Saturday, September 18, 2010

My First Dystopian Crush: 1984

So, I was reflecting this week on my long-time love of dystopias, now more popularly celebrated because of the success of the Hunger Games trilogy (and recent release of the last book). A lot of people of my generation were introduced as children to the genre with Lois Lowry's The Giver, a book I remembered liking a lot, but not one that had too lasting of an impression. My long-time love affair with dystopias didn't start until I read 1984 as a sophmore in high school. No one else seems to have loved this book as much as I did. Maybe it was just one of those books that hit at the perfect time. I'd always heard about it as one of "those classics,"--even after I'd started it, and come across the phrases and concepts I'd heard bandied around for so long "Big Brother" "thought police" etc, it was just an interesting assigned reading. It hadn't yet occurred to me that school required reading could actually be enjoyable, much less, personally momentous. It wasn't until the introduction of Julia that my interest really sparked. When she hands him the note that says "I love you," it's so unexpected, so the opposite of the last ninety pages you've just read, it was shocking. Then they embark on their most desperate rebellion--daring to love each other, daring to begin to feel again, to be wild and reckless, no matter the danger.

It's so analogous to the teenage experience--where everything feels new and overwhelming, where you are sure it's the first time you've ever felt truly alive, truly felt happiness or sadness or any emotion, because you feel everything so intensely. Life felt new and dangerous and exciting and terrifying. I wanted to grow up as quickly as possible so I could be an adult and really be free to experience and feel and do. Of course, once you actually become the adult, the fire and passion and newness gets muted or worse, smothered. It's no coincidence all the revolutions are led and fueled by students and young people. Emerson, as young man with fiery ideals, looked around him in confusion and wondered, "where are all the old transcendentalists?" not realizing then what I imagine he came to understand in old age: that it's almost impossible to maintain the energy and naïveté necessary to sustain that kind of idealism over a lifetime. And not necessarily healthy or wise.

I didn't know enough about the story, or Orwell for that matter, to know as I should have from the beginning, that this was never going to end well, so for that brief heady space I hoped with them in a giddy hope that love would triumph, that they would be able to escape. But like all dystopias, underlying the story is the message, and a happy ending wouldn't have accomplished what Orwell was trying to achieve. Don't get me wrong--I agree, this particular story had to end the way it did. And all stories have a motivation--I think I like it that the themes in dystopias are so much more surfacely apparent. A happy ending would have been a false one--this book was meant as a prophetic warning, born out of justified fear and disgust at the destructive nature of man in the new atomic age. So dear Winston and Julia don't even get the honor of being martyred, but are lobotomized and then returned as productive drones to society.

God, the ache of that stayed with me for weeks after I read it, I guess, really, years (the mark of all those really great momentous books in life). Because I had so identified with their wild joy, it had dug down deep inside, and I was just ripped apart when they lost it. I suppose a 20th century girl’s teenage angst wasn’t exactly what Mr. Orwell had in mind when he wrote it. As a good postmodernist, I don’t really care about his intent, though, now that I think about it, maybe he wouldn’t have minded after all. I’ve always thought 1984 a much more effective book than Animal Farm, but then, I would, wouldn’t, since I care much more about reader response than critical greatness or lack thereof. And what can be more affecting than taking an idea, a fearful scenario, and giving it flesh in these characters on a page, and then making you freaking care about them.

Ok, I have too many thoughts, and this post is already too long. This is freaking getting into my philosophy of writing and I haven’t even begun to talk about the characteristics of dystopias, and list off the ones I love the best (after 1984, of course). Alas, for another post, coming soon.