Review: The Pickwick Papers, by Charles Dickens

February 22, 2015

The Pickwick PapersThere’s something about Dickens’s prose which has always made me feel connected. Connected to the past, connected to the country we share, connected to human nature in all its foibles. Because next to his anger, that’s one of Dickens’s most memorable traits for me as a reader: The perfect reflection, unchanged by all the many intervening years, of every angle of the many-faceted human spirit. The anger will come soon, in the next of his novels, Oliver Twist; here in The Pickwick Papers it’s a muted thing. This first, most comic of his novels is rooted in that latter quality, his insight.

It’s not what I thought I was in for when I went blindly into the buffoonery of the opening at the club. Mr. Pickwick initially comes across as deludedly self-important, and his travelling companions almost sycophantic, a far cry from his eventual gentle self-assuredness and the role of a substitute father that he adopts in the lives of his young club members. That opening, though, seems to exist more to tap its nose at the pompousness of the gentlemen’s clubs of the day than to create any kind of sympathetic connection between reader and Pickwickian.

It’s after Dingley Dell is in their rear view and the first betrayal of Jingle’s has left a crack or three in Pickwick’s naïveté that he and his companions develop more believeable personhood, and the novel begins to flow much better. It’s helped immensely both by the introduction of Sam Weller, whose dry wit and ignorance of gentlemen’s society yet worldliness among the lower echelons makes him a much-needed contrast for Pickwick’s starch and (ever-endangered) propriety, and by the gradual transition of the comedy from farcical to theatrical.

Once that transition takes place, I found myself laughing frequently at the unexpectedly gentle but sly humour that pervades the middle of the novel. I certainly knew Dickens had wit, but in his later novels it’s never something that has struck me as the laugh out loud kind of wit; rather, as something cutting and often acerbic, a thin veil over his anger at the injustices society perpetuated against the poor, the orphaned or abandoned.

It’s not as though those injustices are not tackled in The Pickwick Papers — during the experience of Pickwick’s incarceration in the debtors’ prison, Dickens pulls no punches in his wrenching examination of the lives of the poorest and longest-term debtors — but unlike the opening chapters of Oliver Twist, which drip with caustic commentary on the ill-treatment of the poor orphans, the portrayal here of 19th century injustices feels sorrowful rather than fiery. And although the protagonists of some of Dickens’s other novels are almost too angelic to be true, Pickwick, fortunately, receives no such rose-coloured glasses treatment even in his time of suffering. His imprisonment holds a mirror up to his pride: Is it correct for a man, even a wrongly accused one, to allow others to be denied a mentor, an employer, a father-figure, a friend, in order only to prevent the loss of such pride?

Some of Dickens’s novels suffer to varying degrees from the serialised forms in which they were initially published, but I think The Pickwick Papers benefits from it. It holds together well as a novel, albeit a better one after mostly ditching the framing device of the club, yet the rambling way in which it arrives at a point, much less an end point, allows for the very natural-seeming insertion of many asides. One of my favourites is the story of Gabriel Grub and the goblins, alongside an escapade which evokes Washington Irving’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

An area where the book falls down is in its depiction of women. I wouldn’t call Dickens a particularly accomplished writer of female characters in general, though in later novels I think that the women do benefit from his particular insights into people and their motivations — and of course, many of them appear as loving immortalisations of his sister-in-law — but no one is about to confuse him with George Eliot. It’s too egregious to ignore in The Pickwick Papers, however, which sees more histrionics than a hen house full of cats. It becomes something of a novelty to get through a female character’s appearance without any incidences of fainting, crying, throwing herself to the ground kicking and screaming, or other behaviour best befitting a toddler.

All in all, it’s not about to go down as my favourite Dickens book, but I am very glad I read it. I took far more pleasure from it than the opening left me thinking I would, and it marks a very interesting point in Dickens’s development as a writer.

4 stars

Review: Forever Free (The Forever War #3), by Joe Haldeman

February 1, 2015

Forever FreeYears have passed since the Forever War reached its conclusion, and William Mandella is settled on an icy backwater of a planet, a haven for the minority of remaining humans who aren’t part of the hivemind known as Man. He and his long-lost love are finally married, and together they have raised a son and daughter. But they aren’t content. They know what they are: Fallbacks for Man in case their genetic material is ever needed, kept like pets in a zoo, otherwise obsolete. So they engineer a conspiracy: To commandeer the spaceship which used to serve as a temporal waystation for those who wanted to delay aging until their lost loved ones returned from the collapsars, which now languishes in planetary orbit, and take it as far out as they can. So far that when they return, thousands of years will have passed, and they can only hope that Man will have become extinct and they will have the freedom to establish the human race anew.

