Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Rereading project 2012: The Day of the Triffids

In the wake of rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four last month, I decided to continue in the English Dystopias vein for my June reread. Initially I tried Brave New World, which I mentioned in passing in writing about Nineteen Eighty-Four, but found it hard to write anything worthwhile about it. But that gave me the idea to return to John Wyndham's classic sci-fi, The Day of the Triffids. Unlike any of the other books I've covered so far in this series, I came to this novel fairly recently - I read if for the first time only a couple of years ago (for this and many other things, my eternal thanks must go to the North Sydney Public Library - I also saw the excellent miniseries version via their gracious benevolence).

Longtime reader/s, if any, will be aware of my somewhat mixed feelings about plot (in short: it's great if there is one, but plenty of potentially interesting books have been spoiled by the addition of a plot where none was necessary). I was somewhat surprised, especially given how recently I first read The Day of the Triffids, how little plot there actually is here. In short, seven years before the story begins, a new type of plant is discovered, eventually named the triffid. Though useful (it produces a sort of super oil), the triffid is dangerous - they come equipped with a powerful sting and a seemingly aggressive behaviour, including the ability to move. Our hero & narrator, Bill Masen, a biologist specialising in triffids, is stung in the eye & thus blindfolded when a beautiful series of comets streaks through the night sky. The next morning, he discovers that everyone who saw the display - almost everyone else - is now blind. He meets a girl (the appallingly named Josella) who was drunk and thus also missed the comets, and the two try to survive. The triffids, sensing the opportunity to take over, begin more overtly attacking and killing the blinded humans.

So, yes, in a way, a lot happens. But Wyndham handles it masterfully, making his whole book about the premise. What would you do if tomorrow morning you awoke and found that everyone around you was blind? Yes, now it would be a fair bit different to in 1951, when the book was published (and, more or less, set), but services quickly drop out. Electricity, fresh water, telecommunications, the chains of supply that bring food to us - all fall apart remarkably quickly. Wyndham obviously put a lot of thought into what effects his scenario would have, and in doing so, he creates a world that we can live in through Bill. Bill's an ordinary man in many ways, other than his professional knowledge of triffids which turns out to be vital, but otherwise torn: should he try to help the helpless people around him? Or is that merely delaying the inevitable, prolonging their misery while decreasing his own chance of survival? Stores can be looted in the short term, but if ongoing survival is your aim, a big city is no place to be. That fact is brought home - fully half of the novel is set in London, before Bill is finally able to leave and look for a suitable place to live in the country. Not only are supplies in short order, but everyone - blind or otherwise - is fearful, confused and desperate. Wyndham is unsparing in his descriptions here: The Day of the Triffids is never gory, it never revels in the misery of the world it creates, but it's impossible to read without thinking about what it would be like to be in Bill's shoes, or in the place of those less lucky than him who simply wake up one morning blind. (Within the first few chapters, several characters commit suicide, and many others turn violent, especially when they encounter the still-sighted like Bill and Josella.) Wyndham seems to actively encourage us to think about how we would react in Bill's place.

Bill is an obvious character for us to latch on to, and his narration is perfectly judged. I don't often include lengthy quotes in these reviews (mostly because my eyes glaze over them in others'), but this short paragraph (from just before Bill leaves London) wonderfully conveys the feeling of standing in the middle of a city and knowing that neither it, nor anything else you've known, will ever be the same again:

Above it all rose the Houses of Parliament, with the hands of the clock stopped at three minutes past six. It was difficult to believe that all that meant nothing any more, that now it was just a pretentious confection in uncertain stone which could decay in peace. Let it shower its crumbling pinnacles onto the terrace as it would - there would be no more indignant members complaining of the risk to their valuable lives. Into those halls which had in their day set world echoes to good intentions and sad expediencies, the roofs could in due course fall; there would be none to stop them, and none to care. Alongside, the Thames flowed imperturbably on. So it would flow until the day the Embankments crumbled and their water spread out and Westminster became once more an island in a marsh.

The Day of the Triffids is not a long book (around 230 pages), but it's a surprisingly dense one. Even my brief plot summary above should indicate that, but its main interest is not 'this happened, then this, then this...', but rather Wyndham seems to have come up with an idea and then decided not to complicate matters, just to think about 'what would happen if this premise came true?' In doing so, he's created a world, and dragged us into it. The book ends on a strangely lowkey note - another indication of Wyndham's real interest in this story. We're left with a lot more to imagine - knowing what we know to that point, what might happen afterwards?

