Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Review: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (5/5)


I’m sure just about everyone has heard the news by now, but for those of you living under a rock (and rock not equipped with wifi, at that), acclaimed science fiction author Ray Bradbury passed away last month. He was one of the greats, a visionary author and one of the men responsible for taking science fiction from pithy pulps about little green men and transforming it into deep, thought-provoking literature. So I figured, what better way to celebrate the man than to dive into, dissect, and generally analyze the hell out of his life’s work?

It’s Jess’s fault, really. She gave me the idea, and then she gave me an additional platform with which to pontificate from on high (in the form of a guest post, I mean). So if your head explodes from all the nerdy literature talk, sue her, not me.

For this exercise, I chose one of Bradbury’s earliest and most famous works, Fahrenheit 451. I’m ashamed to admit it, being the genre fiction classicist that I am, but up until this point the bulk of my exposure to Bradbury had been a collection of short stories called Long After Midnight (and that didn’t leave a good taste in my mouth). I didn’t know exactly what to expect from Fahrenheit 451 going in, though, the statistics alone should have told me something. In the nearly 60 years since it was published, the book has been printed over 5 million times. (Side note: it was originally serialized in Playboy magazine, which might lend some credence to the age old excuse, “I only read it for the articles!”) It won the 1954 Hugo Award for science fiction, and it’s been a staple of the high school book report goulash for decades. It wasn’t until I read it myself, however, that Bradbury’s brilliance struck me. Indeed, it walked right out of the pages and punched me in the damned mouth.

In Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury imagines a dystopian world in which books and literature are outlawed. The walls (television screens that take up the entire wall of a room) provide frivolous entertainment full of fun and excitement and “non-combustible data” to make the people feel a “sense of motion without moving.” Anything that doesn’t fit into this category (i.e. the stuff of literature and poetry) is regarded as dangerous and subversive. Protecting this shallow, banal society from the horrors of literacy are the firemen, but instead of putting out fires, they start them. The protagonist is a fireman named Guy Montag, and it’s his job to burn books. (Another side note: “Fahrenheit 451” is what Bradbury understood, at the time, to be the auto-ignition point of paper. Turns out the real number can vary.)

Captain Beatty, Montag’s superior at the firehouse, explained it best.
“What could be more easily explained and natural? …The word ‘intellectual,’ of course, became the swear word it deserved to be. You always dread the unfamiliar. Surely you remember the boy in your own school class who was exceptionally ‘bright,’ did most of the reciting and answering while the others sat like so many leaden idols, hating him. And wasn’t it this bright boy you selected for beatings and tortures after hours? Of course it was. We must all be alike. Not everyone born free and equal, as the Constitution says, but everyone made equal. Each man the image of every other; then all are happy, for there are no mountains to make them cower, to judge themselves against. So! A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Me? I won’t stomach them for a minute. And so when houses were finally fire-proofed completely, all over the world… there was no longer need of firemen for the old purposes. They were given the new job, as custodians of our peace of mind, the focus of our understandable and rightful dread of being inferior; official censors, judges, and executors. That’s you, Montag, and that’s me.”
Montag has had reservations about his job for a long time, even if he never knew how to put them into words. While he admits that “it was a pleasure to burn,” he has none-the-less been secretly squirreling away books in his house. A book here, a book there, snatched from the flames lit by his own hand, he hides them behind an air register in his house and… does nothing. He doesn’t even read them. He doesn’t know where to begin, but an instinctual knowledge buried somewhere deep inside him tells him that he must preserve them, and so he does. It’s not until he meets a teenage girl named Clarisse McClellan that realization begins to chip away at the shell of perfunctory apathy he has erected around himself.

Clarisse is different; she’s odd. She and her family don’t talk to the walls, they talk to each other. They don’t even own a wall. While Montag’s wife is busy pleading for him to buy her a fourth wall and make their living room wall-to-wall entertainment (literally), Clarisse’s family spends their time laughing and talking and enjoying one another’s company. A novel concept, right? Clarisse talks to Montag each morning on his way to work, walking with him to the subway and back, telling him about her family and asking him questions he doesn’t have the answer to. Then one day she disappears. No note, no word, no nothing. Later Montag learns that she and her family were arrested, bundled up into a beetle (i.e. car) and whisked away never to be heard from again.

But the real breaking point comes later when the firemen respond to a call and find an old woman with an attic full of books. They douse her hoard in kerosene and try to haul her out before torching it, but she refuses to go. And before they know it, she’s struck a match and is going up in flames along with her books.

The scene affects Montag deeply. It bothers him. But as he remarks to his wife later on, “We need to be really bothered once in a while. How long is it since you were really bothered? About something important, about something real?” He begins to wonder what it is about these books that could make someone kill themselves rather than live without them? Why lose your life over what amounts to a bunch of dead trees? And so he decides it’s time to find out for himself. He reveals his cache of books to his wife and forces her to read them with him, to dive deep into the unknowable and finally learn that which his society has worked so hard to purge from its midst. It’s a fumbling attempt, a flailing grasp at the low-hanging branches of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, yet it nonetheless places Montag square in the sights of his cohorts at the firehouse. He ends up running, chased by helicopters and mechanical hounds and his very own neighbors, fleeing with naught but a dying knowledge he doesn’t even understand trapped in his brain, trying desperately to keep the flame alive.

