We

by Yevgeny Zamyatin

 

Confession: Though I consider myself somewhat well-read, I’ve managed to skip over what we might consider the seminal works of dystopian fiction. You know: 1984, Brave New World, that kind of stuff. Though I read and enjoyed Animal Farm, its primary impact was to make me hungry for all things pig.

For my twenty-fourth birthday, however, one of my friends gave me a bunch of used books (shout out to my man Zeph), one of which was called We. I didn’t know what it was, and I’d never heard of its author, Yevgeny Zamyatin, but it turns out that he was a big influence on both Huxley and Orwell. So I was intrigued.

I think it’s important to remember when reading We that it’s among the first of its kind. Dystopia always seemed, to me at least, a genre that must walk a fine line. Writers generally want to use their works to make a point about something, and this often makes for very, uh, not-subtle reading. WeThe famous seventy-page speech from Atlas Shrugged comes to mind, though I’ll admit I haven’t read that tome. Animal Farm was a pretty overt warning about the dangers of collectivization and talking pigs. So as you can imagine, there are times when Zamyatin maybe goes overboard in depicting what happens to society when freedom is taken away. I can’t blame him, though. This was written only a couple of years after the Bolshevik Revolution, when the relationship between the individual and the state was probably on many Russians’ minds.

For being somewhat of a trailblazer, though, We definitely gets a lot of things right. Zamyatin structures the book as a series of historical records in which the narrator, D-503, wishes to extoll the virtues of the OneState. (Individuals are given numbers rather than names; seemingly, consonants are used for men, vowels for women.) His records will be placed along with other artifacts on the spaceship Integral, the Builder of which is D himself, to spread the OneState’s philosophy to other worlds. His first record, only about a page and a half long, captured my attention immediately, as D likens his project to childbirth, in ways both relatable and shocking to the reader. Zamyatin thus sets the book up as a juxtaposition between the familiar and unfamiliar, between D writing for himself and for his presumably ‘unenlightened’ audience.

This feeling, that D-503 has his feet in two different worlds, is what gives We its drama and humor. For example, D has only a vague understanding of normal human emotion, resulting in awkward and hilarious attempts to explain what he’s feeling. Most frequently, he tries to use calculus to describe what’s going on in his head, which often left me confused. When he does begin to catch the disease of ‘imagination’ he starts using more poetical language for emotions such as love and jealousy. This is at least as awkward as the scientific jargon, resulting in some pretty strange and indecipherable passages.

Though I’m reticent to suggest that Zamyatin goes overboard with this intentional confusion, his style doesn’t make it easy on the reader. Having confusing passages is not a problem per se, but I’ll admit that I had trouble figuring out what was actually going on during certain scenes. D clearly has mixed feelings about his growing opposition to the OneState and its Benefactor- in his more fickle moments, he describes these as a sickness and a madness- and this manifests itself in the way he describes his experiences. Zamyatin uses D’s confusing records to great effect. Whereas record 1 is clear and unambiguous in its glorification of the OneState, the next 39 records are a mess of styles, narratives, and feelings, putting the reader in on edge; putting us in D’s shoes, so to speak. This is effective, in that we end up as confused as D must be, but I wonder if this narrative chaos might have been just a bit too much.

That We depicts a protagonist’s internal struggle with hope and cynicism shouldn’t surprise us too much, as this seems to be a common theme in Russian literature. Zamyatin takes it a step further, by reflecting this battle structurally and stylistically, making for an often clunky novel. All things considered, though, this is a 200 page book, and its brevity complements its frequent opacity. So I don’t think Zamyatin is confusing us just to be an asshole, like Lady Gaga in the meat dress; I think that he’s applying the Russian literary tradition to the new paradigm, and he’s created a complicated novel for a complicated time.

Some of you may be wondering, “How did a book so critical of an all-powerful state ever get published in the Soviet Union?” Good question. Soviet PropagandaInteresting answer: according to my translation’s introduction, We was actually first published in English in 1924, then circulated around Europe in other languages. The original manuscript was only published in Russian in 1952, in New York rather than Russia. Unfortunately, Zamyatin’s blunt criticism of his government was not lost on the USSR, and he was exiled from his home country before his novel was allowed to be published. It only came out there in 1988, when they’d pretty much had enough of the whole Communism thing, and when Zamyatin was long dead.