What would we do? How would we cope?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Book review: Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky

Last year, I read & review Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square, a novel set in (just) pre-WWII London about George, a perenially near-broke young man who wastes all his money socialising with people he doesn't really like just because Netta, the object of his obsession, is in their group. While I loved the book, for some reason I had it in my head that Hangover Square was, if not Hamilton's only novel, certainly his major one. Recently, looking through the NYRB Classics catalogue, I discovered that they publish two of his other books - this one & The Slaves of Solitude (which I have not yet read, but will soon). Both, as is customary for NYRB Classics, have gorgeous covers too. So I ordered it quickly and read it as soon as it arrived.

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky is actually a collection of three linked novellas which were published separately in 1929, 1932 and 1934 before being collected together in 1935. Each focuses on a different character: The Midnight Bell is the story of Bob, a young bartender at the pub of that name who falls for a beautiful prostitute, Jenny. Her story is told in the shortest part of the trilogy, The Siege of Pleasure. And The Plains of Cement follows Ella, Bob's coworker at the Midnight Bell, who also has a crush on him.

As with Hangover Square (1941), the world here is of the young & impoverished working classes. The Midnight Bell can be seen in some ways as an early version of that later novel - Bob has little money, is very proud of the savings he has, but continually throws it away to impress Jenny. She is no Hooker With A Heart Of Gold, either - while her own story in the second volume fills in her character and presents her more sympathetically, she is clearly interested in Bob only to the extent that he can help her out of her financial problems and occasionally show her a good time. The problem is, of course, that he is barely richer than she is. Time after time she stands him, ignores or is rude to him and all-too-clearly (at least from the reader's perspective) grasps after his money while offering little in return. Apparently based on a period in Hamilton's own life, he brings both a sympathy and a clear-eyed perspective to Bob's story: we see every one of Bob's series of bad decisions, but at the same time that we dread everything he does and wish we could reach through the book's page and give him a firm shaking we also never stop hoping that it will work out for him.

In the brief The Siege of Pleasure (just over 100 pages), we jump back in time to see how Jenny went from being a sensible, indeed model, maid to a pair of eldery sisters and their infirm brother to prostitution. Here, rather than the several-months timespan of Bob's story, we see the shift in Jenny's life over the course of one night: after having landed her new job, she goes out for the night with a friend she doesn't particularly like. Lacking the willpower to do anything else, she ends up not only trying alcohol for the first time, but going on a rather impressive bender, along with her unlovely friend and two random men they meet. Hamilton leaves most of her subsequent journey up to us to imagine, but while the idea of one night's drunkeness leading to life as a working girl might seem simplistic or extreme, Hamilton's success here is that he sells the idea. Given the chance to focus on just a couple of days, Hamilton's gift for creating an atmosphere is in full flight.

Circling back to the same timeframe as The Midnight Bell, in The Plains of Cement, Ella's story largely avoids the trick of just showing us Bob's story from the perspective of his friend. That's what I'd expected - Ella moping while he's out wasting his money on that cheap floozy (it's worth noting that, from the moment Jenny first enters the bar, both Bob & Ella know exactly what she does for a living). Instead, we see Ella's life parallelling Bobs - she also meets someone at the Midnight Bell and her story mostly deals with that relationship. Mr Eccles is a relatively wealthy older man who takes a liking to Ella and begins taking her out, assuming a stronger and closer relationship than she is willing to enter into. While she likes him well enough, and is pragmatically aware of the benefits of attaching herself - and eventually marrying - a wealthy man, Ella is unable to commit to the idea. Partly this is because of her unspoken, unreturned, love for Bob, but she also finds Mr Eccles (she struggles to even call him by his first name) too eager, too ridiculous, too quick to assume that they are dating, then engaged. As with the first two entries, The Plains of Cement is told in a third-person perspective of the lead, and again Hamilton shows a fine talent for developing his characters. 

Across all three stories, Hamilton's genius is in describing his world. It's obviously a world he knew well - as noted, the story of Bob was drawn from his own life, but more broadly, these working people and their lives were what he lived in. At times when reading Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky - and especially the first part - I felt almost ashamed of not having a glass of booze in my other hand. In some ways, though, that would have been redundant - so effectively is this world recreated on the page that there's almost no way to get any closer to how the characters feel.