James Joyce’s death mask, by Paul Speck (1941)
James Joyce’s death mask, by Paul Speck (1941)
[Ed. note: I usually don’t preface these one-star Amazon selection riffs with much, other than to note the occasion for the post. In this case, the occasion is my coming to the end of a second reading of Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow, a novel that is very much about the military-industrial-entertainment complex. And so well anyway, I keep thinking about Infinite Jest, which I have not read in full since 2002, but plan to reread later this summer. I expected Pynchon to show up a few times in the one-star reviews, but he’s present throughout, often obliquely referenced. Otherwise, the one-star reviews are typical: Rants against academia, “literary elites,” etc. The term “self-indulgent” appears again and again. Only one reviewer bothers to engage the plot though.
Update: I ran this post (minus this update) in the summer of 2015; I’m running it again because today’s the 20th anniversary of IJ’s publication]
spawn of PC Elitist writers
reads like a math textbook
This is the T.S. Eliot Effect
terminally adolescent drivel.
The footnotes have footnotes.
Big words and run-on sentences
utterly lacking in aesthetic merit
I only read the first 50 pages or so
wow, that’s a heck of a lot of words.
challenging, involving, and horrifying
A humorous book? – no. Absurd – Yes.
never made it to the end of chapter one.
I never did get through Gravity’s Rainbow
the magnum opus of American hipsterism.
the worst science fiction novel ever written.
If you like Pynchon, fine, go ahead, you’ll like this.
over a hundred pages of notes that serve no purpose
I pride myself on being an intelegent well read person
At least Pynchon, has humor, literary references, etc.
He probably sold more books on hype than on talent.
All in all, I suppose Wallace will just become a footnote.
this book(?) would not be worth the money if it was free
I trie d to think of Catcher in the Rye, but no comparison.
If you want to be warm, burn your overrated copy of Infinite Jest.
Wallace makes up words which does not help one reading a story.
I think it was in that book that I learned the word “omphaloskepsis.”
I’ll bet Dave had to beat off the nubile young co-eds after they read this one
obviously didn’t follow Elmore Leonard’s last tenet of his “10 Rules for Writing”
I suppose that some might consider Wallace a great writer, but was he popular?
It’s written in the first-person from the point of view of a mentally ill teenager.
he filled it with worthless footnotes that pretend to enlighten the victim of his prose
I just don’t understand how my fellow Amazon reviewers could have scored this book highly.
I realize that this book is considered to be “literature” but IMHO the internal ravings of mentally ill people isn’t literature.
It is called “INFINITE JETS” but there is not a single aircraft within, in fact the book is about people on land with drugs problems.
The book contains an anecdote plagiarized from the humorist, Gerard Hoffnung, who recorded it in the 1950s.
700 pages of clumsy sci-fi and the kind of smarty pants absurdist nonsense you’d expect from a precocious middle schooler
The premise for this novel derives from a Monty Python sketch in which the world’s funniest joke is also fatal.
Oh one other thing that drove me crazy: he started so many sentences with “And but so..” or “So but and…”
if Finnegans Wake was a rancid fart that was proudly left to rip, Infinite Jest is a weak one, lacking sound and odor.
Just a bunch of irrelevant words to set the scene…. not to mention he described everything into painful detail.
a kid thinks he’s going to the dentist but it’s really some sort of counselor and they have a long battle of wits to see which one of them is the bigger booger-eating nerd
DWF is desperately trying to emulate one of the century’s greatest authors, and utterly fails.
Put down the bong, go outside and get some real world experience before putting pen to paper.
Comparing Wallace to Pynchon is like comparing a kettle of sponges to Disney World
Academics also praise it as a badge of courage for (allegedly) reading it
It’s just the narrator’s interior thoughts about trying to buy drugs.
I was two pages in and started to feel confused, zoned out, and lost.
It reads like the stream of consciousness of a spoiled 10th grader.
What I read would have gotten an F in a freshman writing class.
The style is Pynchon. And by style, I mean, an exact duplication
At least, now I know where Dave Eggers ripped off his garbage
sorry Amazon,you definitely missed the boat with this one.
completely lacking in any kind of moral or ethical center
He and this book are simply silly, and a waste of pulp.