I’m beginning to think that the best way to read these novels (with the exception of the brilliant first book) is to get to the middle, then stop and make up the rest yourself, because the story you thought you were signing on for is inevitably going to get abandoned in favour of something else entirely. Except unlike Forever Peace, this wasn’t merely muddled, this was actively ridiculous.

The plot trundles along quite happily to begin with, even if the characterisation doesn’t. William Mandella was a bit of a blank everyman in The Forever War, but that was okay, because it enhanced the reader’s ability to put themselves in his shoes, and he was still allowed emotional reactions to things. In this novel, he’s more of an automaton, lacking even that much emotional veracity — I have stronger feelings for the squirrels that live in the trees near my house than he appears to have for his children. But that would’ve been okay too, because I could’ve gone along with this as a plot-driven novel. I was intrigued, excited even, to see what the far, far future that Mandella and his crew would return to would be like, and what their rebuilding efforts would look like if they managed to escape Man.

Yeah, don’t get your hopes up. This whole idea gets first derailed by strange things occurring aboard ship during the journey which should’ve been a mere footnote before the return, and then its utter abandonment is forced when the plot swerves in a completely unheralded direction. Nothing that was interesting about the book is allowed any real depth past the midway point. It’s transformed into a trite mystery, trite because the ultimate answer to whodunnit is a literal deus ex machina, with all the philosophical depth, in its heavy-handed delivery, of a door to door proselytiser’s leaflet.

Merely thinking of this book and all the wasted potential in its setup annoys me. If you are a fan of The Forever War — and for all the criticism I level at this book, I am a great fan of its predecessor — I heartily recommend that you pretend the story ends there, and that this sequel is bad fanfic. It certainly reads like it.

1 star

Review: Forever Peace (The Forever War #2), by Joe Haldeman

February 1, 2015

Forever PeaceIn the year 2043, our world is embroiled in a large-scale war between the Alliance, composed of industrialised Western nations, and the Ngumi, a loose coalition of developing nations without access to the nano-forging technology that contributes to much of the Alliance’s wealth. Our viewpoint into this war comes from Julian Class, a draftee who controls one of the remotely-operated mechanised units called soldierboys, a job that requires an intimate mind-link and cooperative effort with the rest of the platoon.

It’s such a promising setup for a story. You have a conflict in which neither side is unambiguously the white hat, and which could serve as a lens through which today’s racial and regional tensions could be reflected and examined. The Ngumi are largely made up of oppressed peoples who can’t hope to climb out of the well that a lack of equitable wealth distribution has left them in without resorting to violent measures (a situation that has its parallels in our societies), but their tactics are sometimes reprehensible and the casualties vast. The Alliance draws the scorn that is directed at many regimes and individuals who soak up wealth and hoard it beyond all reasonable measure when others are suffering for want of it, but as corrupt as the governments may be, the individual on the street isn’t necessarily enjoying any great life for living under them — access to the nano-forging technology is beyond rigidly controlled, and we see glimpses into areas of poverty and urban and moral decay worse than the ostensibly wealthy societies of real world 2015 already harbour. Our protagonist’s life mirrors the conflict in a microcosmic way, as he starts the story in an interracial relationship which has to be hidden even from friends and acquaintances lest it face a level of censure one would hope we would have long moved past by 2043.

Lots of promise. So why the low rating? Because absolutely none of it is realised, and the book is completely muddled about what it’s trying to be. The interesting setting we start with never gets fleshed out beyond a skeletal background. The middle of the book meanders through Julian’s relationship angst based on his girlfriend’s inability to jack with him — to experience the mind-link that allows the soldierboy mechanics to experience each other’s thoughts, fantasies, memories, physical sensations — something which could make an interesting basis for a story itself, but doesn’t have any link to the established story arc so far or to the more compelling drama that could’ve been wrung out of the war’s direct effects on their relationship and its lack of social acceptance. Finally, from there we shuffle into a conspiracy to use the jacking technology to effectively brainwash humanity into widescale pacifism to prevent the utilisation of a doomsday device, which again, would be a great — if thoroughly implausible in its execution — concept for a novel that has nothing to do with the one I started off reading. It seems Haldeman gets bored even with this, considering how abruptly, almost dismissively, it’s wound up.

Incidentally, if you’re waiting to hear what any of this has to do with The Forever War, the answer is nothing. This is the second book in the trilogy but the relationship between the books is only conceptual, and that only really applies to the first third of it, in which it still appears the author is going to turn a cynical eye on the realities of war, just on a more intimate scale than the millennia-spanning intergalactic war of the first book. I think that would’ve been a good novel, especially as Haldeman’s writing seems to have reached a more polished level from a technical standpoint and Julian is a more compelling protagonist than the relative blank slate that was William Mandella. I think the other two books that could’ve been spun out of the ideas smushed into this one could’ve been pretty enjoyable too, but as it is, Forever Peace is much less than the sum of its parts.

2 stars

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