Sunday, 16 October 2011
1985 by Anthony Burgess
This is a sort of re-imagining of 1984, and you've got to wade through a lengthy critique of Orwell's book first. There are some good points, a few laughs (Burgess calls A Clockwork Orange "not very good") and quite a bit of abstruse nonsense. It means you've only about 115 pages for the novel itself. If it had been much longer I don't think I'd have finished it.
Here's the set up - the unions are all powerful, and every line of work is a closed shop. Constant strikes have crippled the economy and the country's in hock to the Arabs, who're plotting to turn the country into an Islamic state.
Now, this is pretty strong stuff, and seems carefully crafted to wind up Guardian readers. And it's the most enjoyable aspect of the book. It's both bizarre and believable, at least for the time. Remember, this was written in the late '70s. The Winter of Discontent was just around the corner and OPEC was holding the west to ransom. A worrying time to be looking to the future, and I think this vision of the '80s would've seemed a lot more likely at the time than the one we got.
The problems of the novel are pretty deep though. The plot's very episodic and the main character moves from scene to scene making speeches about freedom. Dramatically unsatisfying. And some things are just plain odd. There are violent gangs of teenage rapists, but instead of listening to Beethoven, they quote Latin and beat people up for not looking like Don Quixote (yes, this happens.) They're supposed to be rebelling against the dumbed down, politically correct education they get at school, but it's just silly.
What's even stranger is the treatment of the main character's 13 year old daughter. She's a slack jawed moron who watches TV constantly and tries to get her dad to fondle her. I thought she just represented overly-sexualised, under-educated youth, but we find out pretty late on that she is actually brain damaged. And yet she's always treated as an object of disdain and disgust. She ends up being given over to an Arab prince as a concubine with her father's tacit consent. It all feels very unpleasant.
Here's my recommendation: give 1985 a miss and read 1984. If you've read it before, why not read it again?