(Harper Voyager, 2008 RRP £7.99)*
The other week my boyfriend was watching the E3 games conference, and I was pretending to read, but secretly watching, as Microsoft unveiled their latest arm waving, controller-less motion sensor game-thingy.
‘You see,’ I shrieked, like a crazed witch-from-the-future, ‘Ray Bradbury was right! We are all going to end up wacked out in our living rooms acting out virtual soap operas in front of giant TVs!’
I was ignored, so I went and glared out the window at Richer Sounds opposite, purveyors of the instrument of our destruction. I like to keep an eye out for the emergence of possible dystopian futures, and Ray Bradbury’s is my favourite. I share Bradbury’s love of libraries, obsession with books and strange fascination with the idea of book-burning. Also, if I’m going to need to build a secret subterranean book vault, I need plenty of warning. Not least because I rent an attic.
Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which books burn, something that happens frequently in this novel. Books are illegal, and firemen are employed to seek out the last remaining horded volumes and burn them, imprisoning the owners of the books in asylums, or executing them with the help of a mechanical hound that can be programmed with people’s scent. The main protagonist, Guy Montag, is one such fireman, who is shocked into realisation about the state of American society, and his own quiet dissatisfaction, by an encounter with a new young, interesting neighbour, Clarisse. Clarisse really feels and experiences life, she is everything Mildred, Guy’s wife, isn’t. Mildred shows her disregard for life when she overdoses on sleeping pills, and spends long, empty days watching television. Clarisse is a brief bright light in a dismal world and leaves a deep impression, despite Guy never seeing her again; she is killed in a car accident. The reader, however, can stick around and watch as Guy’s life begins to unravel.
Another key character is Guy’s boss, Captain Beatty. He is full of convenient speeches about society, and how the decision to ban books was really made by the people, not the state, because they didn’t want to feel anymore. He is very cryptic and mysterious, and seems to be very knowledgeable about books. That’s ok though, because he’s the boss. Guy Montag, on the other hand, is running a much greater risk when it is revealed that he has been secretly hording books in his house for a year, out of curiosity. Guy is soon desperately trying to memorise what he reads in, to preserve the words for the future, but they slip out of his mind.
Guy’s down-fall is inevitable. You can’t go around quoting Dover Beach, making ladies faint and communicating with English professors through ear pieces, and expect to get away with it. It turns out that Captain Beatty knows everything after all, and Guy’s house goes up in flames. The ending of the novel is dramatic and terrifying, but ultimately optimistic. There is an opportunity for re-birth, and perhaps the chance that a renewed creative, artistic spirit might be reawakened. The final chase, which ends with Guy’s escape into the wilderness, is filmed by news helicopters, and in order to present a successful end to the narrative for the viewer at home, the wrong man is surrounded and killed. As Guy looks back at the city he has been forced to abandon, the war that has been threatened throughout the novel is finally declared, and the city is destroyed.
We do, of course, now live in the future, and there are some aspects of this novel that seem, to me, quite prescient. We may have completely failed on the mechanical hound side of things, but we do have news helicopters buzzing around, filming completely uninteresting things, like shamed footballers driving to work, and we have tabloid newspapers quite content to accuse the wrong person, and metaphorically tear them to shreds. And of course, we have giant TVs.
This is one of those novels that have really divided opinion over ‘what it all means.’ I know that when I studied it at university, my tutor was all into the ‘this was written in the cold war and it’s all about censorship and creative oppression’ take on things. At the time I was nineteen, so I was mainly awestruck that someone had come up with the idea of a mechanical hound that syringes people (seriously, the most creative form of execution ever!), and put it in a book and managed to make it work in a non-comedy way. Since coming to write his review however, I’ve made the effort to do a bit of research (Wikipedia/ reading the introduction to my edition), and I read that Bradbury disputes most interpretations of his work, saying it is not an attack on the state, but in fact a novel about the damaging effects of television on reading. As someone who frequently plans an evening of reading, then in reality whittles away the hours messing about online or sitting slumped in front of some terrible TV, this is definitely an explanation that resonates with me. Sometimes I wish I didn’t have a television.
And finally, this is my favourite part of the novel, so I’m going to end on it. When I was first reading Fahrenheit 451, and the character of Clarisse was introduced, I instantly thought, ‘oh, he’s going to fall in love with the free-spirited girl next door.’ I was wrong, however. Guy Montag doesn’t fall in love with a pretty girl, he falls in love with books, and reading, and literature, and knowledge, and free thought. Which is definitely, in my humble opinion, the best kind of relationship.
*This 50th Anniversary Edition has a really good new introduction & afterword by Ray Bradbury, so I highly recommend it.