James Flory's MEMORY-HOLED BOOK REVIEWS

The Majority is Always Wrong.

Category: Fiction

ISLAND by Aldous Huxley

In Brave New World, written in the 1930s, a young Aldous Huxley predicted many grim societal changes for the world; in Island, written in the 1960s, an old Aldous Huxley sought to justify those societal changes. Indeed, the justification of some of these “societal changes” was a lifelong quest for Huxley. Huxley, who paradoxically became more and more naive as he grew older, became more and more certain that humans would be better off if some kind, benevolent oligarchy would be progressive (read “oppressive”) enough to abolish the family unit–abolishing fatherhood, motherhood, and childhood alike–abolish sexual restraints, abolish a lot of other traditional cultural mainstays, while officially endorsing and promoting the use of hallucinogenic substances among their subject masses.

Huxley invents a single fictional island in a remote region of the South Pacific where, due to a combination of historical, geographical, and political flukish fictional events, the fictional inhabitants of said island have happened to have reared up just a “utopian” society as Huxley would have dreamed up himself.

There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the ends thereof are the ways of death.

Indeed, Huxley did dream it up, that’s why it’s fiction. And of course it would have to be fiction. No such society has ever has occurred, nor could it occur, without a brutal authoritarian regime cruelly burdening its people with it. Orwell understood this; Huxley was a naive new ager only posing as a rational thinker by comparison.
The real fault with this book, however, since it is fiction after all, lay in the fact that the actual STORY is so transparent and void of any concrete detail. It becomes readily discernible that Huxley “didn’t get out much,” at least not to primitive tropical island settings, and he was just doing his best to fabricate such a setting purely out of his desk-fettered imagination. What the reader instead is bombarded with, page after page after page, is Huxley himself expositing–philosophizing, really–through flat, prop-like characters. This gets to weigh heavily upon the attentions of the reader until each successive page starts to actually feel progressively heavier, the process of page turning seemingly to feel more like manual lifting.

Huxley has his utopian natives consuming hallucinogens, engaging in Tantric sex rituals with any and all comers, espousing blatantly Buddhist beliefs, acting smugly and self-satisfied to any rare visitor to their island. Tropical birds fly around the island and give the time to the natives, having no fear of them; everybody living in peace and hallucinogenic and licentious frivolity. It’s so unreal as to be laughable. The description of the setting is shallow and flimsy and the whole novel has the feel of a shallow contrivance with the obvious purpose of providing Aldous Huxley with a vehicle with which to peddle his peculiar religious amalgam of Buddhism, wanton carnality, and pharmaceutically-fueled escapism.

Island, Huxley’s last novel, has to be considered a total failure, both as a work of philosophy and, more obviously, as a work of fictional literature.

Rating: Δ

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A CLOCKWORK ORANGE by Anthony Burgess

When this novel was originally published there was some controversy over the last chapter. What happened was, Burgess’s New York publisher, unlike his London publisher, would only publish the book sans the final chapter, the reason being, so said the New York publisher, the book is so dystopianly dark that, to include a wistful denouement at the end only kills the impact and the meaningfulness of everything that came before it. Burgess didn’t like it at the time, but he needed the money, so he agreed to allow the novel to be published in the United States without the final chapter.

So, at the outset of finally getting around to reading this classic novel for myself (note: like most people, I was only familiar with the Stanley Kubrick movie, which also leaves out the last chapter), I was wondering if, when I got to the end, I would find favor with the last chapter or not.

I didn’t. But what surprised me was, not only did I find that the last chapter lacking, I also found the last one-third of the book itself to somewhat defeat the author’s apparent purpose for the first two-thirds. Indeed this should have been an even shorter novel than it already is.

The first two-thirds depicts a world in which juvenile crime–especially exquisitely violent crime–is rampant, while the cops are inept, and the adults cower in terror inside their homes. Burgess, writing this in 1963, seemed to have been momentarily (before he self-destructs later in the book) very prescient in his outlook on the future for first-world societies: indeed today in the 21st century the world seems a lot more like the prophet Isaiah warned: Isaiah 3:12: “As for my people, children are their oppressors…”. Burgess also famously invented his own unique slang language for his teenage thugs, i.e., “droogies.” And Burgess waxes very philosophical when his main character, Alex, finally gets caught and undergoes a controversial new “rehab therapy” which basically turns him into an automaton, unable to commit crime anymore, but equally unable to have any freedom of will at all.

