Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Nineteen Eighty-Four and a Half

At the time I wrote this review, I hadn’t yet read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, though I’d read quite a lot of Bradbury’s work in junior high and high school. I recall starting Fahrenheit 451 once, maybe in my freshman year of college, but didn’t get very far. I think I found it weak compared to Huxley and especially Orwell. I finally read it this past summer, and will write more about that some other time. It’s only worth mentioning here because I now recognize how much N. A. Diaman borrowed from Bradbury: The Fourth Wall, as I guessed in this review, took a lot from Fahrenheit 451. Not the “exploratory sex,” of course – Bradbury is a bit squeamish about bodies and sex (see his horror stories in The October Country), and the relationship between the hero of F451 and the young woman he meets is cloyingly chaste, while Bret’s organizing by sex is more a Sixties New Left thing…. But more of that another time.
N. A. Diaman published more fiction, most recently in 1997 as far as I can tell, but I haven't read any of it. I should at least have a look sometime at his 1978 debut, Ed Dean Is Queer.
Published in Gay Community News sometime in 1981.

The Fourth Wall
by N. A. Diaman
Persona Press, Box 14022, San Francisco CA 94114
128 pp.
$4.95 paper

I had hopes for The Fourth Wall. Self-published but well-packaged, it promised “a unique fresh style blending contemporary cinematic imagery with the sparse precision of the French nouveau roman.” Mr. N. A. Diaman, author of an earlier novel, Ed Dean Is Queer, had presented his work well. Professionally, even. I wasn’t impressed by the “nouveau roman” business, but at least he was ambitious.

The Fourth Wall is a negative utopia (or “dystopia”) set a few centuries in our wake. Mr. Diaman has borrowed from Orwell’s 1984 a nearly-omnipresent television screen (but unlike Orwell’s, these do not transmit, only receive) and a charismatic leader, and from Huxley’s Brave New World a consumer culture whose members are kept pacified by recreational drugs (though recreational sex is frowned on here). After a violent and prolonged civil war, control of North America has fallen into the hands of the telecommunications industry. The “fourth wall” of the title is the giant television screen which covers the fourth wall of, apparently, every room in every dwelling. Books have been forbidden (Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451?), but an underground movement preserves them for select initiates.

The story centers on young Bret Hamilton, a member of that underground who thinks he may have found a new acolyte in Var, a young man he has met and slept with. Bret has just been promoted to a new job as television cameraman for the federal government, beginning with the broadcast of a major address by the President. During this broadcast, the President collapses and dies, but it turns out that his “death” has been staged to cover his retirement: the President wants to disappear from public life and return to scholarship, his first love, and this, supposedly, is the easiest way to make the transition. Bret accidentally stumbles on the Truth and has a brief dialogue with the President, who is impressed by his intelligence and cajoles him into keeping the secret. Bret then returns to Var’s arms, ready to teach him to read. It is not certain whether Bret will keep the President’s secret, or if it matters.

We also meet Sonia and Weslex, Bret’s conformist parents. They aren’t villains, though, just an ordinary middle-aged married couple. Weslex goes to his five-hour-a-day job, and Sonia spends her day selecting their dinner by number from picture cards, popping pills, and watching television.

Unfortunately, Mr. Diaman is neither a very good writer nor a convincing storyteller. Sparse his prose may be; precise it is not. No doubt he intends to parody bureaucratese, but such phrases as “the abstract eye that is the symbol of the telecommunications center at the fourth wall of the capital” are what I’d call vague, not precise. Var has “dark curly hair” but no attempt is made to say just what color it is. Bret is not described at all. Vague. Var wears a street uniform, the standard all-weather costume for men in the city.” What does it look like? Vague. If anything, Mr. Diaman seems to be avoiding language of any exactness. But instead of evoking a conformist, dehumanizing society, this lack of detail suggests that Mr. Diaman did not bother to work out the details.

Having the President retire by faking his death is not clichéd – it’s inept. I was uncomfortably reminded of plot twists in fiction I wrote in high school. And the confrontation between Bret and the President is worthy, in its stilted profundity, of Ayn Rand. That is not a compliment.

what about individual human rights, freedom and democracy?
the president laughs.
archaic words. the rhetoric of another era. that all went out with the twentieth century. unrealistic vague concepts. too inefficient for our present complex society.
but bret is not convinced.
those ideals were worth pursuing even though we failed to achieve them fully at any time in the history of this nation.

I’ve been toying with the idea that Mr. Diaman doesn’t think much of Bret’s “alternative lifestyle.” Certainly I don’t: Bret recovers his individuality by eating organic food, collecting antiques, and the practice of “exploratory sex.” Then he feels entitled to condescend to more prosaic souls: “they seem so preoccupied with themselves that they hardly notice one another. … he wonders what it means for them to be alive.” But I can find no irony in Mr. Diaman’s treatment of his hero. Does he really think that eating home-baked bread and being “creative” – another vague word – will make conformity crumble? I hardly think that the city and subculture that gave us the Castro Street Clone are in a position to level the charge of conformity against anyone else. And if anyone replies to this admittedly cheap shot by pointing out that just because people dress alike it doesn’t mean they think alike, or that they aren’t still human beings, I would agree readily: that is my complaint against Bret, and against Mr. Diaman’s book.
It is easy to advocate that people use technology “to enrich instead of impoverishing their lives” but it is not so easy to work out how this is to be done. It is easy to grumble that a “happy, healthy, comfortable world” is also a “dull, predictable, boring world,” but it should not be forgotten that an exciting, unpredictable world is also a frightening, unstable one; I recommend to Mr. Diaman a 1940 story by Robert A. Heinlein, “Coventry,” for a classic handling of this theme. In such books as Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time, Ursula LeGuin’s The Dispossessed, and Thomas Disch’s On Wings of Song, to name just three, questions about conformity and the use of technology have been posed, and vividly and originally explored.

If Mr. Diaman has anything of his own to say on these or other matters, he hasn’t said it here. He has merely invoked them to lend an air of trendy seriousness to an extremely slight and undeveloped tale. And this saddens me. Small lesbian-feminist presses such as Daughters, Inc., have given us valuable fiction and exciting new ideas, and some important poetry has come from small gay male presses. N. A. Diaman has the resources, evidently, to do something of the sort for gay male fiction. I hope his next offering will have content which is up to its packaging.