Monday, January 21, 2008

Something Toothless This Way Comes

I was something of a Ray Bradbury fan in my early teens, back in the mid-1960s or so. The Martian Chronicles, of course, then R Is For Rocket, Something Wicked This Way Comes, Dandelion Wine, S Is For Space, The October Country … That was, I think, a good age to discover Bradbury. At some point, though, I realized that Bradbury didn’t have that many stories to tell, though that didn’t keep him from retelling them, and that he relied too much on his “poetic” style and not enough on substance, so I began losing interest in his writing.

I seem to remember that I read The October Country, Bradbury’s collection of horror stories, in high school, after giving up on his science fiction, and I liked it more. I’m not sure when I tried to read Fahrenheit 451, only that I gave up after a few pages. And there I stopped.

Last summer, Fahrenheit 451 was chosen for a program in my city to encourage reading, and I began thinking it was time to read it myself at long last. I’d also heard that Bradbury had objected to Michael Moore’s adaptation (or co-optation) of his title for Fahrenheit 911, whether on political or intellectual-property grounds I’m not sure. Then I read on the web that Bradbury had upset some of his liberal fans (via) by praising George W. Bush. (Not exactly news – the article had appeared in 2001, two weeks before the Big One.) As with some other recent embarrassments, Bradbury’s fans blamed his thoughtcrime on his age and ill health. They couldn’t have been such big fans, for most of the idiotic things he said to Salon’s reporter were straight out of Fahrenheit 451, as I discovered when I finally read it. (For that matter, some of the relevant material was quoted in the Salon article.)

It is, I must tell you, a silly book. (Spoilers Ahead! … if you care.) The premise is that in The Future, firemen burn books. Reading is, if not forbidden, considered deviant, and books are contraband except for romance magazines for the ladies, trade journals for the gents, and comic books for the younger set. As science fiction it’s painful: the image of “the lapping pigeon-winged books [dying] on the porch and lawn of the house", while prettily poetic, founders on the reality that books don’t burn easily.

The Salon reporter gushed over the technological details:

There's interactive television, stereo earphones (which reportedly inspired a Sony engineer to invent the Walkman), immersive wall-size TVs, earpiece communicators, rampant political correctness, omnipresent advertising and a violent youth culture ignored by self-absorbed, prescription-dependent parents.

But there’s also a scene where the hero, Montag, has “his knee slammed by the fender of a car hurtling by at ninety miles an hour. He was afraid to get up, afraid he might not be able to gain his feet at all, with an anesthetized leg.” It would be a lot more than "anesthetized", it would be shattered. But a few hours later he's able to run on it. Yes, in Bradbury’s dystopian future automobiles careen down city streets – not expressways – at extremely high speeds. Unlike the noble engineer Heinlein, Bradbury felt no need to work out how this could be; as a poet, he felt no need to visualize it clearly.

We’re told that the US has “started and won two atomic wars since 2022!” The book ends with Montag on the run with a group of other men as another atomic war begins:

The concussion knocked the air across and down the river, turned the men over like dominoes in a line, blew the water in lifting sprays, and blew the dust and made the trees above them mourn with a great wind passing away south.

So, atomic bombs have been dropped on the city from which Montag is fleeing, with the assumption that many other cities are also being struck. Bradbury seems a bit vague about how that would work. Montag and his companions are knocked over by the blast wave, but there's not a word about heat or radiation. In short, these guys are already dead, long before they get to Saint Louis, their destination, which would also surely be gone anyway. Such a small detail.

Much of the novel is mere crankitude, nostalgia for an America that never was. Early on, Montag the fireman meets Clarisse, a sylphlike young girl, who’s been raised outside the system by her uncle but now has to attend the public schools. She says, “But I don't think it's social to get a bunch of people together and not let them talk.” But that is what school was about long before this book was written, not only in my day but in Bradbury's day and long before. There never was a golden age when school was about asking questions; Clarisse's image, "It's a lot of funnels and a lot of water poured down the spout and out the bottom, and them telling us it's wine when it's not”, is a reasonable picture of the rote learning and recitation that was traditional schooling for most of human history.

“And the museums,” Clarisse goes on, “have you ever been? All abstract. That's all there is now. My uncle says it was different once. A long time back, sometimes pictures said things or even showed people.” This is interesting, because it's archetypal philistines who condemn abstract art as degenerate and demand representations: the Nazis, the Soviets, probably the Red Guards. If anything, it seems that Bradbury is quite a Red Guard himself, wanting to place severe limits on what artists can do. But it hardly matters, because it's clear that there's plenty of representation on TV and elsewhere in Bradbury / Montag's world.

