The Maze

I recently finished The Maze Runner, which someone had recommended to me (and was recently made into a movie). I wasn’t blown away.

The Maze Runner is a story of a boy who wakes up in a strange place, with no memory of anything that came before. He wants to escape, but everyone is extremely slow in giving him information, and nothing quite makes sense.

The second part, unfortunately, is close to a reasonable description of The Maze. The writing felt disconnected, jumpy; as though the author were reading out a plot outline, and occasionally remembering to describe things, rather than a smooth, coherent narrative.

In The Rhetoric of Fiction, Booth argues that we generally read stories because we like the world that’s created, we feel a bond with the characters, or we want to find out what happens next. I wanted, to a certain extent, to find out what happened next. So I finished the book. It finishes, predictably, on a cliff hanger. But I’m definitely not reading any more of the series; I skimmed the wiki for some details, and that was enough for me.

Rereading (and finishing) 1984

I finished rereading 1984 last night (you can read some earlier notes here, here and here).

In the final pages, some of the more stylistic images and themes that Orwell uses jumped out at me. There’s a very stark moment when their privacy is invaded; as they stand in their secret room, a voice suddenly intrudes on their conversation, and they realise that they have never had a sanctuary, or privacy. There was a microphone and a speaker behind a picture all along.

Similarly, later, when Julia and Winston meet after the torture has broken both of them, they stand for a few moments in a clump of trees. While they parallel the earlier clump that offered them privacy when they spoke for the first time, these ones reflect their new situation, their realisation that they have never had privacy:

Presently they were in among a clump of ragged leafless shrubs, useless either for concealment or as protection fro the wind. They halted. It was vilely cold. The wind whistled through the twigs and fretted the occasional, dirty-looking crocuses. He put his arm around her. 

There was no telescreen, but there must be hidden microphones: besides, they could be seen. 

In some ways, the whole book is a gradual retreat of privacy, of the struggle to maintain an independent interior self, and ultimately failing. It starts with Winston keeping a physical journal; and blossoms into an independent relationship, a private space that only he and Julia know about. From there, though, it is all retreat. First the physical space is taken away from them, then their bodies are destroyed, and then their very minds are made the property of the State. This is Orwell telling, presciently predicting, how it is that self-control in a very literal sense, vanishes.

Unrelated to that theme, there’s a nice line, where Orwell describes Winston’s relationship with O’Brien. ‘Perhaps one did not want to be loved so much as to be understood’.

So. Having finished the book, it’s interesting to look back and see what I remember of it, and how that’s reinforced or changed on rereading. It’s an insightful piece, in that I think Orwell though intelligently about trends that were only just becoming apparent when he was writing, and he made some very good guesses about what a totalitarian state might look like, well before there was a detailed dissection of the gulag system, or before the iron curtain had come down.

He failed in other areas though; that was something I didn’t think of when I first read it. He fails, essentially, at describing anyone other than Winston. Julia is a prop that propels Winston through the story, but not a rounded person. Even after she’s been through horrific experiences, if they in any way parallel Winston’s, there’s still no sympathy from the author, or attempt to unpack her inner state, even though she is the second most central character. Instead, we learn that the main change that has happened to her is a physical one, that makes her unattractive. There’s no attempt to unpack anything internal:

He knew now what had changed in her. Her face was sallower, and there was a long scar, partly hidden by the hair, across her forehead and temple; but that was not the change. It was that her waist had grown thicker, and in a surprising way, had stiffened. 

I suppose we can give Orwell points for consistency, in that earlier he’d described part of her appeal based on her slender waist. From a narrative perspective, it’s such a missed opportunity to create a real and richer character, and it’s insultingly simple.

Reading 1984 – Part III

I’m about three quarters of the way through 1984 now (you can read my earlier thoughts here and here).

One of the things that I didn’t remember from the last time I read it was how large dreams loom. He dreams of the future (of meeting O’Brien, of the field where he goes with Julia), and the past (of his mother, sinking deeper below).

A theme that’s been constant throughout the book is a point that Orwell constantly hammers home; that though and action are interdependent, and that by controlling one, the Party controls the other. Orwell has Winston and Julia talk about it, agreeing that the ultimate betrayal would be to feel something against the other, but that the party couldn’t make them do it.

It’s interesting too to read Orwell’s thoughts on war. They don’t read as the result of exhaustive study, but they’re interesting none the less. He argues (through Goldstein’s voice, in ‘the book’) that war was a force binding social constructions to an independent reality; but that by maintaining a continuous state of war, the state becomes isolated from external reality, and can construct whatever social reality it wants to. I’d want to see it explained more coherently, but it’s a fascinating idea of the constraints on social construction of reality.

Journalistic ethics and privacy

I read, which is a great source for good longform articles (unsurprisingly). Which is how I came across a 2006 piece on a Washington children’s performer. It’s actually much more interesting than it sounds; a well written piece on a complex and interesting person, who comes across as very likeable.

But I struggled reading the piece; there was a transcript of a conversation (close to the end of the article), that seems to be a word-for-word reporting of the journalist probing into an extremely difficult topic, without any concern for the person whom he’s asking questions of. And then, reporting the whole thing to the world.

I imagine there was probably consent by the children’s performer to be interviewed, and his mother voluntarily gave up information on what was a really scary, difficult thing that happened to him as a child. I’d be interested to hear from anyone who’s done more in-depth thinking on ethics in journalism. But reading this piece I felt deeply uncomfortable; this person’s privacy was violated, and it felt wrong.