Friday, November 26, 2010

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

From the favourer: "Fahrenheit 451 was my gateway drug to all kinds of literature. I first came across it when I bought a computer text adventure game in the late 1980s for the Commodore 64 with the same title. Clues from the game had me scrambling for my mum's dictionary of quotations, or looking up chapter 2 verse 10 of 'Song of Songs', or finding a copy of 'Moby Dick' to get the opening sentence. Then I found out that the game was actually based on a book. This introduced me to the wonderful world of Ray Bradbury, where science fiction was about people rather than science doodads."

A bit like The Lost Estate, Fahrenheit 451 is a book I read Many Moons ago and can't remember much about the ending. In fact, before re-reading it, my memory of the ending of Ray Bradbury's novel amounted to: "I think there's a river."

The copy I'm re-reading was given to me by the favourer, a Voyager Classics paperback rebound into hardback by Apollo Moon - now defunct bookbinder who I have a soft spot for as we had all our Rowden White Library binding done there until they went under. Ah, the smell of fresh book glue. *sniiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiff* Reading a professionally bound book has the advantage over the glue-bound paperback as these are also stitch-bound, so you can bend the bugger back as far as you like and never hear the tell-tale splitting noise along the spine. (Sorry, I'm a bit rough with my books. I also write notes in their margins. Sorry again.)

Montag is a fireman. But unlike the firemen of our age, Montag's role is to set fires, to burn down houses that have books in them. Books are forbidden, and must be destroyed for the good of the community. Montag takes pride in his role as a fireman, enjoys spraying the kerosene and seeing the fire obliterate objects inside. The owners of the houses have always been safely removed by the police beforehand, so they're not burning people. Just 'things'. And at night Montag comes home and finds that his wife Mildred has taken a overdose of sleeping pills. He calls an ambulance, but instead of a medic arriving, the emergency is attended by indifferent technicians who whoosh in, coldly pump Mildred's stomach, replace her entire blood supply, and whoosh off in their craft again. Montag is troubled by the incident, but his wife's chipper amnesia about the whole event convinces him that things are probably fine.

Then Montag meets Clarisse. Clarisse is different to anyone he's ever met. Unlike everyone else, Clarisse doesn't sit at home all day, watching the floor-to-ceiling tv walls where "the relatives" encourage individual watchers to participate in their inane interactive plays. Instead, Clarisse has a sunburnt face from being in the woods all day. She shows Montag how old leaves smell like cinnamon. She watches people, and concludes that they don't talk about "...anything. They name a lot of cars or clothes or swimming-pools mostly and say how swell! But they all say the same things and nobody says anything different from anyone else."

Shades of Holden Caulfield aside, Clarisse is different and vibrant, and Montag is entranced. When he suddenly no longer encounters Clarisse on his daily outings, and shortly thereafter he attends a fire that burns more than just 'things', Montag is forced to confront his career and life in a way that will endanger both.

When I began re-reading Fahrenheit 451 (the title refers to the temperature at which paper catches fire and burns), I was quite shocked by how seriously good it is - and also how I had completely forgotten how seriously good it is. I'm a bit of a sucker for a depressing, technology-has-dehumanised-us world (which explains my small obsession with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep). Like the world of Dick - let me rephrase that - like the world of Androids, Ray Bradbury questions the nature of self and humanity in an increasingly technological world.

Unlike Dick, Bradbury is less concerned with the blurring of boundaries between human and android, and more with the loss of humanity through the loss of the past. In the world of Fahrenheit 451, books that are "English-influenced" are forbidden. But these books weren't initially banned by a Big Brother-style government initiative, but more gradually and disturbingly:

"The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that! All the minor minor minorities with their navels to be kept clean. Authors, full of evil thoughts, lock up your typewriters. And they did. Magazines became a nice blend of vanilla tapioca. Books, so the damed snobbish critics, said, were dishwater. No wonder books stopped selling, the critics said. But the public, knowing what it wanted, spinning happily, let the comic-books survive. And the three-dimensional sex-magazines, of course. There you have it, Montag. 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."

Of course, this is the devil's advocate character Beatty - Montag's fire chief - speaking, and we can't trust him. But his words have resonance today, and that's why they're initially scary. I wonder about this character that Bradbury created. Someone so committed to their cause, but so torn apart by it that - well, I don't spoiler so you'll have to read the book to see what happens to Beatty.

I wonder about him because while he presents the most pessimistic view of their society possible (fine), he also contributes to a funny thread of elitism that runs through the novel (weird). Quite often, the book implies that only the 'chosen ones' will understand the value of books, and the rest of society needs to be literally razed before books can be appreciated anew. People like the previously inane Mrs Phelps, who displays a deeply emotional reaction when exposed to a book for the very first time, are ultimately lumped with the Mildred-masses. Also, prejudice against comic books. Also, when are three-dimensional sex magazines going to be invented?

I re-read this book furiously over one workday up to about page 100 (hi Clint, no I didn't read it while I was supposed to be working). But after that I started to slow down, and I can see now why I don't really remember the ending that well. It still feels a little anticlimactic, almost as if it's winding down/forward to the start of a sequel. And it does reinforce the elitist idea that only the chosen few will be keepers of the books, and also that they won't do anything until the times are right to accept them:

"...we're the odd minority crying in the wilderness. When the war's over, perhaps we can be of some use in the world.
'Do you really think they'll listen then?'
'If not, we'll just have to wait.'"

Honestly. Grow a pair and fight for it!


I've learned enough from reading (ye olde 30 year old reader on high speaketh to you) to know that the end doesn't always colour the book. And in this case, it really doesn't. Fahrenheit 451 was written in 1953 and still presents a smack-in-the-face of a world that is riveting, shocking, and truth be told, more than a little too familiar.


"If you don't want a man unhappy politically, don't give him two sides to a question to worry about; give him one. Better yet, give him none. Let him forget there is such a thing as war. If the Government is inefficient, top-heavy, and tax-mad, better it be all those than that people worry over it. Peace, Montag. Give the people contests they win by remembering the words to more popular songs or the names of state capitals or how much corn Iowa grew last year. Cram them full of non-combustible data, chock them so damned full of 'facts' that they feel stuffed, but absolutely 'brilliant' with information. Then they'll feel they're thinking, they'll get a sense of motion without moving. And they'll be happy, because facts of that sort don't change."

But this is Beatty speaking again. So we shouldn't take what he says seriously.



(Also, memory served me correctly. There WAS a river at the end!)


Colleen said...

Unfortunately I only read a small part of the book before being distracted by...oh dunno, stuff involving toddlers, but managed to see the film and was most impressed by the use of wide-screen, flat TVs in the living rooms, given that the film was made in the 60s. I just hope the main points of the book are not so prescient. And like you and the book, I found the ending of the film to be a bit 'yah, nah, well' and hoped to God it was never gonna be me that had to remember a freakin book VERBATIM.

Anna said...

Were I entrusted with remembering the entire script for The Princess Bride, however, I'd be only too happy.

Jenny Chapman said...

I have this book on my to read list for this year, so I only skimmed your review ;-) I'll come back and comment on it when I'm done. (prolly Sept by the size of my list)