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Posts Tagged ‘satire’

I watched the film of this book a while ago with Habiba and didn’t much like it. In retrospect, the part that turned me off it was the sappy love story between the two sappy blondies. One of the (many) good things about books is that they can’t be ruined by cheesy acting – however one imagines the characters delivering their lines, it will be completely appropriate to one’s expectations. I would have liked to have read the book first – I couldn’t get the images of the actors out of my mind.

Anyway – the book. It’s an entertaining read, not least because of the irreverent and even subversive manner in which it’s written. The version I read (it was Habiba’s copy, in fact) included an introduction that talked about how the novel came to be filmed, as well as the first chapter of a sequel, Buttercup’s Baby. The novel itself starts with an introduction, where the author – or rather, the authorial voice – talks about how his father read S Morgenstern’s The Princess Bride to him as a child – but only read the best parts – and how as an adult he resolved to make the book accessible to his son by abridging it.

This framing device of notes on the abridgement crops up throughout and is a major source of the book’s humour. The fictional Morgenstern, author of the original text, wasn’t so much interested in the adventure and romance of the story, but was instead intent on satirising the Florinese royal family and traditions, as well as doctors. Goldman’s narrative voice interrupts Buttercup, Westley, Inigo and Fezzik constantly in italicised passages explaining that the next 50 or whatever pages of the original consist of detailed descriptions of this or that aspect of life, and that, while, according to the experts in Florinese literature, they represent a masterful satire, they don’t advance the plot at all and are pretty boring.

These notes are also full of details of Goldman’s life – his unhappy marriage to his incisive psychologist wife, his unhappy fatherhood to his unhappy fat son. All of this is completely fictional and adds an extra layer of charm to the story. And the story is undoubtedly quite charming. Buttercup, while capable of being a sappy, lovelorn beauty, can also be utterly pragmatic – once she believes Westley dead she agrees to marry Prince Humperdinck as long as it’s understood that it won’t be for love. Westley is full of understated, dry quips. Fezzik and Inigo form an endearingly inept double act.

When I said that the book was subversive, I referred to Goldman’s interruptions and memories on the topic of fairness. In stories, the good guys always triumph over the bad guys. Here, however, one of the heroes dies, and by the end of the book, the villain of the piece is thwarted but not vanquished and is hot on the trail of the desperately fleeing protagonists. A very unresolved resolution.

The story continues in the first chapter of a supposed sequel, Buttercup’s Baby – a sequel that, Goldman explains in another introduction, he was forbidden from abridging by Morgenstern’s estate. Instead, they want Stephen King to do it. When Goldman goes to visit King in Maine, King tells him his abridgment of The Princess Bride sucked – but he gives him a shot at doing the first chapter of the second book. This new chapter gives a little more of a conclusion to the foregoing story, but introduces fresh mysteries, like the imminent death of Fezzik, the history of Inigo’s one love, and the skinless-faced man who steals Westley and Buttercup’s child. No resolution to this new story is offered, and Goldman puzzles over Morgenstern’s narrative choices and strategy.

The book as a whole is confusing, frustrating – deliberately so – but also readable and humorous. Despite its disparate construction it works as a whole – although it almost doesn’t. The conceit of Goldman simply abridging an existing work rather than writing it himself is certainly not original, but is done in a charmingly unique fashion. One criticism I would offer of this aspect of the novel is that the narrative voices of the Goldman sections and the Morgenstern sections are almost identical. Goldman writes in a distinctive twentieth century American vernacular – and so does Morgenstern. One shouldn’t make too much of that, though.

All in all, a strange, idiosyncratic, but entertaining novel.

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I think the last time I tried to read 18th century literature was when I did (or was supposed to do) Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders at university. I found that book hard going, and nowhere near finished it. Gulliver’s Travels is a much more accessible and engaging book.

In it, Lemuel Gulliver, inveterate traveller (he keeps leaving his wife and family to go on hazardous voyages half-way around the world) journeys separately to four previously unknown civilisations: Lilliput, where all the inhabitants are a few inches tall, Brobdingnag, where the people are sixty feet tall, Laputa, where the men (not so much the women) are obsessed with science and philosophy, and the land of the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent and noble horses.

