Fahrenheit 451 and dystopian novels today

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Authors Note: I noticed after finishing this article a lot of my criticisms were focused on young adult novels that used a dystopian setting rather than actual dystopian novels marketed towards a more literary demographic. I realize that may seem a bit disingenuous and for that my article may seem a bit uninformed. However, I stick to what I believe and encourage everyone to continue reading. I think this is a good article if you consider the fact that the main focus is on the merit of Fahrenheit 451. Thank you for reading and for your continued support.

I think it’s ironic that many students are forced to read Fahrenheit 451 in school despite the fact that in doing so they’re essentially carrying out the antithesis of what the book is actually saying. The novel embraces the choice people have to read and educate themselves. It’s one of the most basic human rights that almost comes naturally. Having that stripped away is where the dystopian aspect of the novel is made salient. In some respects, it’s why the novel still holds up after all this time.

Dismantling the novel’s impetus aside, it’s clear that many dystopian franchises created today take, at least some, inspiration from Fahrenheit 451. It’s clear that the novel was formed as a reaction to the technological boom that occurred in the 1900s, but it still contains a lot of the same motifs seen in dystopian novels written today. Censorship, fascism, conformity, a distinct lack of individualism, brainwashing, these are all common themes rampant within contemporary dystopian stories. However, Fahrenheit 451 somehow manages to break the mold set in place by most dystopian novels today despite being sixty years old.

This is accomplished through several means the first being its core plot device. Something devoid in more recent work like The Hunger Games and The Maze Runner is an interesting modus operandi. Too many dystopians focus all their attention on the various elements in the setting rather than a captivating main idea. Now, this is called world building it’s the process of constructing an imaginary world and very important to dystopian novels. However, a slightly interesting dystopian setting is simply not enough to carry an entire novel.

Ray Bradbury does the exact opposite of this and uses the decrepit setting to push the main themes of the novel that was already set in place by the fact all print media has been declared illegal. Does that technically count as world building? Yes, but it serves more than just that singular purpose.

Interesting sci-fi elements like the hound; an eight-legged robotic dog and the seashells; our modern-day equivalent to airpods are just fancy dressings to advance the true plot. However, if this novel were written today, these inventions would probably have a bigger impact on the story. This is also why most dystopian novels written in the present time have very little substance other than the tired “government is bad, people are good” trope so routinely used. In fact, the true villains of Fahrenheit 451 are the people themselves who chose to abolish all printed media. The unofficial antagonist, Captain Beatty explains in his own words the inherent treachery latent within print material:

‘Colored people don’t like Little Black Sambo?,’ Captain Beatty says. ‘Burn it. White people don’t feel good about Uncle Tom’s Cabin? Burn it. Someone’s written a book on tobacco and cancer of the lungs? The cigarette people are weeping? Burn the book.’

There isn’t any totalitarian government established in deep within the lore of Fahrenheit 451 instead the novel exposes the natural progression humanity is moving towards. It’s about the irreversible damage of censorship and the danger that comes with knowledge. Come to think of it, it’s rather alarming how many things Bradbury ended up predicting. Everything from flat-screen televisions, Bluetooth headphones, ATM machines, politically correct culture, drones, you name it. While those things weren’t necessarily invented by Bradbury its certainly interesting to see the role they play in today’s society.

I suppose that’s another issue with present-day dystopian novels; there’s no payoff. Humanity hasn’t seen any of the effects they’ve had on culture until way later and while that isn’t really any fault of their own it’s still a constant factor that spoils their overall enjoyability. One could call that a little unfair, but I think if it really were to have any impact it would have shown some sign of it by now.

In comparison to Fahrenheit 451, the notability is almost unprecedented. It’s has been message spread clearly throughout thousands of school curriculums and its talking points are taken seriously by teachers and students alike. This is where we come full circle and have to remind ourselves what this novel really symbolizes. Some even consider it a novel that changed the course of our future, something Ray Bradbury actually intended to do.

I am a preventor of futures, not a predictor of them. I wrote Fahrenheit 451 to prevent book-burnings, not to induce that future into happening, or even to say that it was inevitable.

This is even more interesting considering the fact his novel has actually been banned by several schools. Whether the intrinsic irony in doing so was unbeknownst to them is unclear but it says a lot about the overall impression this novel has left on the populace. Our futures are safe for now, however, given that we already know history is bound to repeat itself, who can say for how long.

