Chasing Orwell: A Life in Books

looking for a thrill

In 2005, Chicago indie label, Thrill Jockey records released a DVD to celebrate their tenth anniversary.  It was called Looking for a Thrill: An Anthology of Inspiration, featuring nothing but interviews with 112 musicians, producers, and sound engineers, to discuss inspiration. Every artist has that moment of inspiration where they encounter a great work that helps them define what they want to do with their life. For Steve Albini, it was hearing the Ramones for the first time. For Thurston Moore, it was seeing, no—experiencing a Suicide show at Max’s Kansas City.

les miserables

For me, because I’m inherently less cool then all those people interviewed by Thrill Jockey, it was seeing a matinee of Les Misérables when I was a kid. Like most kids, the overwhelming majority of the entertainment I was exposed to was benign, and offered little in the way of direct socio-political commentary (the only thing that springs to mind is the “Feed the Birds” number in Mary Poppins). So Les Miz was a huge revelation to me on the big ideas that storytelling could tackle. It’s also significant that my parents took me to the matinee when they did. My father was a news junky, a habit that I’ve inherited, and when we got home from Les Miz, he turned on the news like always. On the news that day, the big story was the massacre in Tiananmen Square. What I had just seen enacted in the second half of a musical was now happening in real life, on the news in front of me. While I watched Les Miz, it was easy to feel a certain detachment from French guys who had lived over a century ago. But watching people in China, not much older than me, essentially repeating the same insurrection taught me that governments are still using deadly force to silence dissent. There were other parallels of course, like how the death of Hu Yaobang in China was a call to movement as much as the death of Jean Maximilien Lamarque was to French uprising in 1832. Those events are also not terribly dissimilar to what we saw in the Arab Spring in the past year.

Of course, you may be asking yourself, so why is the title of this post “Chasing Orwell?” Because if Victor Hugo planted the seed in my brain, George Orwell was standing behind him with a watering can.

animal farm 1984

Not terribly long after seeing Les Miz on stage and the Tinnemen Square massacre on the news, I had overheard my father talk with a friend about having just read 1984, and the ensuing parallels that remain between the novel and real life, even in contemporary American society. My dad and his friend also discussed that 1984 was showing up on a lot of banned book lists because of all the sex. I asked my dad about it later, and he said that it might be too advanced for me. I had recently read an abridged version of Les Miz, as well as Wuthering Heights (standard text), so I thought his concern that it was “too advanced” was just a cover for not wanting me to read all the sexy stuff—because, well, parents.

So, now that my father said I shouldn’t read it, I absolutely had to read 1984. Fortunately, the pocketbook version was very easy to smuggle. In all honesty, it was a difficult read in ways that Les Miz and Wuthering Heights weren’t. Those two books took place in the real world, in eras that their authors lived through. 1984 was a prediction of a future gone wrong, with some science fiction elements, and I had never read anything like that before. Add to that the symbolism and socio-political commentary, and this was something I really had to work at. But the payoff was worth it.

After reading 1984, my way of looking at the world changed completely. Merely putting society under the microscope reporting the facts didn’t seem to be enough—I now sought to not only examine the potential ramifications of our decisions, but why we make the choices we do. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that 1984 became a gospel for me, but it was close. I read Animal Farm, which acts as a sort of foundation for the towering achievement that is 1984. Because of its parable nature, it didn’t have quite the same magic for me, and it was a while before I became reacquainted with Orwell’s work again.

we the living

I made the mistake of seeking out other novels of the dystopian variety, which landed me at Ayn Rand’s Anthem, which I especially found interesting because it was written within the same timeframe as Animal Farm and 1984. Rand and Orwell had a common enemy in Stalin (as did much of the world, really), but Rand’s own background of being Russian-born, and having lived through the Bolshevik Revolution, I couldn’t help find her more intriguing. Not to mention there remain precious few women who I would describe as writing novels of “big ideas.” So I read We the Living, her autobiographical novel of coming-of-age in the shadow of the Revolution. It’s the least pushy with her philosophy and remains the one book of hers that I recommend without any reservations; I think its enduring value also comes from the fact that, due to lengthy and oppressive Soviet censorship, first-person accounts of that era of Russian history aren’t exactly plentiful. But anyway, I went on to read the Fountainhead, then started to delve into her non-fiction works, and hit the wall. The Great Wall of Dogma. Perhaps it was going to that Catholic school, but I felt like I was getting so much “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not” (especially if it’s fun and involves boys), that Rand quickly went from interesting to paternalistic, and ironically dictatorial for someone who spends so much effort exalting the will of the individual.

no one here gets out alive

It was at this point, I made a crazy detour: I hit the road with some crazy beatnik. At friend’s house, I saw the Doors, with Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison. I found the Morrison biography No One Here Gets Out Alive, and discovered that Jack Kerouac’s On the Road was a personal favorite of Morrison when he was young. So naturally, I had to read it. My appetite for Beat literature became, and remains somewhat, unquenchable. Kerouac remains, for me, one of the few authors I really enjoy in every capacity—fiction, non-fiction, short stories, poetry. I’m willing to admit he’s an acquired taste, and for most people falls into the love it or leave it category, and I’ve loved his work for years. The difficult thing with Kerouac though, is that he’s so utterly unique and individual, that any attempts at aping his style are little more than plagiarism. Although I recommend all writers trying it at least once, because it’ll definitely get you on the road to finding your own voice (I assure you, the pun was not intentional, but it stays). Also, following the arty, bohemian way of life seemed a more natural fit to my own personality; and a life filled with poetry, good wine, and Tantric sex just seemed inherently more fun being some corporate desk jockey.

on the road

And so I remained in my warm little cocoon of poetry, jazz, and navel gazing when I was assigned to read Orwell’s “Shooting an Elephant” for a writing class last year. Darn it. How does he do it? How did he make his internal conflict my internal conflict? Damn, that’s some good writing. How could I have abandoned this guy? So I sought out a bit more of his work than before, beginning with Down and Out in Paris and London, which in our current economy, has so much resonance. I’ve read a few articles and books like Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, which were essentially affluent people going undercover as poor people, or at least regular working stiffs. And they all suffer from the same problem: a lack of tension, because you know that the “experiment” ends and they go back to their life of eating out with their perfect teeth. In other words, they’re poverty tourists. I know it, you know it, we all know it, but the genre presses on. Orwell tells it as he really lived it—the insects, buying and selling clothing by the pound, how some low-wage jobs manage to be more dehumanizing than homelessness, and still manages to work in a rant on the hypocrisies of the Salvation Army. And he’s not particularly generous with other Christian do-gooders either.

down out paris london

I recently discovered some essay collections of Orwell’s in my school’s library, some fancy editions donated by a long dead benefactor, and even longer out of print. But anyway, the very first essay: Why I Write. He lists the reasons he (and the rest of) writes as sheer egoism, aesthetic enthusiasm, historical impulse, and political purpose. I was actually a little mad when I read that, but I wasn’t sure why. Then it hit me: he’s right. Not only is he right, but he’s exposing our dirty little secrets. It’s almost like masturbating—sure, we all write for those reasons, but we’re not supposed to talk about it.

why i write

What stayed with me, more than anything else in the piece, was its opening paragraph: “From a very early age, perhaps the age of five or six, I knew that when I grew up I should be a writer. Between the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon the idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.” It’s like he peered through some secret window into my brain and exposed this dormant need for expression. I found myself in a mode of constant self-analysis, finally realizing that everything I had pursued was just an avoidance of writing. Writing is long, lonely work. And yet, nothing else brings me as much fulfillment.

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