What We're Reading: February

Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

First up was a topical re-read for me. I last read this book perhaps 10-15 years ago so reading it now was in that hinterland of familiarity and discovery. The resurgence of interest in these near future (from the perspective of the writer, at least) dystopias is already well documented. What’s interesting is how some parts of Orwell’s story are entirely relevant, whilst others speak to a totally different set of fears.

Orwell’s Oceania is ruled by a socialist government, after all, which doesn’t sit so well with the dominance of capitalism and the moves towards privatization we see today. His world is homogenized into three super-states, which doesn’t reconcile with the world we know, or the UK’s decision to fracture anew from Europe – Dave Hutchinson seems more astute instead.

But whilst reality went in another direction, it used many of the same methods Orwell describes. His political vision failed, but his psychological one was terrifyingly astute. The processes of propaganda he sets out are all too relevant, made all the more troubling by the absence of any truth in the novel. Big Brother, Goldstein, the Party, their texts – all are unsubstantiated, their authorship obscured. There is simply no way of knowing who creates the story, or for what end.

It’s worth noting Orwell doesn’t present a solution either. It’s a bleak story, perhaps presented as a challenge as much as a warning.

The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett

For no particular reason other than it being a hardback, this has long propped up my TBR pile. Well no more will books languish for the sake of structural integrity! In 2017 I will read them all!

Good thing I did too, as this is an interesting read. The premise is essentially Sliding Doors, following a young couple through three permutations of their lives, as divided by a bike accident in Cambridge. To clear the downsides to this book, yes it’s another story about blessed Cambridge students, chapters can be a barrage of new names, the idea is familiar and, most importantly, the execution breaks the plausibility of the narratives. A few coincidences too far.

However, what that doesn’t acknowledge is Barnett’s highly competent writing. If you forget the plausibility angle you are open to an interesting game of intertextuality between the stories. Phrases ring like refrains, moments repeat in every life, certain truths are contiguous. The sense of the momentum of self comes over – free will is demonstrated, but also implied to be in covert partnership with our instincts.

Generation of Swine by Hunter S. Thompson

The second of four volumes compiling Thompson’s San Franscisco Examiner articles, this serves as a highly effective history of the 1988 presidential race and the Iran-Contra Affair, for those who don’t mind reading between the lines.

It’s actually some of the most direct writing I’ve seen from Thompson, with fewer flights of fancy. His regular cast of characters crop up, gambling huge amounts of money, swapping cars, forgetting it all happened until they cross paths again months later. But the dominant story is Thompson’s increasing incredulity and despair at the events of the time. Oliver North is excoriated and pitied in equal measure for his role in the sale of weapons to Iran, Gary Hart’s campaign implodes in allegations of adultery, and George Bush Sr goes from fringe candidate to the likely future president.

This volume has less of the manic drive that makes Songs of the Doomed so compelling, but it serves as a much stronger document of the time as a result. And the more you read of Thompson, the more Gonzo seems like the one true way for journalism.

Dead Funny by Tom Holt

This volume collects two of Holt’s books, Flying Dutch and Faust Among Equals. I fairly tore through this one as it makes a fairly uncontroversial read. Expect gags and classic stories sent up royally. The crew of the Flying Dutchman variously trying to kill themselves whilst being immortal, getting roaring drunk every time they step on land and taking a stroll around a nuclear reactor that’s about to explode, for example.

It’s got a certain energy and pace to it, but ultimately I came out with a renewed respect for the writing of Douglas Adams and Terry Pratchett. The truth about comedy prose is that it’s the hardest game in town. No visual gags, no perfect timing, you’re relying on the ideas and nothing else. Holt has punchlines, but misses the larger picture. That’s why Adams and Pratchett prevail as well – because they create worlds which are complete, insane and entirely too familiar. It’s about absurd truths by another light.