I found this history fascinating, not just because it seems to be one of the first, if not the first, books to be banned by the Soviet Union. There are a couple instances where subtleties of language seem crucial. The several meanings of integral seem pretty, uh, integral to the plot. (Sorry.) Similarly, the character who introduces D-503 to individualism is called I-330, or just I. This definitely isn’t coincidence, and it makes me wonder whether the original Russian text has these nuances, as well as which Russian nuances are left out of our English version. Unfortunately, the introduction to my edition did not address this, though it gave many other interesting details about the novel’s history.

(Side note: They should put introductions at the back of the book, rather than the front. They often give away details of the plot, and they’re pretty boring if you haven’t already read the novel. If you must include one, put it at the end, and call it a postroduction.)

Zamyatin was both an early Soviet dissident and the creator of a genre, so cut him some slack if We is a little rough. This quality is intentional, and doesn’t detract from the power that the novel still holds.

The Hunger Games

by Suzanne Collins

 

So Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12, a coal mining province in a futuristic, dystopian North American nation known as Panem. The central government, known as the Capitol, forces each district to send two teenagers to participate as Tributes in the Hunger Games, which appear to be a combination of a beauty pageant and a gladiator battle. The drama of the novel derives from the struggle of Katniss and others to survive and thrive in a society that alternates between brutally violent and hilariously superficial.

I must admit that I hadn’t heard of The Hunger Games before the movie trailer came out a month or so ago. I figured I couldn’t miss a big budget fantasy movie, especially with Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role. She was, uh, real good in Winter’s Bone. But I asked around, mostly on Google and Wikipedia, and apparently it’s a pretty popular series. I picked up the book because I figured that it’s always better to read the book before seeing the movie, even though I knew it was not really meant for my demographic.

I think the appeal of The Hunger Games, for me, is twofold. First, I like the world Collins creates, which at first glance seems to be a shallow imitation of both real states like North Korea as well as fictional countries from 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale. As the novel progresses, however, Panem comes into its own and becomes a real and nuanced country, a state that is effective in some areas on weak in others, simultaneously harsh and… well, mostly it’s harsh, but occasionally sensitive to public opinion.

In a similar fashion, the characters also slowly develop into real people with complex motivations. Katniss is introduced as a reluctant hero, wanting only to stay home and look after her sister; she is drawn into the world of the Capitol against her will, and is uncomfortable with her newfound fame. Other characters initially seem thinly drawn: her state-appointed mentor, the drunk has-been; her fellow District 12 Tribute, the golden boy; so on down the list. These characters, however, all have an array of motivations that Katniss, from whose perspective the novel is told, might not see at first (though she also sometimes seems overly sensitive).

The characters interact with their world, and each other, in often unexpected ways. Even those characters who are not risking their lives often have significant emotional or political investment in the way the Hunger Games unfold. There are not many ‘good versus evil’ moments in this book, which is refreshing for a young adult fantasy. I mean, as much as we all love Harry Potter (or whatever the kids are reading these days) almost every one of those characters can be described, in the end, as good or evil. Katniss and company make tough choices based on their personal histories and desires, and this is what really keeps the story moving, rather than the considerable action and excitement. That’s not to say that there aren’t predictable or cliché moments, but the ones there are don’t overwhelm the narrative. Parts of The Hunger Games certainly surprised me and I even found myself laughing at times, which usually does not happen to me while reading. I guess the humor can be a bit dark, but I found it nearly as important as the drama.

On another note, I think there’s this idea that a simply written book indicates a lack of literary merit. Thus, Vladimir Nabokov is a genius because his books are incomprehensible, while Dan Brown sucks because his sentences are short. This is malarkey: Dan Brown sucks for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with his lack of verbosity. I’ll be the first to admit, Collins’ writing can be a bit uneven, but in her defense she is writing in a certain style because that’s how her book is structured. We’re inside Katniss’ head and we get to hear what she thinks is important, like it or not. This results in some chapters being much more readable than others, but it’s a relatively minor distraction. That said, I think that people like the book because the characters and the world are well constructed, not because the prose is breathtakingly beautiful. (It’s not.)

I think that anyone remotely interested in fantasy, or just a light read, would enjoy this book. For what it’s worth, I will probably read the sequels and see the movie.