Bradbury mocks the absorption of Montag’s wife Mildred in her tv show, which sounds like a soap opera: “ ... what are they mad about?” he has Montag cry. “Who are these people? Who's that man and who's that woman? Are they husband and wife, are they divorced, engaged, what? Good God, nothing's connected up.” No doubt he'd say the same thing if he walked into the middle of a play by Shakespeare. How is Mildred's interest different from, say, the crowds waiting at the New York docks, anxious to know if a fictional character (Little Nell) in a print serial was alive or dead? Tolstoy mocked foolish women's absorption in novels too (not his own, though, I take it). Who are these people in Anna Karenina? It might even be that print is the culprit, because it made it possible to flood the world with Dickens and Austen and Grisham and Danielle Steele and Ray Bradbury.

“It took some man a lifetime maybe to put some of his thoughts down," Montag laments. Women don't write, of course; women in Bradbury’s fiction tend to be either suicidal, whiskey-tippling housewives like Mildred or vague neurasthenics like Clarisse. Not that the men are anything to write home about either. Most of the great writers Bradbury reveres ground out the product, like Bradbury himself. Scribble, scribble, scribble -- eh, Mr. Gibbon? And thanks to printing, the loss of a copy, or a hundred, or a thousand, is not necessarily the destruction of a book.

“School is shortened," his fellow fireman Beatty gloats to Montag, “discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies about all after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling switches, fitting nuts and bolts? ... The zipper displaces the button and a man lacks just that much time to think while dressing at dawn, a philosophical hour, and thus a melancholy hour." Come now, buttons are for servants to fasten for us.

“With schools turning out more runners, jumpers, racers, tinkerers, grabbers, snatchers, fliers, and swimmers instead of examiners, critics, knowers, and imaginative creators, the word 'intellectual,' of course, became the swear word it deserved to be.” When did the schools turn out critics, etc.? It's intellectuals, by the way, who like abstract art, while a levelling society like this one would be more likely to fill its museums with Norman Rockwell, Keane children, and Elvis on black velvet. Bradbury's also ignorant of history: “Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says.” That's the Declaration of Independence, Ray. (I know – picky, picky, picky!)

Then there’s the part that Bradbury’s twenty-first century fans thought was the stroke-addled ranting of an old man, but which he committed to print in 1953. Beatty’s lecture continues: “Now let's take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don't step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, etc. ... The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! … You must understand that our civilization is so vast that we can't have our minorities upset and stirred.” It's worth remembering that this book was originally published the year before Brown v. Board of Education. “... Colored people don't like Little Black Sambo. Burn it! White people don't feel good about Uncle Tom's Cabin. [Neither do 'colored.'] Burn it. Someone's written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.” And yet this piece of tripe is still in print after 55 years.

“But the public, knowing what it wanted, let the comic books survive. And the three-dimensional sex magazines." And the science fiction pulps that published not Bradbury (who got into the slicks early on) but other sf writers. "... you are allowed to read comics, the good old confessions, or trade journals." Again, Bradbury is vague on just who’s to blame here: is it the Public, the Gummint, or the Corporations?

But I think its incoherence helps Fahrenheit 451: in all the speechifying and pretty symbolism, there’s something for everyone to fasten onto. I liked Montag’s questions after his account of the two atomic wars: “Is it because we're having so much fun at home we've forgotten the world? Is it because we're so rich and the rest of the world's so poor and we just don't care if they are? I've heard rumors, the world is starving, but we're well fed. Is it true, the world works hard and we play? Is that why we're hated so much?" Fahrenheit 451 is a mirror. It contains a gripe and a bitch about our decadent society for just about everyone; look into it and you’ll see your own complaints reflected back to you. The rest you can forget.

The final irony isn’t part of the book proper, it’s the “Note About The Author” at the end of the Fiftieth Anniversary Edition that I read. It mentions Bradbury's books in passing while dwelling on his TV and film credits:

Ray Bradbury has published some twenty-seven books -- novels, stories, plays, essays, and poems -- since his first story appeared when he was twenty years old. He began writing for the movies in 1952 -- with the script for his own Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. The next year he wrote the screenplay for It Came From Outer Space. In 1953 he lived in Ireland writing the script of Moby Dick for John Huston. In 1961 he wrote the narration spoken by Orson Welles for King of Kings, and the short animated film Icarus Montgolfier Wright, based on his story of the history of flight, was nominated for an Academy Award. Films have been made of his "Picasso Summer," The Illustrated Man, Fahrenheit 451, and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Since 1985 he has adapted his stories for his own half-hour show on USA Cable Television.

For a famously technophobic author who told his Salon interviewer, “You can't have a civilization without that, can you? If you can't read and write you can't think. Your thoughts are dispersed if you don't know how to read and write”, Bradbury seems to have gone over to the Dark Side. If this were his Fahrenheit 451 future, he'd be one of the people grinding out the pap for those immersive TV screens, ensnaring housewives in their web of banality.