The book was intended as a satire on society at the time and people in general. So, for instance, in Lilliput, human pettiness is highlighted: official Lilliputian doctrine states that eggs should be broken at the narrow end; the contrary ‘Big Endian’ practice is punishable by death. In Laputa (or one of the associated islands – I forget), scientists are paid to work on such projects as reconstituting food from excrement. In Brobdingnag, Gulliver offers to show the king the secret of gunpowder; when he explains what can be achieved with the black powder – muskets that fire lethal bullets, explosions that tear men to pieces etc – the king is horrified, just as a young child would be; Gulliver, however, can’t believe why the king would pass up a chance to gain dominance over neighbouring lands.

The land of the Houyhnhnms is populated not only with the sentient horses, but with the reprehensible Yahoos, creatures that are physiologically identical to humans, but without civilisation or anything but the basest rudiments of intelligence. Over the course of his stay in this land, Gulliver comes to despise and fear the Yahoos – probably more than the Houyhnhnms do – even though the only difference between him and them is his upbringing. Consequently, when he is forced to return home, he sees his fellow humans as similarly base and disgusting. After some years back home he is able to spend time with his wife in the same room, but not for very long and certainly not while she is eating.

The portrayal of human imperfection is probably not as amusing or as cutting as it was in Swift’s time, but it still works. Some of the ideas are pretty funny – and also thought-provoking. Is it right that humans should take pride in our military might? Or pleasure in our lumpy, blotchy flesh?

As a work of fantasy, Gulliver’s Travels doesn’t work as a story – because it isn’t a story: it’s four stories. And even then, none of these four have much in the way of plot other than Gulliver arriving, learning about the culture and leaving. For me, fantasy is the use of story to explore issues about power and morality. In this book, though, this exploration happens more through the agency of setting. World-building is a vital part of any fantasy book and Swift’s – predating by a long time any of the early modern fantasies like William Morris’s novels (let alone Tolkien) – is pretty solid; except from a scientific standpoint, the various lands visited all make sense (kind of) and support the satirical purpose of the book (although how the Houyhnhnms hold things between their hoof and pastern is rather far-fetched). It’s also refreshing to read a fantasy that doesn’t focus on the stock, quasi-Medieval Europe of many, many novels.

Gulliver’s Travels seems to be seen as a children’s book, but, while there’s a lot in here that would certainly amuse children, the political content of the stories would go way over most children’s heads. The grammar, too, while not at all that difficult an adult to get to grips with, would prove heavy going for younger readers; it’s full of long sentences broken up with colons and semi-colons. I think the orginal text would prove to trying and dry for most children. And then there’s the scene where Gulliver becomes a plaything of some Brobdingnagian maids-in-waiting who naked in front of him; at one point he is sat on one of the girls’ nipples.

All in all, a surprisingly entertaining book – or maybe not that surprising when you take into account that it’s been in print for nearly three hundred years.

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Namely, Brobdingnag.

The nurse, to quiet her babe, made use of a rattle, which was a kind of hollow vessel filled with great stones, and fastned by a cable to the child’s waist: but all in vain, so that she was forced to apply the last remedy by giving it suck. I must confess no object ever disgusted me so much as the sight of her monstrous breast, which I cannot tell what to compare with, so as to give the curious reader an idea of its bulk, shape, and colour. It stood prominent six foot, and could not be less than sixteen in in circumference. The nipple was about half the bigness of my head, and the hue both of that and the dug so varified with spots, pimples, and freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous: for I had a near sight of her, she sitting down the more conveniently to give suck, and I standing on the table. This made me reflect upon the fair skins of our English ladies, who appear so beautiful to us, only because they are of our own size, and their defects not to be seen, but through a magnifying glass, where we find by experiment, that the smoothest and whitest skins look rough and coarse, and ill coloured.

Source: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, ‘A Voyage to Brobdingnag’, Chapter I.

That which gave me most uneasiness among these maids of honour, when my nurse carried me to visit them, was to see them use me without any manner of ceremony, like a creature who had no sort of consequence. For, they would strip themselves to the skin, and put on their smocks in my presence, while I was placed on their toylet directly before their naked bodies: which, I am sure to me was very far from being a tempting sight, or from giving me any other motions that those of horror and disgust. Their skins appeared so coarse and uneaven, so variously coloured when I saw them near, with a mole here and there as broad as a trencher, and hairs hanging from it thicker than pack-threads; to say nothing further concerning the rest of their persons. Neither did they at all scruple while I was by, to discharge what they had drunk, to the quantity of at least two hogsheads, in a vessel that held above three tuns. The handsomest among these maids of honour, a pleasant frolicksome girl of sixteen, would sometimes set me astride upon one of her nipples; with many other tricks, wherein the reader will excuse me for not being over particular.