It would seem the cycle of irony continues as Bradbury’s classic is continually adapted into movies and most recently a live-action television show on HBO. I guess some people will just never learn.

Slaughterhouse-Five: A peculiar scowl at the war

Kurt_VonnegutThe nineteen sixties were characterized by one word; “counterculture.” To the citizens of America, this was the mantra that carried the public towards a future that went off the beaten path. Suffering from two world wars and several economic recessions America was desperate to look toward a future where peace was a possible option. This is the world Kurt Vonnegut lived in while he wrote his World War 2 inspired classic; Slaughterhouse-Five. The novel is filled to the brim with dark humor, cynical observation, and countless allusions to sci-fi culture. Above all else, however, what this story embodies is war itself.

At first, Kurt directly addresses the audience explaining how difficult it actually was the write the novel and giving context to the main event it revolves around; the bombing of Dresden. He expresses his distaste for war but simultaneously denounces the validity of anti-war novels. This is one of the many instances of Vonnegut being contrarian to the contrarians, so to speak. While the novel was written and published during the counterculture movement Vonnegut distances himself from making any radical statements, opting for a whimsical yet realistic approach to his war novel.

I think of how useless the Dresden part of my memory has been, and yet how tempting Dresden has been to write about

He continues his almost inebriated rambling while finally coming to a conclusion about how he is going to begin and end the novel.

It begins like this: Listen: Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. It ends like this: Poo-tee-weet?

The rest of the novel then focuses on our main protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, a tall slender war veteran desperately attempting to piece together his memories, while also time traveling to random moments in his life. It’s through these random bits of time travel where the audience is introduced to one of the novels core concepts: perception of time. In Billy Pilgrim’s constructed reality, time itself is not chronological but rather simultaneous.

All moments, past, present and future, always have existed, always will exist… It is just an illusion we have here on Earth that one moment follows another one, like beads on a string, and that once a moment is gone it is gone forever.

It’s this description of time that allows the novel to be told in a seemingly haphazard order. The narrator goes from describing Billy’s job as an optometrist for one moment then suddenly skips to a point in time where Billy was being held as a prisoner of war. For an average novel, this would likely be seen as a faux pas on the authors part. Having the story told so jarringly is likely to make any piece of commercial media unintelligible. However, Vonnegut masterfully uses this motif to his advantage as it reflects the confusion and utterly inexplicable nature of the war itself.

Kurt Vonnegut makes countless unrealistic references to strange things like the existence of aliens, extraterrestrial planets, time travel, and juxtaposes all of it with the very real bombing of Dresden. So in essence what we have here are these completely baseless claims about extraterrestrial life, and out of body experiences mirroring these horrific realistic accounts about the travesty of Dresden. Without having any reasonable connection to each other these two separate ideas are somehow being grouped together through the simple fact that both are incredibly controversial and ultimately meaningless.

Since their popularization during the “pulp era” in the nineteen twenties and thirties science fiction novels have carried along with them a negative stigma that has since plagued the genre as a whole. Due to the sheer oversaturation of science fiction stories being told and their often eccentric technicolor cover art, these cheaply produced pieces of fiction were not considered to have any sort of literary merit. However, Vonnegut subverts this gaudy moniker most sci-fi novels carry by creating something more than just an intriguing story. Between the cynicism and humor, the reader can understand the true effects war has on humans. How once they return their new civilian surroundings seem almost “alien.”

The bombing of Dresden has been said to have taken the lives of around 25,000 people with some conflicting accounts reaching as high as 500,000. Many of those lives were said to have been primarily women and children. Many critics of the bombing have even claimed Dresden was of little strategic significance and could have been avoided entirely. A conclusively meaningless attack lead to the tragic deaths of thousands, and all we can say was that it needed to be done. This rather indifferent reaction to mass genocide is also reflected in the way Billy himself views it.

When a Tralfamadorian sees a corpse, all he thinks is that the dead person is in bad condition in that particular moment, but that the same person is just fine in plenty of other moments. Now, when I myself hear that somebody is dead, I simply shrug and say what the Tralfamadorians say about dead people, which is “So it goes.”

As the body count of the war continues so does the rabbit hole of unfeasibility. Billy’s strange behavior is simply a representation of what’s around him, and all things considered, he seems pretty rational. In a world where mass bombings are seen as necessary, and the countless slaughter of innocent civilians is overlooked it’s no wonder Billy believes he was abducted by aliens.

