Burn after reading – Fahrenheit 451 review

Published in 1953, Ray Bradbury‘s Farenheit 451 is a dystopian classic that passed me by until recently. Years earlier I had read his excellent collection of science fiction short stories, The Illustrated Man, so I went into  the book expecting good things.

The novel follows Guy Montag, a fireman growing dissatisfied with his lot in life – not surprising, as in his future America firemen start fires instead of stopping them. Their raison d’etre: the burning of dangerous books. A chance meeting with an enigmatic girl proves the catalyst for Montag’s burgeoning awareness.

First of all, I’m glad Bradbury decided to switch the novel’s name to Fahrenheit 451 (the temperature at which book paper burns) as this powerful conceit, a reaction to McCarthy era censorship with echoes of Nazism, is the beating heart of the novel. I’m a big fan of pithy titles, and I think it’s fair to say that Fahrenheit 451 is a far more evocative title than the original, The Fireman.

Elizabeth Perez’s version of the novel, compete with match striking paper along its spine.

Now, this is a thought-provoking book. Like all the good dystopian novels – especially those that have stood the test of time – it extrapolates on the trends of its day, holding up a mirror that is both uncompromising commentary and eerily prescient prophecy.  Just think how often we hear the word ‘Orwellian’ these days and you’ll know what I mean. Parallels with the modern world abound: the shadow of modern voter apathy and tyranny by the back door; the numbing bombardment of all-pervasive, dumbed-down entertainment. And, even more resonant, it sets up a fantastic conflict between what are likely two core values of the novel’s readership: literacy and democracy. Bradbury’s vision – like other dystopian greats such as The Handmaid’s Tale, Nineteen Eighty-Four, and Brave New World – poses the difficult question of responsibility: can people under the yoke of authoritarianism be excused for allowing that state of affairs to come about?

Now here comes the criticism.

Years ago, a friend recommended Crime and Punishment to me, saying that reading it felt like going mad; for me, reading Farenheit 451 felt a little like that. All the characters seemed a little off, the way they interact almost delirious, skirting non sequitur. In a way, I suppose  this makes sense: dystopian fiction is a genre of societies gone mad. However, another reason may be Bradbury’s style. Like The Illustrated Man, this is concept-led narrative where character serves ideas, not the other way around, and though there is nothing wrong with that, Bradbury’s characters are where my main criticism lie. Excusing their semi-delirious interactions as symptomatic of the world they’re in, I still didn’t find them particularly memorable…

In Montag we have a fairly standard everyman. His wife is a timid and insipid foil for his journey of self discovery. Clarisse, girl catalyst, ticks every box on the MPDG checklist. Montag’s boss Captain Beatty, by far the novel’s most interesting and intriguing character, is either under-utilised by Bradbury or, possibly, used just enough to keep him interesting and leave us wanting more – I still haven’t decided which.

That might sound damning, but as mentioned earlier, this is concept-led narrative. The characters are almost incidental, they don’t need to be as subtly nuanced or believable as in more character-driven fiction. In fact, the jarring effect of reading them, when contextualised within their bizarre society, actually makes sense (I’m just not convinced this was a deliberate on Bradbury’s part).

In short – and paltry criticisms aside – it was a great, thoughtful read that I beasted through in two days and that has stuck with me since.

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In response to Man of Steel

Dear Zack Snyder,

You should have cut out Alaska, trimmed down the military, and flat-out jettisoned the Space-Jesus imagery. I did enjoy the unintentionally comical rage-screams. Stop watching so much Dragon Ball Z.

Please make sure your next film features more destroyed buildings. Definitely not enough in this one.

Do you use Jor-El hand gestures in front of automatic doors? I know that’s what I’ll be doing from now on. Also, what was up with Zod’s subpar ocular motility?

P.S. Can I borrow your CGI effects team?

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The Upcoming-Has-Been-Happened Zombie Apocalypse

Guns? Brains? A fort? Not the way to go about surviving a zombie apocalypse. Apparently the best way is to be Joe Average in a coma…

The Upcoming-Has-Been-Happened Zombie Apocalypse.