Book was a work of art, one I wasted my time viewing.
seems to spend forever talking about tennis and drugs
Characters are unbelievable and are over analyzed
Sure, he was making good points, for the 1990s!
Reading a thesaurus does not count as research.
Over 1000 pages of pseudo-subersiveness.
It’s the tyranny of the English Deparment
I only read about four percent of the book
For my taste, there were too many words
I think his suicide inflated his reviews.
I still feel awful thinking about it.
Bad read no stars.
…is this an essay?
Before we go any further here, has it ever occurred to any of you that all this is simply one grand misunderstanding? Since you’re not here to learn anything, but to be taught so you can pass these tests, knowledge has to be organized so it can be taught, and it has to be reduced to information so it can be organized do you follow that? In other words this leads you to assume that organization is an inherent property of the knowledge itself, and that disorder and chaos are simply irrelevant forces that threaten it from the outside. In fact it’s the opposite. Order is simply a thin, perilous condition we try to impose on the basic reality of chaos . . .
So I’m going through William Gaddis’s novel J R again (via Nick Sullivan’s amazing audiobook recording-performance)…
Favorite Reading Experiences
I finally read Thomas Pynchon’s novel Gravity’s Rainbow in full in 2015. Then I immediately read it again (which is sort of like really reading it), occasionally dipping into Steven Weisenburger’s A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion. Rewarding, hilarious, challenging, perplexing, Gravity’s Rainbow is too brilliant to look at directly, and is perhaps best approached slantwise, as one Ms. Dickinson of Amherst has advised.
On page 588 of Gravity’s Rainbow, the narrator (?!) suggests that we “Check out Ishmael Reed.” So I did. His novel Mumbo Jumbo is like nothing I’ve ever read before—the reviewer’s crutch “dazzling performance” comes to mind, because Mumbo Jumbo is a performance (jazz, bebop, soft shoe, vaudeville, a hoodoo magic show, an exorcism: performance art), and it does dazzle, overwhelm, energize, haunt, titillate, reverberate, howl…and there are pictures! Reed uses photos in a way that Sebald would a few decades later—documentary evidence of a sort. I don’t know. I just don’t know.
Like Reed’s novel, Anne Carson’s novel-poem-myth-book Autobiography of Red is impossible to categorize and extremely difficult to describe. I tried to write about it a few times on this site and failed, which is fine. What matters here is the reading experience: Carson’s book zapped me, gave me tingles, reminded me that what I want to think and feel when I read is, How is this possible? How is this allowed? (Another huge thank you to BLCKDGRD for sending me Autobiography of Red and its sorta-sequel Red Doc>).
And finally, Ursula K. Le Guin, whose so-called Hainish Cycle I read most of this year. I still have to read The Telling, but great stuff, and a full write-up early in the new year.
Favorite Books I Read in 2015 That Were Actually Published in 2015
Mislaid, Nell Zink (although I liked The Wallcreeper better, but hey, it was published last year)
Favorite Indie Presses of 2015
Favorite Films I Saw in 2015 That Came Out in 2015
I had a relatively contrarian opinion of Fury Road, but I enjoyed it overall, I suppose. The Force Awakens was a better spectacle for my money/nostalgia. Overall, 2015 was kind of a weak year for movies, filled with overrated indies, comic book schlock, and self-serious entertainments that Tried Too Hard. Hard to Be a God was the only thing that really zapped me, although a quick google shows that it was actually released in 2014.
You know, Inherent Vice was released in late 2014 too, but I saw it and loved it and obsessed over it in 2015…so, Inherent Vice, yeah…
I also liked that Scientology documentary, which was full-on Pynchon.
Favorite Television Shows of 2015
I thought the second season of Fargo was near-perfect and found the tawdry spectacle of The Jinx thrilling, but there was no show I enjoyed watching and reading about more than the second season of True Detective.
Favorite Albums of 2015
The albums I listened to the most this year were soundtracks that came out before 2015: Inherent Vice and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. But I did like a number of new albums this year, including Joanna Newsom’s Divers, Jim O’Rourke’s Simple Songs, and Destroyer’s Poison Season.
Favorite Books I Didn’t Finish in 2015
I’ve been crawling my way through a full read of Leslie Fiedler’s Love and Death in the American Novel, but: No end in sight. I also read most of the essays in William T. Vollmann: A Critical Companion (check out my interview with the editors). I also read a hefty chunk of the Ben Marcus-edited collection New American Stories. My favorite discursive reading though was dipping into William H. Gass’s nonfiction.