I have heard it said that this novel is not for the squeamish. That may have been the case back when it was written, but not anymore: the grotesque “ultraviolence” committed by these little ” bratchny droogies” upon poor innocent “chellovecks and devotchkas” nowadays just reads like the average reports of violence in any big city newspaper around the country. Frankly, the best part of the book is the violent part; it is the part which resonates most with today’s readers, as it shows Burgess to have momentarily captured literary “magic in a bottle,” so they say.

All told, a very original and quite engrossing little novel. It’s just that it gets even better if you tear the last few chapters right out of there; don’t even waste your time.

Rating: Δ Δ Δ
1/2009

MARTYRLAND by Robert Simpson

REVIEW: Reminds Me Why I Gave Up Fiction, though Still There is Merit to It

The older I get, the less fiction I read. After all, once you take the blinders off and you realize we are living in times stranger than anyone could ever imagine, why bother with fiction? So it’s all been about non-fiction for me lately. But I took a chance on this because it is about the Scottish Covenanters of the 1600s during their time of great persecution (1660-1688) at the hands of the antichrist system of popery. I have been wondering about them ever since I was first apprised of them in my adulthood, and I have been wondering why I had to wait until I was an adult to be apprised of them in the first place! So it is, whenever I catch scent of what smells to me like suppressed history, I chase after it. Which I did here, and that’s what made me pick up this fictional account of the historically very real Covenanters.

Unfortunately, the book is not well-written, I must say up front. It was published in the 1800s, and it is written in the stilted, average-joe writing style of the time; but I’m afraid the writing style wouldn’t have been state-of-the-art even at that time, frankly, because the best writers of the period were writing very ornately. The author, Robert Simpson, was clearly a pastor first and a writer second, for he writes ponderously and obviously, telling the reader from afar everything that is happening to his characters instead of showing the reader up close, vibrantly and interactively, what is happening to his characters. This of course was the hallmark style of Victorian Era novels, and of course this style was supplanted forever in the 20th century by the “show, don’t tell” style of writers like Hemingway; however, the better writers in the 1800s somehow still managed to make their prose feel “alive” to the reader, and this man Simpson was clearly not such a gifted writer.

Still, having said all that which is negative, there is some level of reward for reading this book, and the author Simpson was not totally bereft of writing skills. For example, one thing Simpson does that is excellent is the way he writes out the Scottish brogue of his characters as it would appear phonetically in English, so that the reader does get the unmistakeable feeling of “Scottishness” imbued in the prose; another thing Simpson does well is describe the Scottish moorland setting of the book. The reader is very much “transported” to Scotland while reading this. Now if the author would just quit with the fuddy-duddy, doddering omniscient style of narration which kills any surprises for the reader and stifles most of his interest by telling him what happens to the characters beforehand instead of just letting it happen to his characters naturally in “real reading time”–argh!

But again, stiff though it may be, there is yet another reward for reading a book like this, and it is simply this: this novel glorifies Jesus Christ, and you sure can’t say that about too many novels in these post-Hemingway, post-Christianity days, now can you?

Rating: Δ Δ Δ
10/2007

THE IRON HEEL by Jack London

The tone of Jack London’s futuristic-dystopian novel, written way back in 1906, reflects the strident marxism of its author. Back then even typically well-meaning writers like London zealously adhered to such garbage, believing it offered a positive hope for the betterment of mankind.

As a practical and dire prophecy, in many ways The Iron Heel was very prophetic indeed; but in its ultimate optimistim it was far from the mark. For example, London was prescient when he anticipated the ominous formation of the FBI in America, a national ID system, false flag operations, and most perhaps prescient of all, London was strikingly accurate in his prediction that 20th century oligarchs would inevitably seek to, and be successful in, “buying off” select American labor leaders to disrupt the political unity of the labor class en toto; however, unlike George Orwell, London grossly overestimated the collective political awareness of the labor class throughout.

