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Saturday, March 10, 2007

Department of Book Reports Episode 8

1984 and V for Vendetta

We often allude to or quote directly from the great Orwell classic, 1984 (Signet Classics $7.95). The General has written some marvelous parodies, and the themes of the book are, more often than not, motifs in Austin Cline’s Sunday sermons. Recently Jonathan Raban has published Surveillance(Pantheon $24.00) another novel devoted to private rights and public safety in the wake of 9/11. I realized, after a while, that I hadn’t read the book since High School, so I decided to re-read it.
I could talk about Orwell and his cautionary tale, or how much of his vision has become reality, or not become reality (Orwell never saw the coming of the personal computer, for instance), the politics, the lust for power, and the utter devastation of the powerless. But I’d be preaching to the choir. The book is more than just a prophecy, or a polemic. I’d rather talk about Orwell the story-teller and 1984 as a novel.
After all these years, it remains a very compelling read. From the first lines, “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen”, to its final line, “He loved Big Brother”, Orwell gives us the story of Winston Smith, the outer party member who toils in the Ministry of Truth, and who has begun questioning the drab existence of life in Oceania, and in Airstrip One. Orwell had been a distinguished novelist long before this final work, and he knew to show and not merely tell. He shows us Winston’s memories, the theft of his sister’s chocolate, his wife’s frigidity, the banality of his co-worker’s conversation. Perhaps my favorite section of the book is when Winston goes to the “Prole” section of London, searching for something like hope. He engages one old man in conversation at a pub. The old man is one of the few remaining in England who might remember what life was like before the wars and the revolution. But the old man can remember nothing of much value. Yet the conversation remains engaging.
Orwell also knew something about giving us the telling details. There’s Winston’s purchase of the glass paperweight; the half-remembered rhyme “Oranges and lemons, say the bells of St. Clement’s/ You owe me three farthings, say the bells of St. Martins” that Winston recalls often during the course of the book and which O’Brien later completes for him: “When will you pay me, say the bells of Old Bailey/ When I grow rich say the bells of Shoreditch”. There is the chess set at Chestnut Tree CafĂ©.
Which is to say that in Orwell’s dark imagination, Winston Smith is a realized character. We believe in him as much as we are repelled by the world he lives in. Incidentally, Winston reads only two chapters of Goldstein’s book: Chapter One, “Ignorance is Strength”, and Chapter Three, “War is Peace”. I suppose Chapter Two is “Freedom is Slavery” and I wonder what would have been in it.

V for Vendetta (Vertigo $19.99) is Alan Moore’s (along with David Lloyd with Steve Whitaker and Siobhan Dodds) take of a post-apocalyptic England that has become fascist and served as the basis of the recent film which the General blogged about. I haven’t seen the film, but I enjoyed the book very much. It is, as my son said, 1984 meets Batman. Our hero, the anarchist, V., an escaped political prisoner, works to undermine the regime. He adopts Evey Hammond after rescuing her from the police and she serves as sort of a Robin figure. The story is episodic, due to its initial composition over the course of years as a on-going comic book and unlike 1984 which follows a more structured story arc. Each chapter is titled with a word beginning with V, (The Voice, Victims, Vindication and so on). Moore’s latest work is The Lost Girls (Top Shelf Productions $75.00) and it follows up the stories of Alice, Wendy and Dorothy on the eve of WW1. It is pornographic without being particularly smutty. It’s art styles are derived from the many movements of that time, such as Art Nouveau and Fauvism. All these books are available at Jackson Street Books and other fine independent bookstores. (Signed copies of Surveillance are in stock and Lost Girls is available for viewing by appointment, and you must have clean hands).

Alas, demmocommie was unavailable for assistance on this book report. We understand that he is in Hollywood, trying to sell the screen rights to his book on the Donner party. You might have seen him at the Oscar ceremony, seated next to Helen Mirren.

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