There’s a song in My Fair Lady where Eliza sings, “Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!” All week I have had this line in my head, but replacing “words” with “work.” I had a fun but time-consuming design project compounded by a 200-page, very dry re-edit of a medical report that chewed through most of my nights. I put my foot down and didn’t let it chew through my weekend, however.
What that means is that I’ve been reading a lot in my “free” time, but it was nothing I’d ever read without being compensated, and nothing I’d wish on my worst enemy.
I did, however, finish the Divergent series. It was a fast read, it was nicely constructed and well planned from one book to the next. The only thing I remember wishing she’d elaborated on was the offhand mention that Edward wasn’t an entirely innocent victim in that whole stabbing thing. But beyond that, it was enjoyable.
The interesting thing for me is that I was reading this at home while I was listening to Crime and Punishment on my commutes to and from work. Unsurprisingly, this was a much denser undertaking, even though I was listening to rather than reading it off the page. There were a lot more layers to parse and I spent a lot more time thinking, “why did he write X instead of Y? Why did he create a nightmare about This instead of That?” and looking up the meanings of the names and so on. (I am continually fascinated by translations of literature. I harbor a mistrust that the translator has botched the job in terms of idiom or plays on words, or that I am missing some cultural reference that is hugely revealing or is a hilarious in-joke.) Getting beyond all that, though, I found myself drawing lines between the dystopia of the past and the dystopia of the future.
I realize that these books are, for the most part, completely incomparable — different audiences, different genres, different intentions behind the writing, different everything. But bear with me.
All by itself, I find it an interesting commentary on human nature that futuristic dystopian fiction has had such a wave of popularity. Why do people gravitate toward books where Everything Is Awful, rather than Awesome? Is it because the world they live in shines by comparison? Is it because we like to read about people in hopeless situations? Is despair really more interesting than prosperity? It’s easier to create conflict, certainly, which does make more interesting reading. So perhaps in an era when we are reasonably well off, we have to imagine dystopia to keep people reading. Dostoevsky’s horrific world, on the other hand, was smack-dab in front of him. His study on the psychology of people in a squalid and hopeless environment was utterly recognizable to his contemporaries; he didn’t need to devote time to explaining How Things Work in This World or What Led to This Horrible State of Things. (A good thing, as the book is plenty long without endless setup and world-building.)
The interesting comparison is that while Roth has to imagine the effect that her world would have on her characters, Dostoevsky could draw on actual observations that are archetypes now (and probably were when he wrote it) — the pious, the humble, the desperate, the drunkards, the lovers, the revolutionaries. You’ll find them all in Divergent, too, but built out in different ways.
All of which got me to thinking that recasting the world as it is today into despair is a market ripe for exploiting — dystopian 2010 Detroit, edge-of-dystopian Lake Mead-less Las Vegas, etc. I’m not sure I’m of the opinion that the majority of Americans actually LIVE in anything remotely resembling dystopia compared to 1860s Russia or Futureland Chicago, but I know there are malcontents out there happy to disagree–and, really, someone should capitalize on their dyspepsia, no?