Kevin (erf_) wrote,

adventures in telepathy by proxy

Been making up for all that reading I didn't do over six years in Taiwan. Rock.

Finished Fahrenheit 451 yesterday. I can see why it's not as well-read as 1984 and Brave New World--the dystopia Bradbury depicts is really not all that dystopian. Yeah, so books are being burnt, and art has been reduced to mindless, sensationalist entertainment--that's pretty bad, but is it really an excuse to go into intellectual apoplexy? Maybe it's because the book was written in 1951, when it was okay to use exclamation points every other sentence and it was believed that I Love Lucy and Hamlet could not peacefully coexist, but the book's disgruntled protagonist Guy Montag comes off as too much of an overly sentimental, whiny, intellectually elitist brat to sympathize with, much less identify with. Much of what Bradbury predicted did come true--fewer people read, attention spans are shortening, high-tech thrill-seeking is the order of the day--but Shakespeare still packs theaters and teenage girls still masturbate to Pride and Prejudice. Guy Montag is not a romantic, he's a lunatic. A true romantic would have usurped the crass television and radio shows and comic books of his age to make something truly worth watching, as the coming generation is doing, instead of going apeshit over toothpaste commercials and blowing up televisions. I blame this book for Michael Moore and generations of Luddite elementary school teachers. (I can still hear some of them scremaing "TEE VEE ROTS YER BRAIN!")

Bradbury does make some very good points about censorship, however, and whenever I read this book mainly while waiting for the oven to preheat--to 451 degrees--I couldn't help but hold the book farther and farther away from the oven.

I've also officially given up on Bierce. I went through about ten or so of his short stories before I realized that they're all the same: the protagonist always dies, the guy he shoots is always his dad, the woman and child he slaughters are always his own, et cetera. Yes, the magic of Bierce is that he always finds surprising new directions to take this formula, and he does use it to reveal simple truths about war, but they're always the same truths, and his characters are always so exaggeratedly heroic that it's impossible to take the humanity of those truths seriously. I can't help but feel betrayed--he's one of the most brilliant writers America has ever known, and he wastes his talent on stories like these. On every page there's a palpable conflict of interest: on one hand, he wishes to tell civilians of the horrors of war, from the kind of human perspective only a career soldier could offer; on the other hand, he wants to glorify the dead and glorify himself and glorify the profession of soldiering, on which laurels he rests. He can't say anything bad about the experiences of his youth, which put food on his table and give him a place of honor ar parties and get him laid, so he exaggerates preposterously. And so all of his stories read like bad samurai movies--the way of the warrior is always hard but glorious, and tragically heroic, and completely humorless. Perhaps it a testament to his legacy that the truths he reveals in his stories--that the ones who suffer the most in war are civilians; that the difference between enemy and ally is overstated; that death does not discern between the foolish and the brave--have all become trite. They're no less true than they were in the Civil War, but it's just that much harder to shock people these days. And when the twist comes--and there is always a twist, and it is often predictable--it just doesn't have any power if you've already read his successors, like Tim O'Brien. Gasp, Mr. Bierce! You mean to say that people actually die in war? Well I never!

And to think that Bierce was commended in his era for being unsentimental. Of course, I say this in an age where people sneer if your narrator uses a single exclamation mark, so maybe these are my own cultural biases coming to light. Bierce probably wasn't committed to telling things as they are, as I am--the idea of telling truths through lies is relatively modern, and the trend back then was to embellish to a blinding sheen. It could also just be me being possessed by the giants whose shoulders I stand on--the snickering vengeance of all the writers whose careers he destroyed. That man was possibly the most feared literary critic America ever knew, and I can't help but be glad he isn't around anymore.

In Bierce's stead I have picked up John Haskell's American Purgatorio, a novel printed just last year. I've made it through maybe three chapters but so far it is amazing. It's a story about a man whose wife is kidnapped. Not much is clear as of yet, but the shell-shocked, traumatized stream-of-consciousness voice is one of the most convincing I have ever read. It feels effortlessly natural, and the way it tells the otherwise mundane events of the first few chapters is indescribably poignant. I'm hoping the rest of the story lives up to it.

Did I just post an entire entry of shallow literary criticism? AGH WHEN DID I BECOME SUCH A SNOB
Tags: reading
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