…speaking of Gass—well, I read his essay “Even If, by All the Oxen in the World” in conjunction with a reread of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, which turned out to be most rewarding—both the rereading and the reading-in-conjunction. Reading Infinite Jest for the first time since 2001 ended up being a deflating, even depressing experience, but I wouldn’t trade it. I also reread against the second reading of Gravity’s Rainbow. Other rereading highlights included Pynchon, Ursula K. Le Guin, High Rise by J.G. Ballard, and Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (which I’ve reread every year since I first read it). But it was McCarthy’s Suttree that I got the most out of rereading this year.
I’ll finish out Le Guin’s Hainish books with The Telling, and then probably crack into William H. Gass’s Eyes. In between I might read Marianne Fritz’s novel The Weight of Things. More Lucia Berlin for sure. Thomas Bernhard if it ever cools down again. (End of December 2015 and it feels like early summer here in Florida). I’d also love to take a shot at William T. Vollmann’s The Dying Grass, but who knows…there are always more pages than hours.
It was Christmas night and the proper things had been done. The whole village had come to dinner in hall. There had been boar’s head and venison and pork and beef and mutton and caponsbut no turkey, because this bird had not yet been invented. There had been plum pudding and snap-dragon, with blue fire on the tips of one’s fingers, and as much mead as anybody could drink. Sir Ector’s health had been drunk with “Best respects, Measter,” or “Best compliments of the Season, my lords and ladies, and many of them.” There had been mummers to play an exciting dramatic presentation of a story in which St. George and a Saracen and a funny Doctor did surprising things, also carol-singers who rendered “Adeste Fideles” and “I Sing of a Maiden,” in high, clear, tenor voices. After that, those children who had not been sick from their dinner played Hoodman Blind and other appropriate games, while the young men and maidens danced morris dances in the middle, the tables having been cleared away. The old folks sat round the walls holding glasses of mead in their hands and feeling thankful that they were past such capers, hoppings and skippings, while those children who had not been sick sat with them, and soon went to sleep, the small heads leaning against their shoulders. At the high table Sir Ector sat with his knightly guests, who had come for the morrow’s hunting, smiling and nodding and drinking burgundy or sherries sack or malmsey wine.
After a bit, silence was prayed for Sir Grummore. He stood up and sang his old school song, amid great applausebut forgot most of it and had to make a humming noise in his moustache. Then King Pellinore was nudged to his feet and sang bashfully:
“Oh, I was born a Pellinore in famous Lincolnshire. Full well I chased the Questing Beast for more than seventeen year. Till I took up with Sir Grummore here In the season of the year. (Since when) ’tis my delight On a feather-bed night To sleep at home, my dear.
“You see,” explained King Pellinore blushing, as he sat down with everybody whacking him on the back, “old Grummore invited me home, what, after we had been having a pleasant joust together, and since then I’ve been letting my beastly Beast go and hang itself on the wall, what?”
“Well done,” they told him. “You live your own life while you’ve got it.”
William Twyti was called for, who had arrived on the previous evening, and the famous huntsman stood up with a perfectly straight face, and his crooked eye fixed upon Sir Ector, to sing:
“D’ye ken William Twyti
With his Jerkin so dagged? D’ye ken William Twyti
Who never yet lagged? Yes, I ken William Twyti,
And he ought to be gagged With his hounds and his horn in the morning.”
“Bravo!” cried Sir Ector. “Did you hear that, eh? Said he ought to be gagged, my dear feller. Blest if I didn’t think he was going to boast when he began. Splendid chaps, these huntsmen, eh? Pass Master Twyti the malmsey, with my compliments.”
The boys lay curled up under the benches near the fire, Wart with Cavall in his arms. Cavall did not like the heat and the shouting and the smell of mead, and wanted to go away, but Wart held him tightly because he needed something to hug, and Cavall had to stay with him perforce, panting over a long pink tongue.
“Now Ralph Passelewe.”
“Good wold Ralph.”
“Who killed the cow, Ralph?”
“Pray silence for Master Passelewe that couldn’t help it.”