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Blood Meridian – Cormac McCarthy

Blood Meridian has been hailed as McCarthy’s masterpiece. Like his perhaps better-known novel The Road, it’s a powerful work of fiction that somehow manages an emotional resonance that is both intense and understated.

Set in the Old West, Blood Meridian follows the journey of ‘the kid’, a teenage anti-hero with a ‘taste for mindless violence’ who runs away from home to make his way in the world. Along the way he falls in with soldiers and mercenaries, most notably the Gladstone gang – a historical group of scalphunters who massacred their way across the US-Mexico borderlands in the mid-19th century.

The novel is epic in the true sense (it’s a word near-neutered and robbed of meaning by a period it spent as gamerspeak’s adjective du jour – but here it truly applies). Blood Meridian gives a new myth of the Old West that stands counterpoint to the defanged, romanticised ‘John Wayne’ portrayals of Hollywood. Instead, we bear witness to an amoral journey of greed and bloody murder that is all the more horrifying for the stark beauty of McCarthy’s writing (of which I will say more later).

The characters that surround the kid are vivid, vicious and larger than life. Of particular note are the leaders of the Gladstone gang, the eponymous Gladstone and Judge Holden – the latter of whom now stands out, for me, as one of the most sinister characters in all literature.

In comparison we have the kid himself, who is (at least somewhat) a cypher carrying us through the narrative. McCarthy refuses to delve too deeply into the mind of his protagonist; he does not provide a window to his heart.   Rather, we see those around him through his eyes and are forced to reflect on the apparent ease acts of terrible brutality can be acceded to. These frequent acts of violence are told with lyrical detachment unsensational in tone and unflinching in gaze. The novel’s subtitle, The Evening of Redness in the West is well earned.

As in The Road, the whole novel is imbued with a pervasive sense of doom, of being trapped within a series of events with powerful momentum. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner said that for fiction to succeed there needs to be a sense of free will, that readers need characters to have agency and a fate that doesn’t seem sealed. If that’s the case then, for me at least, Blood Meridian is the exception that proves the rule.

McCarthy’s writing style is stark and sparse and simple but his eye for detail is razor-sharp. The words roll along rhythmically, taking on the implacable cadence of a cavalry charge. As an author, McCarthy has a near unrivalled ear for rhythm. One unfortunate consequence of this is that I found my mind wandering more often reading Blood Meridian than it would in the average book; not a consequence of boredom but of being lost in the roll of words across the page. Occasionally it felt like the book was reading me rather than the other way around.

Here style is king and key. It permeates the novel, never falling into the background. Appreciation for the author’s writing-style is necessary: it is definitely not for everybody. And unfortunately, if you do dislike the style, it occupies the foreground so visibly that it’s unlikely you’ll be able to see past it. Without that appreciation I imagine the many, many scenes of men riding across wilderness would be impossible to stomach.

I’ve witnessed the chilling effect McCarthy’s style can have on readers firsthand: I once lent The Road to someone who returned it within the day after reading no more than five pages. The lack of commas and quotation marks led him to decree that it wasn’t ‘a real book’. Blood Meridian displays a similar minimalist approach to graphological features; if you’re precious about punctuation, this might not be the book for you.

However, if you can get on-board, you’re in for a treat. McCarthy’s words paint the prairies in vivid beauty and each of those many, many times they cross the wilderness somehow manages to both be fresh and a delight. Amidst that beauty the horrors stand out sharper. We see that life is cheap and cheaper than we think as McCarthy reminds us why they called the west wild.

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The Ghibli Double

Last week, at Manchester’s Cornerhouse cinema, I watched both Grave of the Fireflies and My Neighbour Totoro,  two animated films that Studio Ghibli released together  in 1988. Unless you suffer from some hitherto unknown animation allergy I cannot recommend these films highly enough.