Source: Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift, ‘A Voyage to Brobdingnag’, Chapter V.

Earlier in the book, in ‘A Voyage to Lilliput’, the narrator describes how he voided his bowels for the first time since washing ashore and the Lilliputians carted his effluence away in wheelbarrows; later, Gulliver puts out a fire at the Emperor’s palace with his own, personal, built-in fire hose. In addition to the very accessible style of writing, this somewhat puerile interest in bodies and bodily functions has made reading the book quite a pleasure.

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A strange book. A short one, too. The first ten or so chapters are set out as individual, spaced paragraphs, each one starting with a bold title in line with the text. These paragraphs are linked, but they don’t read like the consecutive paragraphs of a conventional story. Each contains an idea or a scene. Each chapter functions (or is supposed to function) as a separate novel – but these novels are linked. They are about the same characters with the same preoccupations. One character, although he is the same throughout, changes name from chapter to chapter – Traven, Travers, Travis etc. The chapters, therefore, are very repetitive; they are modulations of the same idea. The last few chapters vary this form, but not by too much.

The subject of the book is at once extremely specific, yet disturbingly ambiguous. It is about the deaths of President Kennedy, Marilyn Monroe and others, it is about fatal car accidents, it is about sex, it is about the media. There is a lot of sex in this book – but there isn’t. Sex and death are presented, interpreted, recreated in the form of auto-crashes, in collections of photographs and other documents, in the angles of stairs and walls.

Where it works best, the book is about the maniacal and surreal investigations of Traven and his alter egos into the deaths of Kennedy, Monroe – and his own wife. He does this by staging their conceptual re-deaths; simulating – or perhaps achieving – the death of a female character. He is endlessly searching for meaning in the angle of a woman’s thighs, in the wrecks of American cars. These first ten or so chapters are a portrait of a man in the midst of a breakdown. His story is like a mirror, smashed and then inexpertly pieced back together.

The remaining few chapters don’t add much to this story (such as it is). One is entitled ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Raegan’ and describes the politician’s rabidly reactionary views spoken in his friendly, reassuring voice – a voice that deafens listeners to his meaning. Another later chapter portrays the assassination of President Kennedy as a motor race.

The copy I read (which I bought at a branch of Fopp for the pleasingly small sum of £3 a few years ago while at university) was padded out somewhat with annotation written by Ballard for a 1993 edition. Each chapter concludes with notes on the author’s inspiration and memories relating to the content of the text. He talks a little about his experience as a child in war-time China, its liberation by the Americans, his love of things American, his wife who – like the main character’s – died. These notes are a little distracting, but for the most part are interesting and provide a much needed context for the book. There is also an introduction written by William Burroughs.

In the post-Warhol era a single gesture such as uncrossing one’s legs will have more significance than all the pages of War and Peace.

These words, written in the late 1960s, are scarily prophetic – just think of Basic Instinct. While The Atrocity Exhibition is bizarre, surreal, difficult, obscene, the above quote highlights the seriousness of its intent. It’s a satire of the fragmentation, mechanisation, sexualisation, trivialisation of modern society.

I’ve read a few J G Ballard books, and this is the first one I’ve read since his death a year or two ago. His earlier ones, like this, are not easy to read; his later ones, while taking similar topics, are much more conventional narratives. I think, with the benefit of greater age and maturity, I’m better able to appreciate works like The Atrocity Exhibition. Which isn’t to say I loved this book; I respect it greatly, but it is, nevertheless – by its very nature – cold and alienating.

What has always most intrigued me about Ballard is his interpretation of and position within the science fiction genre. As he wrote in his introduction to Crash – a novel that this one closly prefigures – he is not interested in the science fiction of outer space – laser guns and spaceships and the like – but in the science fiction of inner space – man’s relationship to techology and its effects. The Atrocity Exhibition demonstrates that interest in ways that are both crude and subtle.

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