At this the most lovely old man got up at the furthest and humblest end of the hail, as he had got up on all similar occasions for the past half-century. He was no less than eighty-five years of age, almost blind, almost deaf, but still able and willing and happy to quaver out the same song which he had sung for the pleasure of the Forest Sauvage since before Sir Ector was bound up in a kind of tight linen puttee in his cradle. They could not hear him at the high tablehe was too far away in Time to be able to reach across the roombut everybody knew what the cracked voice was singing and everybody loved it. This is what he sang:
“Whe-an/Wold King-Cole/was a /wakkin doon-t’street, H-e /saw a-lovely laid-y a /steppin-in-a-puddle. / She-a /lifted hup-er-skeat/ For to / Hop acrorst ter middle, / An ee /saw her /an-kel. Wasn’t that a fuddle? / Ee could’ernt elp it, /ee Ad to.”
There were about twenty verses of this song, in which Wold King Cole helplessly saw more and more things that he ought not to have seen, and everybody cheered at the end of each verse until, at the conclusion, old Ralph was overwhelmed with congratulations and sat down smiling dimly to a replenished mug of mead.
It was now Sir Ector’s turn to wind up the proceedings. He stood up importantly and delivered the following speech:
“Friends, tenants and otherwise. Unaccustomed as I am to public speakin’”
There was a faint cheer at this, for everybody recognized the speech which Sir Ector had made for the last twenty years, and welcomed it like a brother.
“Unaccustomed as I am to public speakin'” it is my pleasant dutyI might say my very pleasant dutyto welcome all and sundry to this our homely feast. It has been a good year, and I say it without fear of contradiction, in pasture and plow. We all know how Crumbocke of Forest Sauvage won the first prize at Cardoyle Cattle Show for the second time, and one more year will win the cup outright. More power to the Forest Sauvage. As we sit down tonight, I notice some faces now gone from among us and some which have added to the family circle. Such matters are in the hands of an almighty Providence, to which we all feel thankful. We ourselves have been first created and then spared to enjoy the rejoicin’s of this pleasant evening. I think we are all grateful for the blessin’s which have been showered upon us. Tonight we welcome in our midst the famous King Pellinore, whose labours in riddin’ our forest of the redoubtable Questin’ Beast are known to all. God bless King Pellinore. (Hear, hear!) Also Sir Grummore Grummursum, a sportsman, though I say it to his face, who will stick to his mount as long as his Quest will stand up in front of him. (Hooray!) Finally, last but not least, we are honoured by a visit from His Majesty’s most famous huntsman, Master William Twyti, who will, I feel sure, show us such sport tomorrow that we will rub our eyes and wish that a royal pack of hounds could always be huntin’ in the Forest which we all love so well. (Viewhalloo and several recheats blown in imitation.) Thank you, my dear friends, for your spontaneous welcome to these gentlemen. They will, I know, accept it in the true and warmhearted spirit in which it is offered. And now it is time that I should bring my brief remarks to a close. Another year has almost sped and it is time that we should be lookin’ forward to the challengin’ future. What about the Cattle Show next year? Friends, I can only wish you a very Merry Christmas, and, after Father Sidebottom has said our Grace for us, we shall conclude with a singin’ of the National Anthem.”
The cheers which broke out at the end of Sir Ector’s speech were only just prevented, by several hush-es, from drowning the last part of the vicar’s Grace in Latin, and then everybody stood up loyally in the firelight and sang:
“God save King Pendragon,
May his reign long drag on,
God save the King.
Send him most gorious,
Great and uproarious,
Horrible and Hoarious,
God save our King.”
The last notes died away, the hall emptied of its rejoicing humanity. Lanterns flickered outside, in the village street, as everybody went home in bands for fear of the moonlit wolves, and The Castle of the Forest Sauvage slept peacefully and lightless, in the strange silence of the holy snow.
—From T.H. White’s The Once and Future King.
Zora Neale Hurston’s hand-drawn Christmas card (1926). From Fannie Hurst’s papers at the Harry Ransom center in Austin, TX. Via the Ransom Center’s Instagram account.
Cormac McCarthy’s seminal anti-Western Blood Meridian isn’t exactly known for visions of peace on earth and good will to man. Still, there’s a strange scene in the book’s final third that subtly recalls (and somehow inverts) the Christmas story. The scene takes place at the end of Chapter 15. The Kid, erstwhile protagonist of Blood Meridian, has just reunited with the rampaging Glanton gang after getting lost in the desert and, in a vision-quest of sorts, has witnessed “a lone tree burning on the desert” (a scene I argued earlier this year was the novel’s moral core).
