Review of Philip K Dick’s “The Penultimate Truth”

The Penultimate TruthThe Penultimate Truth by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Philip K. Dick is above all a writer of ideas. To him we are indebted for some of the most innovative concepts to come out of 20th Century sci-fi. For me the debt is also personal. With the release of the movie Bladerunner, his ideas began to go mainstream at roughly the same time as I was gaining literary and creative consciousness, and so I will forever associate his work with that delicious awakening.

But ideas do not a great novel make. For that, you need other elements, such as literary craftsmanship, compelling characters and good plotting. Taking these three things in order, I have to say this book does not rise above a good C+. Most of the prose is pedestrian, relying on an overuse of adverbs and needless jargon (why robots have to be called ‘leadies’ is beyond me). Where Dick’s prose does accelerate, it becomes torturously overwrought. (Example: “Anything which might mitigate the quality striven for, that of free and easy authenticity; this simulacrum, out of all which they, the Yance-men, were involved in, required the greatest semblance of the actuality which it mimicked.”)

The characters never evolve beyond mere props; wooden actors through which the events are channelled. They are a means of telling the story. So much so that in one instance, Dick himself seems to forget whose point-of-view he is narrating, and attributes the wrong train of thought to the wrong character; an easy mistake to make when they are all essentially the same soulless person.

This leaves the plot. [Spoiler alert] In theory, plot should be the element of writing which Dick, as an ideas man, would master most easily. And indeed, in some of his best known works this is the case. But sadly, he does only half a job in The Penultimate Truth. Although the pacing is excellent and the premise is brilliant (most of humanity forced to toil away in subterranean ‘tanks’ under a false pretext), for some reason he sees fit, about halfway through the story, to introduce devices (both figuratively, as plot devices; and literally, as devices of war) which overcomplicate the story, un-suspend the reader’s disbelief and disobey the internal logic of the world he has created. The most obscene of these is time travel – a spice so pungent it can spoil the best sci-fi soup if not added with extreme caution. To top it all off, the story finishes too quickly, and without a clear resolution of the key conflict point. We (or at any rate I) don’t even understand what the meaning of the title was supposed to be, and are left with the suspicion that it was merely chosen because it would look snappy on a bookshelf.

Whatever the penultimate truth was supposed to have been, for me the ultimate truth is that this book is a disappointment to the good idea from which it was born.

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Review of Buddenbrooks

Buddenbrooks: The Decline of a FamilyBuddenbrooks: The Decline of a Family by Thomas Mann
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It is an unfortunate consequence of universal education that the way we are exposed to the greatest works of literature is through prescribed school curriculae. Because no novel, no matter how good it might otherwise be, can be truly enjoyed when one has to finish writing a 1,000 word summary of chapters 12, 13 and 14 on the bus ride into school on a rainy Monday morning in February.

This, I fear, has been the experience of all too many teenage readers of Thomas Mann’s spectacular opus, Buddenbrooks, a staple of German ‘Gymnasium’ literature courses for decades. In one sense, the book does itself no favours, extending across three generations of a family of Northern German grain merchants, most of the Nineteenth Century and 750 pages. Even I, a willing reader well past his teenage years, with no exams to prepare for and no essay to write, found myself struggling at times with its length and degree of detail.

Yet there is so much to be enjoyed in Thomas Mann’s greatest novel. From a purely technical point of view, it is wonderfully crafted prose. Mann possesses that rare ability of writing third-person point-of-view narration so intimately the reader becomes immersed in characters with whom he shares neither gender, century nor social class; but with whom the bond of essential human experience generates a kinship and empathy that moves him to tears. The best passages of writing, as is so often the case in great literature, are bare, sparse, almost haphazard fragments, whose richness lies in that which they do not contain as much as what they do.

From the perspective of a 21st Century humanist, the merchantilist feudalism of the Buddenbrook family, with its disdain for social democracy and elevated sense of capitalist, Protestant morality, is anathema to our modern sensibilities, once we abstract ourselves from the narrative. But that’s just the point: Mann manages to turn you into a Buddenbrook. You care about their destiny and you feel the pain of their inevitable decline; you feel passionately they deserve their seat in the Senate of Lübeck. And you are just as envious and resentful as they are themselves, of the rise of a new generation of more vital, less traditional competitors.

There is not really much to give away in the plot which the subtitle has not already spoiled. Buddenbrooks is about the decline of a family. And yet it is about so much more. Economists and students of business studies will no doubt remember from their textbooks the reference to the ‘Buddenbooks Effect’, in which it is postulated that family businesses (or dynasties more generally) will inevitably decline over the course of a few generations. How this plays out – whether in the person of the hypochondriac Christian and his penchant for the good life, the superciliousness of his sister Antonie, the physical weakness of their brother Thomas, or the latter’s dreamy, timid and unhealthy son Hanno – teaches us not just about economics, but about our own strengths and weaknesses; or own hopes and fears of death; or own hypocritical self-righteousness and sense of family purpose.

Buddenbrooks should not be dismissed as merely a great work of German literature. It is also a damn fine read.

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