You can usually spot great children’s films by the fact they do not shy away from real aspects of the human condition for the sake of coddling their young audiences. They credit children with the ability to handle challenging themes and layer them in such a way as to engage adults too. Bambi, The Lion King, Toy Story 3: all deal with issues of mortality and loss – it’s one of the reasons they endure.

Of the two, Grave of the Fireflies is the bolder in this respect. It was my third viewing of this critically acclaimed film (though the first on the big screen) and it remains the only film that has ever made me truly weep (‘crying’ doesn’t really cover the bawling, waterwork-fest the film provoked on my second viewing).

Set in Japan during the Second World War, the film follows 14-year-old Saita as he looks after his little sister Setsuko in the aftermath of their city’s firebombing. For a children’s film the level of emotional honesty on display is shocking: love, loss, pride, pain; all delivered without melodrama or over-sentimentality.

It’s a thought-provoking film that pulls no punches regarding the effects the Second World War had on the Japanese citizenry. That said, issues of war take a backseat to what is really a character-driven story catalysed  by conflict and I can see why its director Isao Takahata disavowed any overt anti-war message in the story. This is Saita and Setsuko’s story and we can draw our own conclusions on the events that frame them.

Though I made it through round three dry-eyed I was quite shaky at points.

The showing of My Neighbour Totoro a few days later was on the other end of the emotional scale. Written and directed by Ghibli star director, Hayao Miyzaki, Totoro shows a number of thematic similarities to its sister release: as in Grave of the Fireflies, here we have an older sibling looking after her small sibling against a background of parental absence (father working, mother in hospital). However, unlike Grave of the Fireflies, this is an uplifting and whimsical fantasy film.  There’s a passing resemblance to Where the Wild Things Are in its world of magic and imagination only accessible to children, populated by a hulking troll creature and his fantastical friends. However, although it’s easy to see why Totoro merchandise flew off the shelves and helped prop up the studio’s profits,  the eponymous Totoro isn’t the star here. Instead it’s the sisters that are truly engaging: both are funny, charismatic characters full of the fire of youth – especially spunky younger sibling Mei.

It’s funny and fun and I immediately ordered the DVD for my little cousin for her birthday.

These are animated films well worth adding to your DVD collection whether for yourself or your kids. Together they’re a journey across the emotional spectrum, beautifully animated. Seeing the animation on the cinema screen enhanced the experience: the crisp image and rich colours were a pleasant surprise after seeing other ’80s re-releases in rather ropey condition (Aliens at the Manchester Odeon, I’m looking at you).

See them at the cinema if you ever get chance but make sure you see them. You won’t be disappointed.

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Star Trek: Into Darkness (Micro-review)

A swiss-cheese of plotholes and a twist that surprised no-one. Fantastic visuals, some nice nods to the originals, solid performances. CGI is catching up with concept-art.
Not as good as the last one, but disengage brain-mode and it’s fun entertainment.

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All she had ever wanted was a child of her own, her flesh, her blood. No adoptions and no fostering. To her, those options weren’t options. She wanted a child of her body, from her womb. David had never understood. The birth of their first – and only – child, Cynthia had left her unable to conceive. Barren, that was the word the doctor used, a word so cold, so desolate. That news, delivered scant hours after Cynthia was taken from them, had devastated her. She’d held those tiny hands in hers that one time and then she was gone. A brief connection severed with finality. Still raw from the birth she had felt hollow, like she might collapse in on herself. How could David think those ‘options’ – as he called them –compared to the bond of mother and child? And so soon after? It was beyond insensitive. It was tasteless. His ridiculous ideas were rejected in short order, as was he not long after.

A fat blob of solder sat like a pearl on the soldering iron’s burnt-black tip, thin curls of smoke rising off the liquefied metal to fill the air with an acrid aroma. It was thick in her nostrils and her throat was raw from hours hunched over the circuit board. She didn’t care. Nearly there, not long now. David had never really understood. That thought repeated like a mantra, a broken record caught in a loop, the needle jumping back to the start position. Continue reading

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