Glanton’s marauders, tired and hungry, find temporary refuge from the winter cold in the town of Santa Cruz where they are fed by Mexicans and then permitted to stay the night in a barn. McCarthy offers a date at the beginning of the chapter — December 5th — and it’s reasonable to assume, based on the narrative action, that the night the gang spends in the manger is probably Christmas Eve. Here is the scene, which picks up as the gang — “they” — are led into the manger by a boy–
The shed held a mare with a suckling colt and the boy would would have put her out but they called to him to leave her. They carried straw from a stall and pitched it down and he held the lamp for them while they spread their bedding. The barn smelled of clay and straw and manure and in the soiled yellow light of the lamp their breath rolled smoking through the cold. When they had arranged their blankets the boy lowered the lamp and stepped into the yard and pulled the door shut behind, leaving them in profound and absolute darkness.
No one moved. In that cold stable the shutting of the door may have evoked in some hearts other hostels and not of their choosing. The mare sniffed uneasily and the young colt stepped about. Then one by one they began to divest themselves of their outer clothes, the hide slickers and raw wool serapes and vests, and one by one they propagated about themselves a great crackling of sparks and each man was seen to wear a shroud of palest fire. Their arms aloft pulling at their clothes were luminous and each obscure soul was enveloped in audible shapes of light as if it had always been so. The mare at the far end of the stable snorted and shied at this luminosity in beings so endarkened and the little horse turned and hid his face in the web of his dam’s flank.
The “shroud of palest fire” made of sparks is a strange image that seems almost supernatural upon first reading. The phenomena that McCarthy is describing is simply visible static electricity, which is not uncommon in a cold, dry atmosphere–particularly if one is removing wool clothing. Still, the imagery invests the men with a kind of profound, bizarre significance that is not easily explainable. It is almost as if these savage men, naked in the dark, are forced to wear something of their soul on the outside. Tellingly, this spectacle upsets both the mare and her colt, substitutions for Mary and Christ child, which makes sense. After all, these brutes are not wise men.
Tibe spoke on the radio a good deal. Estraven when in power had never done so, and it was not in the Karhidish vein: their government was not a public performance, normally; it was covert and indirect. Tibe, however, orated. Hearing his voice on the air I saw again the long-toothed smile and the face masked with a net of fine wrinkles. His speeches were long and loud: praises of Karhide, disparagements of Orgoreyn vilifications of “disloyal factions,” discussions of the “integrity of the Kingdom’s borders,” lectures in history and ethics and economics, all in a ranting, canting, emotional tone that went shrill with vituperation or adulation. He talked much about pride of country and love of the parentland, but little about shifgrethor, personal pride or prestige. Had Karhide lost so much prestige in the Sinoth Valley business that the subject could not be brought up? No; for he often talked about the Sinoth Valley. I decided that he was deliberately avoiding talk of shifgrethor because he wished to rouse emotions of a more elemental, uncontrollable kind. He wanted to stir up something which the whole shifgrethor-pattern was a refinement upon, a sublimation of. He wanted his hearers to be frightened and angry. His themes were not pride and love at all, though he used the words perpetually; as he used them they meant self-praise and hate. He talked a great deal about Truth also, for he was, he said, “cutting down beneath the veneer of civilization.”
It is a durable, ubiquitous, specious metaphor, that one about veneer (or paint, or pliofilm, or whatever) hiding the nobler reality beneath. It can conceal a dozen fallacies at once. One of the most dangerous is the implication that civilization, being artificial, is unnatural: that it is the opposite of primitiveness… Of course there is no veneer, the process is one of growth, and primitiveness and civilization are degrees of the same thing. If civilization has an opposite, it is war. Of those two things, you have either one, or the other. Not both. It seemed to me as I listened to Tibe’s dull fierce speeches that what he sought to do by fear and by persuasion was to force his people to change a choice they had made before their history began, the choice between those opposites.
From Ursula Le Guin’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness. The bold emphases are mine—mea culpa, I couldn’t help it.