Moreover, London’s technological “props” to provide backdrop for the story–the kinds of things an author who’s writing a futuristic novel must have in order to achieve quality realism–are not all that clever, in terms of both nomenclature and technology. For example, on the technological end of things, in London’s “futuristic world” people are still riding around in balloons instead of flying around in airplanes, and on the nomenclature end, groups of fighting mercenaries are simply called the “Fighting Groups.” Clearly had he taken more time to do so, London could have coined a catchier phrase than this and some of the others he uses.

This is a weakness in some of Jack London’s writing. He was extremely prolific in his abbreviated lifetime, but one of the problems with such radical proliferation is that some of his works appear to have been hurried, and such is the case here as, in addition to the faults already mentioned, the The Iron Heel contains precious little concrete detail throughout: cities and buildings and streets are simply not described; the characters come and go from scene to scene and have dialogue, but the reader never gets the sense that the characters are grounded in a real physical world, at least not until the climactic conflagration scenes at the end of the book. So the novel lacks depth, and for that reason more than anything else The Iron Heel is an inferior piece of literature than other better-known 20th century dystopian novels.

One more fault is the narration style: London chose to write the book in the first person, and from the point of view of a female character. As probably most London afficianados will admit, portraying female characters was never London’s strong suit.

Still, London’s keen intellect is here, even if it is rushed. Those prognostications which London got right in this book (and there are many more) make it a worthwhile and interesting–if ephemeral–read. His predictions of a dystopian world of the future were definitely more in line with George Orwell’s 1984 than with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.

Rating: Δ Δ Δ
6/2008

IT CAN’T HAPPEN HERE by Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis, one of America’s great writers of the 20th century, was not actually a great writer. But he was a great perceiver of human foibles, especially the human foible of hypocrisy. Indeed, the theme which runs through all of Lewis’s works is how human beings of all walks and stripes are consistently hypocritical, and consistently unable to see their own hypocrisy. Thus did Sinclair Lewis, throughout his entire writing career, inadvertantly (for Lewis was not a professing Bible believer) echo the words of Jesus Christ in Matthew 7:1-5.

What makes It Can’t Happen Here stand out from the rest of Lewis’s works, however, is that here Lewis is not exposing the hypocrisy of any single person nor any class of persons, but rather, Lewis is exposing the hypocrisy of an entire nation–his own.

Published in 1935 when most of the world was casting a nervous eye to the rise of the fascist dictatorships in Europe, Lewis sought to show how relatively easy such a fascist dictatorship could likewise come to power even in America. Lewis was astute enough to realize that, if fascism ever came to America, it would have to camouflage itself in the trappings of traditional Americana. Thus the fascist dictator who takes over America in It Can’t Happen Here, a folksly, charismatic demagogue of the Huey Long ilk named “Buzz” Windrip, portrays himself as a defender of the common American laborer, speaks in homespun Mark Twain-type aphorisms, even while he is in the hip pocket of big business plutocrats. All American institutions are impugned by Lewis as being ripe for takeover by fascism: Lewis shows how remarkably easy it woulc be for even American small businessmen to embrace fascism and justify the brutal suppression of any who spoke out against it; Lewis shows how easily the corporatized “Christian” churches would convert to life under fascism; newspapers and information are co-opted with likewise remarkable facility by the Sinclair Lewis’s fictitious fascistic regime.

Lewis, whose real gift was in observing patterns of human behavior, also gets a lot of minor details right. For example: “Buzz” Windrip’s dictatorship was actually installed and maintained by a secretive little despotic character named Lee Sarason, who is actually the real “power behind the throne” of the American fascistic regime, and this mirrors such powerful and secretive tyrants in American history as Edward House, Harry Hopkins, Henry Kissinger, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Karl Rove; likewise it smacks as being very believable that the American fascistic regime could call itself the “Corpo” party, what with mega-corporations taking over every single thing in America anymore; even a subtle detail like the high percentage of homosexuality in the Nazi Brown Shirt movement is likewise mirrored here by Lewis in a few veiled homosexual descriptions of the American version of the Brown Shirts, aptly named ”Minute Men.”

