How fares freedom of expression in Canada? As part of Non-Speak Week, PEN Canada blogs on the health of that most fundamental of freedoms. In this post, Pasha Malla uses a parable, an imagined review of a novella, to tease out the psychology behind recent clumsy attempts by authorities -- at the G-20 summit in Toronto in 2010, say, or in Quebec this past spring with Bill 78 -- to curb freedom of association."
Where to start with this... "book." One uses the term hesitantly, if not reluctantly, since books are made out of paper and exist as something concrete one can hold in one's hands and smack stupid people with across the face. Yet since What To Do About Them (more on this misleading, histrionic title later) is essentially a computer file, available for free download from its eponymous website, one wonders how these 40,000-odd words qualify as more than a PDF'd blog-post.
One might generously call WTDAT a novella, though this risks diminishing classics of the genre --L'Étranger, Candide, etc.-- by association. Here is a work so anti-literary to be mistaken for parody; astonishingly, the book's only irony is its total lack of self-awareness. This over-earnest kitsch resembles most a ranting adolescent's "critique" of "society" -- as she might also deem the insurrectionary act of smashing a publisher's windows with her rejected manuscript.
Hence, one ventures, such a vanity project's self-publication on that vastly indiscriminate and illiterate forum: the internet.
WTDAT kicks off with a prologue itemizing the idyllic life of a gated community -- unnamed, of course, as anonymity presumably slathers some margarine of mystique upon the whole enterprise. The residents of this neighbourhood, in one of many nods to the facile ontology of the so-called "Occupy Movement," are called "the well-offs." The well-offs mow their lawns, swim in their pools, walk their dogs, watch TV, barbecue various meats; things appear to be all sunshine and lollipops and upper-middle class contentment.
Those familiar with JG Ballard's Running Wild might smell a plagiaristic rat here. But while that masterwork moved beyond some spurious class-war to excoriate a culture rendered slavish by spectacle, here it's unclear what the anthropological opening is meant to establish. If what follows is intended as satire, it's neutered by prefatory vagaries: the lives of the well-offs are revealed only in sweeping panoramas and halting glimpses, with no depth of characterization nor attempt to humanize anyone among them.
So begins the story, as best one can decipher it, proper. Outside the gates we go, into the tried-and-true fictional universe of the totalitarian state. In this version, people wear magnetic suits that repel one another, and with all other energy resources depleted, power-plants burn-- wait for it -- books. (If only there were some way of incinerating this one, both from the planet and the reader's mind...)
Jackie, Bookburner 1851, toils in a factory shoveling novels into a furnace, which, in a casual gesture of expository omniscience, is revealed to heat the well-offs' saunas beyond the city walls. An early scene features Jackie forlornly watching a coworker, #BB1852 (a single digit away! yet so distant!), stripping plastic covers from hardbacks; when she tries to approach, despite a maudlin meeting of their eyes, she is flung away by his polarized charge. "And Jackie only knew then she had a heart because she felt it break a little as the heat swam and danced around her and the fires roared with all the world's cruel cruel laughter," we are told, illustratively.
Because of their suits, people in this lonely polis interact exclusively through video linkups. These are mediated by the "Company," who selects each citizen's "Friend-Five" with whom they socialize as per a pre-approved script each evening. At home that night, Jackie goes through the motions of conversation and tucks into bed upon a ubiquitous "lights-out" cast simultaneously over the city. As she falls into dreams of a paradise where people gather in droves and dance and sing, laugh and love, so ends Chapter One -- yet we're only ten pages into this ham-fisted nightmare.
Things continue in a Bradbury/Orwell/mid-career Schwarzenegger vein over eight more grueling chapters: Jackie discovers documentation of the well-offs, fakes her death in a fire, neutralizes her magnet-suit and steals off with #BB1582 to the promised land. Yet within the gates they discover, in a sequence ripped from Edward Scissorhands, that suburban life is only cosmetically happy; though people are entitled to "free assembly" (yes, that's a direct quotation), and "make the sweetest dove-soaring love" (sigh), everyone remains as emotionally unsatisfied as the polarized folk in town. "They were still controlled," intones the narrator, who then clarifies: "Controlled by their comfort."
So, one wonders, what? If the author is attempting a parable with this nonsense, it defies interpretation beyond some glib commentary on the existential insatiability of the human condition. But even that feels beyond WTDAT. An interrogative title promises to address its own inquiry -- perhaps rhetorically, or even tautologically, but at least to engage with itself in some fashion. Who are these titular "them"? Not the Moloi-like well-offs, too naïve to be in opposition to much; the Company is mentioned just once, in passing, with no details of its mandate or jurisdiction. Rather, power looms spectrally over the characters, and without a clear antagonist against whom to rally the reader's support, Jackie's quest feels, at best, mystifying--that is, if one even deigns to care.
Yet these logistical inconsistencies risk obscuring the "book's" most mind-boggling travesty: its hysterical use of language. WTDAT isn't so much written as disgorged onto the page (or, rather, screen). The text lacks paragraph breaks save those between chapters, at which one gasps for air before being assaulted with another logorrheic onslaught. Through a muck of bewildering sentences the reader wades, nose plugged for the stink. E.g.: "And oh god their hope-filled hearts swelled in their chests and thundered but the world was black black black and lightless and there was no freedom in it for anyone save that which you longed to find in each other."
For its finale WTDAT plunges clumsily back into Ballard territory. Disillusioned (specifically: "numbstruck at all the world's sad lostness"), Jackie and her enumerated companion set fire to the suburb -- an act, one assumes, to be understood as liberating, even generous and redemptive. Yet in a stunning instance of narrative cowardice, the author ignores the potential for innocents to perish in the blaze, instead celebrating the glory of our antiheroes "storming and swimming off into the cold black and mystery-shuddering" -- ? --"night."
From this vacuous nihilism the reader is forced to extrapolate meaning, like holding one's hand in a waterfall with hopes of snaring a fish. That a free community might be as "soulsmashing" as a totalitarian regime is not only baffling, but offensive. WTDAT ignores the biological fact that people require, even desire, structure and strictures; presenting anarchy as antidote to a biological reality is merely a sad attempt at cloaking narcissistic hedonism in the guise of philanthropy. Also ignored is, simply put, the way the world works: every society requires an underclass, though here one group's comfort is so explicitly predicated on another's suffering that the depiction feels only sentimental, crude and convenient.
In capable hands, a similar set-up might have resulted in a more studied allegory, even a paean to the human spirit: yes, society has its ills, but we're all in it together, for our general betterment and well-being, as well as the legacy of our great but flawed race. Even a credible love story might have salvaged this mess--yet, though one is to believe that something like romance exists between him and Jackie, #BB1852 never gets a name, and their sole act of intimacy consists of the kindling of her torch from his (ugh).
WTDAT's nameless author, whoever she may be, seems to suffer a basic failure of understanding of humanity itself. One might chalk this up to youth and immaturity, yet she offers nothing recognizable of even a young person's experience, nor any reflection of the realities of growing up in contemporary society. One might suggest, then, that it is the author (and her ilk) who comprise a misanthropic, possibly even destructive them. And as for what, to borrow a term, one should "do"? Well, they should be ignored, so that we can live our lives, read real books, and exist in peace.