“‘The Haunted Man’
by Ch_r__s D_i_ck_n_s
A Christmas Story”
THE FIRST PHANTOM
Don’t tell me that it wasn’t a knocker. I had seen it often enough, and I ought to know. So ought the three-o’clock beer, in dirty high-lows, swinging himself over the railing, or executing a demoniacal jig upon the doorstep; so ought the butcher, although butchers as a general thing are scornful of such trifles; so ought the postman, to whom knockers of the most extravagant description were merely human weaknesses, that were to be pitied and used. And so ought for the matter of that, etc., etc., etc.
But then it was such a knocker. A wild, extravagant, and utterly incomprehensible knocker. A knocker so mysterious and suspicious that policeman X 37, first coming upon it, felt inclined to take it instantly in custody, but compromised with his professional instincts by sharply and sternly noting it with an eye that admitted of no nonsense, but confidently expected to detect its secret yet. An ugly knocker; a knocker with a hard human face, that was a type of the harder human face within. A human face that held between its teeth a brazen rod. So hereafter, in the mysterious future should be held, etc., etc. Continue reading ““‘The Haunted Man’ by Ch_r__s D_i_ck_n_s: A Christmas Story” — Bret Harte”
If, after our historically discontinuous examples of the paranoid style, we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing, we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing…feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.
Enjoy Thanksgiving with this menu of literary recipes:
Christmas Bonus: George Orwell’s Recipes for Plum Cake and Christmas Pudding
I took my kids to the bookstore yesterday because they wanted to get some more Choose Your Own Adventure books. We got a bunch of those—and maybe I’ll do a post on those, although I’ve never wanted this blog to be a nostalgia-soaked blog, although maybe that will be a nostalgia-soaked post. My son wanted to check out the comics section; he’s five, and short, and his height matched the “G” section, where he kept grabbing up Green Lantern comics (to which I: put those back). Incorrectly shelved there among the Corps though was Eddie Campbell’s 1001 Nights of Bacchus (to which I: give that here).
The first time I saw Campbell’s art I was shocked. I was 12 or 13—it was in a back issue of Cerebus which I had bought in the comic shop next to the music store where I took trombone lessons (don’t ask)—so, being 12 or 13, I was still capable of shock. Dave Sim had printed (or reprinted?) the prologue, or part of the prologue, from From Hell, Campbell’s book with Alan Moore on the White Chapel/Jack the Ripper murders. What a book. I had never seen anything like that. Campbell’s inky lines seemed savage, severe, violent and sketchy, especially juxtaposed against the work of Sim and Gerhard in that particular issue of Cerebus. (The issue was part of Jaka’s Story). Continue reading “Eddie Campbell’s 1001 Nights of Bacchus (Book acquired, 11.19.2015)”
George Orr is not well. The meek protagonist of Ursula K. Le Guin’s novel The Lathe of Heaven abuses prescription drugs in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to stop himself from falling asleep. Orr doesn’t want to sleep because he believes that his dreams come true—that they literally alter reality—but in such a way that no one but Orr realizes that the world has changed. Orr gets caught using a “Pharmacy Card” that doesn’t belong to him, and is court-ordered to begin treatment with a sleep research psychiatrist, Dr. William Haber. Although Haber initially doesn’t believe Orr’s claim to be cursed with “effective dreams” that transform reality, he soon realizes that Orr’s dreams somehow do come true. Then, via hypnotic suggestion (and an “Augmentor” device), Haber begins wielding Orr’s gift/curse as a clumsy tool to “better” the world.
The world of The Lathe of Heaven is grim, gray, dystopian. Published in 1971 and set in Portland in the palindromic year of 2002, Le Guin’s novel is depressingly prescient. Not only does she capture the onset of seventies malaise (the ashes of hope that burned out in the sixties), she also points to a future of environmental catastrophe:
Very little light and air got down to street level; what there was was warm and full of fine rain. Rain was an old Portland tradition, but the warmth—70° F on the second of March—was modern, a result of air pollution. Urban and industrial effluvia had not been controlled soon enough to reverse the cumulative trends already at work in the mid-twentieth century; it would take several centuries for the CO2 to clear out of the air, if it ever did. New York was going to be one of the larger casualties of the Greenhouse Effect, as the polar ice kept melting and the sea kept rising…
This is also a world of urban sprawl, overpopulation, malnutrition, and total war (a clusterfuck in the Middle East, wouldn’t you know). The government is a vague and menacing presence here—vaguely totalitarian, vaguely Big Brotheresque. We learn of the “New Federal Constitution of 1984,” one of many references to Orwell’s book. (The most obvious is our passive hero’s name).