Whereas Billy represents the counterculture movement, where everyone else is wrong, and your radical ideas are the benchmark of human progression. Kurt Vonnegut himself is the one simply sitting idly by, watching the world crumble below him. He explicitly admits to being present there at the bombing and instead of trying to do something, all he can muster is a few sarcastic jabs. He’s been changed by what he’s seen, hardened by it. Even years later nothing still made sense after seeing the true horrors of it all.

Slaughterhouse-five understands that it is a bizarre, awkward package that the post office has to x-ray five times before shipping out of the country, however, the bow on top is very pretty and crafted with care. It understands that society will never understand it so it makes itself incomprehensible. It’s self-aware and silly yet thought-provoking and respectful. The world doesn’t realize how badly it needs another writer like Kurt Vonnegut. His unfortunate passing in 2007 only seems to echo the words of his writing. So it goes.

My problem with teen novels epitomized in one book part 1/2

totally uneditedA few years ago, back when I was a freshman in high school, a girl I had a hopeless crush on recommended me a book. Despite having little to no information, guidelines, or knowledge of its core demographic I quickly sprung at the opportunity to have something to talk about with her. It took me about three days to finish the nearly 400-page monster and once I had finished I was left feeling more clueless and dejected than I was before. Why did I feel this way you might ask? It’s because I had realized this novel, To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, epitomized all of my quandaries with contemporary young adult novels.

One thing I’ve prided authors like John Green for doing in their teenage romance novels is their uncanny ability to write realistic characters, with realistic goals, and difficulties.

As an example, I’ll use Paper Towns. Quentin Jacobsen, the protagonist of the story, at a glance, seems to be your typical nerdy teenager, hopelessly in love with a girl who seems to be way out of his league. My mistake, I think I just explained every John Green novel pre-Fault In Our Stars. Kidding aside, Quentin’s characterization is purposely very generic at a first but also painfully realistic. Should the reader decide to go deeper into the story, there’s find a very complex character with discernable flaws and contradictions. As the novel reaches its climax you begin to pick apart the logical fallacies Quentin is driven by. He makes several morally questionable decisions, abandons his friends, and actively allows his feelings to dictate his actions. His incredibly callow nature also works in tandem with the overall purpose of Paper Towns as it serves to criticize the act of idolization. Something so ubiquitous amongst teenage relationships.

The point I’m trying to make is that I could imagine Quentin as a feasible person as I read Paper Towns. He has a purpose, he has imperfections, and he has personal growth. On the flipside, the main character of To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before; Lara Jean Covey, besides having an awkwardly long name, possesses one of the most ambiguous and unrealistic characterizations of all time.

On one hand, Lara Jean is written like an innocent, sheltered, perfect girl who fades into the background. However, there are points in the novel where she does a complete 180 and Jenny Han, the author, attempts to pass her off as some glorified dream girl who’s super popular, and charismatic. Lara Jean has several out of character moments it’s jarring to comprehend, let alone read. Jenny Han could have used Lara Jean’s frequent lapses to her advantage and make a complex statement about the role significant others play in our budding lives and how easily malleable we are during our adolescence. However, she makes no attempt to do so, which makes me believe she’s a bit of a lazy writer. If Lara Jean’s inconsistencies have no real purpose behind them, then they must be a mistake, otherwise, why have them at all?

I’m fully aware that people do change and that looks and that actions can be deceiving but Lara Jean explains herself so plainly it’s hard to gauge whether I should believe what she’s saying or what I’m reading. She’s so enigmatic that she breaks my suspension of disbelief even for a novel labeled as fiction. The biggest tell for me is the fact I can’t think of anyone I know that would do the things she does in the novel under the same pretenses in real life. I suppose you could argue and say that a lack of characterization is Lara Jean’s characterization. From some aspects that could be interesting but aside from that, her personality is not appealing or subversive it’s simply unrealistic and grounded in a reality so detached from the one it’s supposed to take place in. For comparison, allow me to explain a fleshed out character done right in To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before; Chris.

Chris is one of Lara Jean’s friends who she spends time with on numerous occasions throughout the book. They form the “Odd Couple” as they seem to be polar opposites. However, unlike Lara Jean, Chris is a funny, defined character, with very clear flaws, and interesting dialogue. She effectively plays foil to Lara Jean’s supposed goody-two-shoes attitude and while a bit stereotypical I believe she’s a well-written character. I’ve seen many attempts to call her an unnecessary part of the novel and I couldn’t disagree more. While her role in the novel is not instrumental she is a good example of the many influences Lara Jean has in her life that ultimately affect her mindset. It’s also a good indicator that she’s not a very judgemental person as if her seemingly perfect persona couldn’t be any more emphasized.

