how to catch a whale

Call me a below average reader. Some years ago – never mind how long precisely – I decided to read Moby Dick.

I’m still going.

Moby Dick is itself my White Whale. Several times I have taken up the chase and left off after this Leviathan of a book has escaped my grasp. But not this time.  I have the madness of Ahab on me and I’ll pursue that thing to the grave if need be. It’s not that Moby Dick is a bad book, just that when life gets busy it’s not the first way you choose to unwind after a big day. Leaping astride its preposterous bulk is just the beginning. Still, I have discovered the secret: you can read it for a while and then leave it aside for days, weeks, yea verily even a couple of months and return to it and find you haven’t forgotten anything that’s happened.

Because nothing has.

Ah Ryan, you say, why continue? Why struggle, push, strive, beat and drag yourself on? Why not just curl up on your poo brown lounge with Twilight instead? Or wouldn’t it be better (as suggested by a good friend) to just get the audio book and have done in a mere 26 hours whilst stuck in peak hour? That’d make more sense, right?

No, no, NO! A pox on your shiny pop vampires and new fandangled technomological shortcuts!

For this book is pure delight. A delight I can’t quite put my finger on. The language itself is encrusted with barnacles and sea salt, chilled with the north Atlantic air, but then it’s more than that. Then there’s my till just now unsettling identification with Ishmael, whose itching discontent and simple joy at immersing himself into the world is one with my own. But go on. The book is a journey, a  voyage, is itself an epic. The Pequod’s ponderous pursuit of the white whale across the oceans can’t be rushed. It has to be savoured. Sat with. There’s a depth and breadth to this book’s vision that entices and yet eludes me, like the whale itself eludes Ahab. It appears simple but isn’t. Quickly jet across this ocean to your destination and you’ll miss the richness of the world beneath the surface. And no, kind hearted spoiler, I don’t want to be told.

In its slowness, in its breadth, in its misleading simplicity and its slow pursuit of an elusive object always somewhere out of reach there’s something of life here and I’m loving it. And so today on this 161st anniversary of Melville’s classic I will pick up the Leviathan again and drink it in.

With patience, with determination and maybe just a hint of obsession. That’s how you catch a whale.

call me bernard marx

Insanity, on the one hand; lunacy on the other.

Are these humanity’s only options? The only red and blue pill actually on offer?

That’s the bleak proposal of Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s dark prediction from the early 1930’s of a future many years hence, which I read only a few days ago.

Dark? Really? As a general rule everyone in Huxley’s vision of the world centuries from now is quite happy. Disease, suffering, war, disappointment, grief and anger are virtually unheard of. Free, casual and pretty much daily sex is everyone’s lot; free drugs without harmful side effects, offering a sense of well-being and a blissful escape from any negative emotions, are handed out by the government (‘Christianity and alcohol without the side effects’); although death is still a reality, no one ages; everyone who could possibly care is beautiful; and everyone’s job is specifically tailored to suit them (or rather they’re specifically tailored to suit their job) so that it’s always completely satisfying. What could be wrong with that?

So many of us feel horrified by recent footage of the attempts by oppressive dictators in North Africa and the Middle East to grip onto power by ruthlessly crushing and beating down their own people. But what if the people of the world were subjugated, not unwillingly but willingly? What if it’s what people wanted? What if people were oppressed, not from without, but from within?

What if that were the cost of a perfect world? Would it even be a cost?

I admit that I picked up this book thinking there wouldn’t be much in it relevant for me. Another modernist warning against fascism at a period of history when that was a real threat. But now…now we live in free society. Personal autonomy is up and everyone’s got a suspicious eye on the governments…just in case. Regardless of how far into the future Huxley’s world is from our own it’s hard to imagine where we are now that we’d ever get there. We had the 60’s (or something) and went the other way.

I deplored the aforementioned depiction of humanity’s lot as a choice between Insanity and Lunacy – that modernist howling, maniacal laugh of despair to the cold night of the fragmented, shattered world of that failed philosophy. However it seems even Huxley repented of that sentiment in future years.

And yet I was surprised at the ways Brave New World made me think. I can’t say for sure whether the book was written before fascism or communism as philosophies came into existence, however the Messiah of Huxley’s world isn’t Hitler or Lenin but Henry Ford. It is economic convenience and stability that lies at the foundation of Huxley’s world – the happiness of all is the highest goal. No question our fragmented post modern western society with its myriad perspectives and pathways looks very different to the smooth, clean homogeneity of Brave New World. But its commitment to delivering instant gratification of our every whim through buying another commercialised product (on which our social stability is based) – its commitment, in other words, to ease and happiness –  looks unnervingly similar.

Disconcerting was how acutely I connected with one of the main characters in the book, Bernard Marx. A thin, odd little man for his caste who doesn’t ever feel that he fits in his society, who can never feel a part of the happiness of all the beautiful people around him and who yearns for something he can’t name. I wouldn’t want anyone to think I see my society as Marx sees his, nor everyone around me as superficial slaves and I somehow wiser and ‘deeper’ as a person. And yet I somehow have never felt quite at home in my now. In the rush to progress, the embracing of efficiency and the realisation of pragmatic goals – of being ‘useful’ – today, I confess to a yearning for a beauty, a quiet, a creativity… a slowness that I often hear scoffed at. But what was disconcerting was the degree to which I continued to identify with Marx as he turns from potential hero of love and beauty to someone who will eagerly embrace the salacious world he once pushed against if only it will finally hand to him what it had always withheld from him – whose desire for love and passion is exposed as having been mere envy of those around him. Cuts a little too close to the bone. But then, who wants to resist a life of ease, of playfulness and everything we ever wanted at our fingertips? What could be wrong with that?