So it’s no wonder that Haber sets about to create a utopia, right? Wouldn’t you, like, try to make the world a better place if you could? Haber is repeatedly described as a “benevolent man”—Le Guin withholds the word dictator—but the central theme comes through repeatedly: Is it possible to alter reality for the greater good? Or do we simply exist in nature, a part of everything around us?
Haber’s experiments with Orr’s mind have unintended consequences. How might we, say, cure overpopulation? How about an awful plague. Orr’s “effective dreams” revise history, rewrite reality, remap consciousness. But he’s never quite able to pull off the massive tasks Haber sets for him—end racism, end war, cure the damaged ecosystem (Le Guin is extremely pessimistic on this last front). Orr is burdened with the consciousness of multiple realities, and feels deep guilt for his role in uncreation. He starts to go crazy:
“I am cracking,” he said. “You must see that. You’re a psychiatrist. Don’t you see that I’m going to pieces? Aliens from outer space attacking Earth! Look: if you ask me to dream again, what will you get? Maybe a totally insane world, the product of an insane mind. Monsters, ghosts, witches, dragons, transformations—all the stuff we carry around in us, all the horrors of childhood, the night fears, the nightmares. How can you keep all that from getting loose? I can’t stop it. I’m not in control!”
From Zora Neale Hurston’s novelization of folklore, Mules and Men:
It was slavery time, Zora, when Big Sixteen was a man. They called ‘im Sixteen cause dat was de number of de shoe he wore. He was big and strong and Ole Massa looked to him to do everything.
One day Ole Massa said, “Big Sixteen, Ah b’lieve Ah want you to move dem sills Ah had hewed out down in de swamp.
“I yassuh, Massa.”
Big Sixteen went down in de swamp and picked up dem 12 X 12’s and brought ’em on up to de house and stack ,em. No one man ain’t never toted a 12 X 12 befo’ nor since.
So Ole Massa said one day, “Go fetch in de mules. Ah want to look ’em over.”
Big Sixteen went on down to, de pasture and caught dem mules by de bridle but they was contrary and balky and he tore de bridles to pieces pullin’ on ’em, so he picked one of ’em up under each arm and brought ’em up to Old Massa.
He says, “Big Sixteen, if you kin tote a pair of balky mules, you kin do anything. You kin ketch de Devil.”
“Yassuh, Ah kin, if you git me a nine-pound hammer and a pick and shovel!”
Ole Massa got Sixteen de things he ast for and tole ‘im to go ahead and bring him de Devil.
Big Sixteen went out in front of de house and went to diggin’. He was diggin’ nearly a month befo’ he got where he wanted. Then he took his hammer and went and knocked on de Devil’s door. Devil answered de door hisself.
“Who dat out dere?”
“It’s Big Sixteen.”
“What you want?”
“Wanta have a word wid you for a minute.”
Soon as de Devil poked his head out de door, Sixteen him over de head wid dat hammer and picked ‘im up and carried ‘im back to Old Massa.
Ole Massa looked at de dead Devil and hollered, “Take dat ugly thing ‘way from here, quick! Ah didn’t think you’d, ketch de Devil sho ’nuff.”
So Sixteen picked up de Devil and throwed ‘im back down de hole.
Way after while, Big Sixteen died and went up to Heben. But Peter looked at him and tole ‘im to g’wan ‘way from dere. He was too powerful. He might git outa order and there wouldn’t be nobody to handle ‘im. But he had to, go somewhere so he went on to hell.
Soon as he got to de gate de Devil’s children was playin’ in de yard and they seen ‘im and run to de house, says, “Mama, mama! Dat man’s out dere dat kilt papa!”
So she called ‘im in de house and shet de door. When Sixteen got dere she handed ‘im a li’l piece of fire and said, “You ain’t comin’ in here. Here, take dis hot coal and g’wan off and start you a hell uh yo’ own.”
So when you see a Jack O’Lantern in de woods at night you know it’s Big Sixteen wid his piece of fire lookin’ for a place to go.