Another qualm I have with To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before is its ending. As I reached page 250 I was already well aware the plot was heading nowhere, but desperate for answers I trudged onward, bitterly optimistic. To my despair, the ending was lackluster and as I closed the book my word fears were confirmed. Jenny Han had already planned for a sequel before the novel was even published and purposely made the ending unfulfilling. So unfulfilling it’s not even worth spoiling in this article. I’m fully cognizant that it’s an astonishingly difficult task to end a book. I struggle with ending every article I write on here. However, when I finished the book I felt like a fool. I felt as if I had been swindled by the punitive hands of an author I wasn’t even a fan of. Now it is true that Jenny Han did go on record saying she actually did plan for a sequel about halfway through the first book for the purpose of developing another character that was only mentioned briefly in the story. However, I could think of a thousand different ways she could have handled this dilemma without feeling the need to release a sequel.

Before I continue I should note that I actually wrote this review back in 2015 when I first read the novel. However even as time passes I still find myself resentful of this pitiful collection of paper. Perhaps it’s deeper than just Jenny Han’s inability to write something vaguely coherent, but I believe that the biggest detriment the novel has caused is the inadvertent message it’s spreading to people my age. Another reason why I continue to praise John Green for his contemporary young adult romance novels is due to his realistic approach to teenage love. To put it bluntly, they don’t know what love is. While many view Lara Jean’s fake relationship with Peter as funny and harmless I see an opportunity for misunderstanding. I believe Jenny Han was attempting to make a statement about the way she views modern teenage romance by creating a fake romance between Lara Jean and Peter, however, I think the true intentions of that message were lost in the utterly difficult translation. This is made even more muddled when Lara Jean kisses her sisters ex-boyfriend during all of this, which is a whole different story I can write a thousand negative articles on. However, I believe one more will suffice.

This is part one of a two-part series. In the next part, I will gauge whether the film adaptation of this novel is worth watching or if it falls flat on its face much like its predecessor whilst analyzing it from a theatrical standpoint. In a world so abundant with amateurish romance novels being produced daily it’s daunting this book -that had so much potential- must add to it. I suppose she really shouldn’t have mailed those letters.

Additional Reading:

Continue reading “My problem with teen novels epitomized in one book part 1/2”

A few late thoughts about Holden Caufield

8752fd2fc089a67b0d911d5166de5b33I finished my final essay for my AP literature class today. The essay was about The Catcher in the Rye, and for whatever reason, I can’t seem to get my mind off this novel. So I’m going to talk about it more.

Holden Caufield is a far cry from a true protagonist. He’s not a role model, he’s not a great person, and certainly not a hero. But if there’s one thing he is; it’s human. I’ve tried to evaluate just how much of myself I see in Holden Caufield. I’ve noticed we’re both tinged with the same cynicism and hostility that often makes us seem like melancholic people. I can identify with the fact he doesn’t want to grow up because the real world is scary -despite us trying to feign maturity constantly. I can buy into his constructed version of reality because it’s so much more pleasant and hedonistic than the one we live in. I can relate to Holden because, in some sense, I am Holden. We all are.

I understand this might be nothing new to many who may be reading currently, but something about this revelation is almost reassuring. It’s calming to know that numerous others share my fears about the future. That everyone is childish in their own right. That everyone wants to be caught. Then again it’s also humbling to have those irrational sentiments broken down.

I think Salinger understands that Holden isn’t a very great person. Holden is Salinger’s author surrogate after all. However, I think that’s the whole point. I don’t think Salinger wants a society full of people like him. I think he want’s people to be “phony’s,” I think he wants us to play the game of life, I think he wants us to meet a body coming through the rye not catch them.

People will always clap for the wrong reasons. You’ll always wonder where the ducks go when the pond is frozen. You’ll always wonder what happened to your Jane Gallagher. And that’s okay. That’s life.

I going to leave you with the first few lines of The Catcher in the Rye. It’s genuinely one of the greatest openers in literary history and is my testament for why this novel has stood the test of time:

If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them. They’re quite touchy about anything like that, especially my father. They’re nice and all – I’m not saying that – but they’re also touchy as hell. Besides, I’m not going to tell you my whole goodam autobiography or anything. I’ll just tell you about this madman stuff that happened to me last Christmas just before I got pretty run-down and had to come out and take it easy….