It is also of interest that, like George Orwell and Aldous Huxley as well as other 20th century writers of famous dystopian stories, Sinclair Lewis doesn’t allow for a very happy ending here. Lewis’s 60-year old newspaper editor protagonist, the honest and earnest Doremus Jessup, starts out reluctantly fighting the system, then accelerates into a more vigorous fighting of the system, then gets arrested and gets severely and often beaten–this all smacks of Orwell’s 1984. Another odd way in which this novel reminds the reader of 1984 is in Lewis’s decision to show his Doremus Jessup character having a longstanding illicit affair with a woman much younger than him. Lewis’s tone seems to condone this adulterous relationship, but for this reader it nevertheless undermined the integrity of the protaganist, reducing him to much the same type of anti-hero that the character Winston Smith was in the work by Orwell.

This work is, in many ways, strikingly different than anything else Lewis ever wrote. On other hand, one way that It Can’t Happen Here was similar to other Sinclair Lewis works is in the quality of the writing itself, which was not a Lewis strength: The characters speak in an often padded dialogue–that is to say, nobody in real life would ever have the time to enunciate so grandiloquently and for such long stretches in everyday speech; likewise, Lewis’s own writing, in describing the setting, background, and plot development, is often much too wordy and gets in the way of what he is trying to describe.
All said though, this is a work of excellent exposure of the love of the twin roots of all evil: Money and Power. Though written in the 30’s, It Can’t Happen Here is, startingly, a novel which smacks of very contemporary events in America in our day. It can’t happen here? The hell it can’t.

Rating: Δ Δ Δ
8/2008

CROME YELLOW by Aldous Huxley

This was Huxley’s first novel, published in 1921, and it is the third Huxley novel this reader has read. It is better than Island, Huxley’s final novel, but it is of course nowhere even remotely as good as Huxley’s masterpiece, Brave New World.

The setting is a gentrified English country house, post-WWI, whereupon a bunch of well-to-do Brits have gathered for a weeks-long party, and I am to understand that this setting is an old formula for the basis of a novel in British literature. The novel mildly satirizes the fads and fashions of the time among the idle rich of England; nothing really ever happens in the novel, though there is some occasionally witty dialogue. Thankfully, this dialogue is more realistic than much of Huxley’s later work, not suffering as much from Huxley’s penchant for encumbering his characters with longwinded philosophical speeches.

This was written was Huxley was still quite young. It would qualify as a “coming-of-age” novel, especially as pertains to its protagonist, Dennis. But again, NOTHING really happens in the plot.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this novel is the literary-historical foreshadowing, that is, the several instances where the characters’ dialogue briefly touches upon some of the ideas Huxley was later to write about in detail in Brave New World.

This reader has heard it said that Aldous Huxley’s ability to write good fiction was hampered by the fact that he was so well read; that he knew so much about classical literature and philosophy, as well as other fields, that somehow this overabundance of knowledge somehow kept him from developing his passionate side or some such thing, which all novelists need to effectually tap into in order to write about human relationships with any verisimilitude. This reader isn’t really buying that. No, instead, what this reader sees in the fiction of Aldous Huxley, and as well from having read about Aldous Huxley’s life, is a man who never really experienced life as most people know it; that Aldous Huxley was born into an affluent class, and he never left that class and the level of comfort that goes with it, not for any short period at all in his life, and thus, he never experienced what most of the rest of humanity has had to experience in their lives. THIS is what this reader finds to be the obvious limitation on Aldous Huxley’s fiction writing. A writer has to live life, to experience things, in order to be able to effectively write about what life is like. One cannot simply make things up in one’s head and have it sound believable–not for most forms of fiction. Probably the only exception to that would be science fiction. Thus, it is little wonder that a futuristic, dystopian novel like Brave New World would have been Huxley’s best effort. It is indeed a wonder that Huxley didn’t write more science fiction.

Rating: Δ Δ
1/2012