What would eradicating pain and grief and delivering continuous happiness be worth?

the evolution of bruno littlemore

Humanity…entity, or experience? Inherent or self-created reality? That’s the question raised by Benjamin Hale’s novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. Written as a memoir, the book follows the life story of the brilliant Bruno, his philosophical and artistic pursuits and the deep and loving relationship between him and his mentor Lydia. The problem? Bruno is a chimpanzee. A chimpanzee with a highly evolved mind, but a chimpanzee nonetheless. A chimpanzee who chooses to change his species and become a man…but can he? Is that possible?

The question of what makes us human isn’t a new theme for writers, being tackled many times before, usually in the realm of science fiction (which this isn’t) with sinister robots and the like. In his début novel Hale bypasses the usual, run of the mill sticky ethical and metaphysical questions surrounding humanity and instead produces something unique and quite remarkable. Throughout the first half of the book we follow Bruno on his journey of discovery from his beginnings in a primate research lab, Hale manages to articulate not the answer but the experience, the feeling of what it is to be human.  We stand back and watch, as if from the outside, this outsider discover the experience of human life and relationships over a short period. In doing so we get to stand back and notice from a fresh perspective the wonderful and complex human experience, across a broad range of aspects of life. It gave me pause to reflect on and celebrate my own journey of self discovery and discovery of the world around me which isthe experience of life, my life. Here Hale uses the power of story brilliantly to enable the reader to be drawn into a world and ‘discover’ a perspective on life without needing to be explicitly told. unfortunately he can’t keep it up across the entire book. After Bruno reaches his maturity the style; the of narrative turns into Hale’s preachy rant against humanity, through the lips of Bruno,  thinly garbed in the framework of a story. This method of storytelling is pretty common and no doubt gets the point across with absolute clarity. But if that’s your goal why not write an essay? Of course story can be used to communicate a message but the real power which story can bring to communicating ideas, and which other genres lack, as I’ve briefly mentioned, lies elsewhere. However that’s not an easy thing to do, Hale accomplishes it brilliantly for most of the novel and I have to humbly add that I can’t give this critique as a writer but only as a reader.

Nevertheless The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore remains an amazing book. It’s a delight to read, and Bruno himself  is a brilliant creation, a complex and self-contradictory character, neither completely hero nor villain, sometimes quite endearing and sometimes a bit of a pompous tool – at times pushing the bounds of accomplishment and sophistication, at other times facing disaster and failure. It’s pretty incredible to think this is Hale’s first novel. Overall it’s brilliant.

One other thing though, and look, let’s be frank. There’s bestiality in this book. At one point I thought Benjamin Hale had ruined the idea of sex for me forever (turns out he hadn’t). But that stuff’s just messed up eh. Be warned. There’s sex in this book, and it’s usually pretty crook. Unneccessarily so, in my opinion.

Otherwise, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore is well worth checking out.

dickens’ ‘a christmas carol’

For our first ever ‘Books I’ve read’ we’re going to look at something relatively light and fitting for the season – ‘A Christmas Carol’. We’ve all grown up with this story. However, for all the cartoon, film and Muppets adaptations, I’ve never actually read it, as Dickens wrote it. Until now. And I heartily suggest you do the same.

This little book is pure delight. I’m relatively new to Dickens, having only read ‘Great Expectations’ before, earlier this year (and loved it), but already can see in him a master of his craft, able to write beautifully both in larger, preponderous works and in this smaller, lighter fiction. I sometimes feel that some of these classic authors write profound and weighty tomes without the skill to actually maintain control over their prose, ending up with sprawling, absolutely painful tomes that might benefit the human race if anyone could actually get through them (I’m looking at you, Hugo). But Dickens, he could tell a story, and across a range of forms. It’s well worth visiting Dickens’ original even though you more or less know the story for his prose alone. He paints a scene or character with incredible vividness and colour, and yet in doing so never feels forced or overwrought as so many writers do such as his depiction of a cold, dark, foggy London Christmas Eve, the coldly haunting manifestation of Marley’s ghost or this description of Ebenezer Scrooge:

Hard and sharp as flint, from which no steel had ever struck out a generous fire; secret, and self-contained, and solitary as an oyster. The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, shrivelled his cheek, stiffened his gait; made his eyes red, his thin lips blue; and spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.

Apart from the prose, there’s nothing like a good ghost story, and this one’s a classic. When the Ghost of Christmas Past forces Scrooge to look on the path he chose in youth I found myself uneasy at the thought of what I might find if my childhood was presented to me. Would I weep as well? The Ghost of Christmas yet to come perfectly embodies the shadowy and unknowable fear in which the future is shrouded for us. As a kid I always thought he was the coolest, but now I was most moved by the Ghost of Christmas Present. For in this episode is Dickens’ most direct indictment of his fellow-man and society, whose children are Ignorance and Want, so easily turning a blind eye to the needs of those around them. As a piece of satire Scrooge seems extreme beyond reality (sadly not actually true), and Dickens’ society seems far removed from our own in some respects. But in all our consumerist materialism and waste in the name of lifestyle, in the condemnation of the poor and destitute as ‘surplus population’ not worthy of help by so many living in comfort,the ghost’s criticism still rings true.

Nevertheless Dickens doesn’t bring this little story into the angry attacks of some of his other novels. It combats greed and avarice with a lovely celebration of and invitation into charity, kindness and goodness. The Ghost’s criticism is powerfully conveyed by the touching stories of love and friendship he shows to Scrooge. We are invited to not only see Christmas as a time for love and fellowship, generosity and compassion, but to make every day Christmas Day. As Dickens says in the introductory note of his book: ‘I have endeavoured in this ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea…May it haunt their house pleasantly…’

And it is, Dickens. It is.