Monday, January 15, 2007

We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

I didn't know about this book but found it on a friend's bookshelf and was surprised I'd never heard of it. It is a dystopian sci-fi novel, set in the future, but written by a Russian in 1920, before Lenin died, before Stalin rose to power. It was instantly banned by the Soviets, as it is an agonizing criticism of the idea of collective identity. In the book, the people have numbers, and nature has been shut outside the city, and all walls and floors are glass, and everyone lives by a "Table of Hours" which prescribes the activities for the day.

There are plenty of plot-summarizing reviews of the book around. Also, check out the author's portrait, by Boris Kustoviev via Wikipedia. It looks like someone photoshopped his head onto an old drawing. Odd.

The book has as its obvious shelfmates Anthem by Ayn Rand and 1984 by George Orwell, but it is more lyrical, more hysterical, more stream-of-consciousness. I suppose Orwell's prose is stronger and Rand is certainly more direct, but I actually loved its dreamy and confusing style, and didn't mind not knowing what the hell was going on a lot of the time. It seemed more true that a journal entry from this future world, with its strange premises and priorities, would read as confusing and boggling to me. Sometimes I didn't know which end was up, and it almost felt like the narrator was writing blind. I think that was intentional and masterful. One of the best and most convincing aspects of the book was that the narrator didn't always seem in control.

This book begins with the narrator not only a willing part of this world without individuals, but an enthusiastic supporter of these ideas. He isn't grimy and hopeless about it all (ahem, Winston Smith?); he's a cheerleader for the system. Of course, it all goes terribly awry.

It occurred to me as I was comparing those three books that the oppressive, dystopian system never seems to break down for these people because of acquisition of material wealth. It doesn't break down because they don't like being told what pants to wear either. These characters, denied property, denied privacy, denied choice, do not rebel to get their own TV or to get their own bank account or their own window shades. They rebel to get their own girl. It's always love that breaks the system down, that sends the main character tangentially off, destroying himself to be alone with the woman he loves. Interesting. I wonder if that is really true. Maybe it just makes good books, to say that people will give up fortunes but not give up a mate. We'd have a harder time cheering for the grey little cog in the machine, who breaks out of his place so he can triumphantly and emotionally buy a Corvette. Love makes a good novel. But is that really how it would work? The characters in We are allowed to bed whoever they want -- they just have to register and receive a "pink coupon" to make it happen. Would people really bring the world down around their ears just to reinstate monogamy?

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