the Polar Night by Christiane Ritter, published in 1938, and Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town by Stephen Leacock, published in 1912.

We were captivated by A Woman in the Polar Night, the story of RItter’s year spent in Spitsbergen (aka Svalbard), an island four hundred miles north of Norway and the largest wilderness area in Europe. Ritter was a well-to-do Austrian, who, prior to her year in Spitsbergen, had never strayed far from her comfortable surroundings. Yet in 1934, thirty-six-year old Christiane joined her husband Hermann Ritter and Karl Nicholaisen, an intrepid Norwegian adventurer, in Spitsbergen; both of them had been living there for at least several years, making their living by trapping foxes.

All three chose to endure hardships in the Arctic far beyond what most of us could begin to imagine: isolation, cold, wind, darkness, monotonous and unreliable food and equipment (stoves that emitted black smoke)– the three of them living in a wretchedly tiny hut (“a small, bleak bar box”). Karl expected Christiane to go crazy sooner or later and “provide some mid-winter entertainment.”

Instead, Christiane fell in love with the beauty of the Arctic, even writing that “in centuries to come, men will go to the Arctic as in biblical times they withdrew to the desert, to find the truth again.” Her descriptions of the landscape, the ice and the sea, of the sun disappearing and then returning weeks later, of months lived in twilight, of foxes and seals and seabirds, are exquisite. She was also prescient: “ … civilization is suffering from a severe vitamin deficiency because it cannot draw its strength directly from nature, eternally young and eternally true … Only now do I grasp the real meaning and world-transforming element in the saying: ‘Become as the peasants, understand the sacredness of the earth.’”

We were also intrigued with the questions Christiane left unanswered: she had left a daughter in Austria, but never wrote about that daughter or how it felt to leave a young child for so long; the relationship between her and her husband seemed lacking in affection, but we weren’t sure whether that was true or whether she was just writing within the limitations of the times; she never wrote about what it was like to return to pre-war Austria in 1935.

Christiane Ritter lived to the age of 103, and her book was a bestseller for years.

We also enjoyed Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, but the stories suffered somewhat by comparison to the remarkable Woman in the Polar Night. Leacock’s short stories were imaginative and witty, even “cheeky” as described by some, but we thought that they might have a greater impact if they were read as a weekly serial rather than gathered in a collection. Certainly, many of the characters rang true for those of us who grew up in small, Ontario towns, but the stories themselves seemed to come from a somewhat more innocent time.

From the Novel Nine: Catching Up

To catch up and catch our breath … it’s been a while, and a lot has transpired … everywhere.

In early December, Novel Nine had a splendiferous Christmas gathering at which we exchanged gifts (books — what else?) and listened to Frederick Forsyth’s “The Shepherd,” narrated by Alan Maitland. It was a lovely and magical evening and a wonderful way to open the season’s festivities.

Due to a nasty cold, I missed the January meeting — reluctantly, because Novel Nine were discussing The Hours by Michael Cunningham and watching the movie as well. From what I understand, everyone thoroughly enjoyed both – that rare instance when the movie is almost as good as the book.