As you’ve no doubt seen from the passages I quoted, Bradbury’s writing is nothing short of phenomenal. It’s deep, insightful, and moving. It resonates as you read it, begging you to slow down and pay attention and make damned sure you absorb the meaning behind each and every word. As I read, I found myself quoting passages aloud to my wife, who (though she hates science fiction, especially anything involving dystopian societies) said to me, “Maybe I should read this thing too.”

The high school book report goulash (you know, the one I mentioned earlier?) has told us for a long time that Fahrenheit 451 is about government censorship. However, Bradbury himself has said that they missed the boat on that one. It’s really about how television destroys interest in literature and how society values the inane and the shallow rather than the meaningful and the deep. Captain Beatty even says in the book, “It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship, to start with, no! Technology, mass exploitation, and minority pressure carried the trick.” In other words, the Government reacted to what the people wanted—which is we generally want a government to do.

And while the government isn’t burning books or telling us that literature is meaningless (yet), isn’t this just the sort of stuff today’s mainstream culture values—fun, escapism, things? Again, from Captain Beatty:
“Ask yourself, What do we want in this country, above all? People want to be happy, isn’t that right? Haven’t you heard it all your life? I want to be happy, people say. Well, aren’t they? Don’t we keep them moving, don’t we give them fun? That’s all we live for, isn’t it? For pleasure, for titillation? And you must admit our culture provides plenty of these.”
I will differ with Bradbury on one point. While I agree that investment in literature and poetry was valued more highly in generations past, I don’t think it’s TV’s fault. Granted, you don’t have to work hard to find examples of what Bradbury is talking about on our TV’s today, what with shows like Jersey Shore, Big Brother, and Real Housewives of [insert Mecca of vapidity here]. In a lot of ways, he predicted what was happening with television and entertainment in general. But the technology is a symptom. It’s not the cause. The reason that past generations valued literature more that was in large part due (I believe) to the fact that being educated and well-read was a mark of wealth and station. It was a status symbol. It cost money to accumulate books, to go to school, to learn Latin, to be taught literary theory and all that mess. The vast majority of people were simply concerned with putting food on the table and earning enough money to support yet another hungry mouth. So of course more emphasis was put on literature in popular circles. It was the cool thing to do, because it meant you were wealthy and successful enough to forgo the mundane and dive into the metaphysical. The big difference now is that books are cheap, and they’re free, and anybody can have and read and analyze them if they want to. I mean, hell, look at me—some dude on the internet spouting literary criticism just because it gets his rocks off. But because they’re freely available, real literature no longer holds the status symbol it once did, and so it’s less desirable to the masses. Of course, technology has made our lives immeasurably easier since the “dark ages” before electricity, and thus we have more free time with which to fill with “fun” and “entertainment,” but that’s a discussion for another day.

Here’s another bit of Bradbury’s divination that struck me Fahrenheit 451, this time coming from one of Montag’s wife’s friends:
“I’ve had two children by Caesarian section. No use going through all that agony for a baby. The world must reproduce, you know, the race must go on. Besides, they sometimes look just like you, and that’s nice. Two Caesarians turned the trick, yes, sir. Oh, my doctor said, Caesarians aren’t necessary; you’ve got the hips for it, everything’s normal, but I insisted.”
OK, so no one I know of (or can even conceive of) has ever had children “because they look just like you,” but the bit about the c-section? That’s today, folks. That’s right now. With some people, anyway. You wouldn’t have the skyrocketing c-section rate if that wasn’t the case. As to the ins and outs, the hows and whys, I’ll kindly direct you to my wife’s blog, as she’s the one with the uterus, and therefore she’s more qualified than I to dissect that one. But still, interesting, no?

At any rate, yeah, Fahrenheit 451 is the bomb-diggity (to put it in mid-nineties laymen’s terms). In addition to portending some cultural trends way ahead of its time, it was lean, compact, and chock-full of a kind of brilliance in fiction to which I honestly cannot do justice with a review. The types of themes espoused in Fahrenheit 451 are the reason why dystopian fiction was invented in the first place (before it became all the rage on the tween scene). They simply can’t be communicated any other way and retain their power or resonance. That’s why I give Fahrenheit 451 five out of five stars. If you haven’t read it yet, you need to. Put it on your to-read list right freaking now.


38 comments:

  1. What's this it ran too long business? No it didn't it was just right like a bowl of porridge. Don't argue with Goldilocks.

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    1. Haha, well, let's put it this way. I didn't *intend* for it to be as long as it was, but the ghost of Bradbury insisted.

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  2. Genius! No-holds-barred-honesty, wry humor and the promise of a punch in the kisser...reeled me right in to 'comment land'. :)

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    Replies
    1. Thank you so much, Scarlett--you gusher, you.

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  3. You definitely brought your A game to that review. Nice work!

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    Replies
    1. Thanks, Ryan. If it gets high marks from you, then it must be good. ;)

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  4. That certainly didn't feel like too long of a review. I was "all in", all the way. Nice work!

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