The world ends at least five times in season four of my writing group’s monthly book corner. Either it was accidentally about apocalypses, or we’re a very dark group. The season concludes with:
- The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy by Douglas Adams,
- Titus Groan by Mervyn Peake,
- The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck.
What is the book corner?
Each month the group takes a break from critiquing our WIPs to examine a complete, published novel. Everyone picks a book, based on a loose theme connected to making us better writers. If nothing else, it’s a great way to broaden my reading beyond the SF I’d probably choose. In season three, we looked at award-winning genre fiction to find out what literary awards can teach writers
Season four began with The Murdstone Trilogy, The Power and Invisible Monsters. We continued with reviews of The Shore, Cat’s Cradle and Uprooted.
HH2G, as it’s known to people who don’t like writing long titles, was my choice for this season. I first read it in my early teens, maybe even my pre-teens, or did I see the HH2G BBC TV adaptation? At that age, I enjoyed it as a simple comic romp full of absurd digressions and wonderful characters. I know that I heard the HH2G radio series later and the less said about the 2005 film of HH2G, the better.
Loveable grump Marvin the Paranoid Android, ebullient asshole Zaphod Beeblebrox, hoopy frood Ford Prefect and homesick everyman Arthur Dent are all characters that a young man can identify with at different times. Trillian doesn’t get her own story or punchlines, but a female astrophysicist was remarkable for a reader used to a lot of Boy’s Own-style adventures. The absurdity made me question a lot of my world, too, putting into perspective my as-yet-unquestioned Church of England upbringing in 1980s Britain.
I grew into the satire, forewarned and forearmed as my world expanded and I encountered more of Adams’s social, political and cultural targets. I’m happy to be among the generation of nerdy readers who can sum up a situation by quoting lines from Hitchhiker’s. HH2G ends abruptly, so I also re-read Restaurant At The End Of The Universe and it’s arguably a sharper, funnier story. Everyone remembers Arthur and Ford’s apprehension of Earth’s tragic fate, but Zaphod’s encounter with the man who rules the universe is a timeless scene, and no less important.
As a teen, my favourite part of the quadrilogy was Life, The Universe And Everything, probably because it’s got more swearing. Together, these novels had a huge influence on my life and my writing. It’s wonderful to see how much of Adams’s satire and philosophy remains relevant. And Marvin will never not be funny.
Even by the standards of its time, Titus Groan is a slow starter. Peake makes no attempt to draw in his reader: you must be determined to vanquish this beast of literary fantasy. He always finds time for another digression to describe the sprawling, crumbling edifice of Gormenghast Castle, the landscape surrounding it, or one of the many grotesques who rely on the castle and its owners for their existence.
Reading Titus Groan is an epic undertaking of its own and not one I completed in time to discuss it, but I had spelunked deeply enough to have been drawn into servant/slave Steerpike’s ruthless ascent of Gormenghast’s hierarchy. The Groans are a classic aristocratic family, almost certainly inbred, who believe that they have an innate right to rule, though their only duty is to produce an heir to continue their line. Even raising the heir is outsourced. Everyone else within the castle’s influence exists to serve that goal, including the Bright Carvers, a community of peasant savants who live in a romanticised squalor.
The standard reading of Titus Groan casts Steerpike as a Machiavellian villain. I found an antihero who revolutionises a world mired in futile and incomprehensible traditions, and his story compelled me to complete this epic reading. For my taste, the florid descriptions and convoluted sentence structures are crafted to flatter the reader into thinking they’re clever for wading through them.
The BBC adapted the first two novels of the Gormenghast trilogy in 2000. (In classic BBC fashion, they baulked at completing the story when it developed a whiff of SF). The series is without doubt a more accessible way to discover the story, but Gormenghast without Peake’s prose misses the point. Pull on your gumboots and trudge through the magniloquent mire; a remarkable story lurks beneath.
The canon of literature is a big place, and somehow I’d bypassed The Grapes Of Wrath. I almost did it a second time when Kindle sold me a misattributed copy of Grapes Of Wrath by Boyd Cable. That novel is an account of the Battle of the Somme in 1916 (both take their titles from Julia Ward Howe’s 1862 “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”). The link above should take you to the right book.
Nor did I know that the dustbowl that transformed the American Midwest in the 1930s was a failure of unregulated capitalism and a triumph of greed over compassion, as was the subsequent refugee crisis in California. I was also unaware of Steinbeck’s apparent plagiarism of Sanora Babb’s Whose Names Are Unknown, which lead to her novel being dropped by its publisher. I’m fundamentally ignorance with a keyboard, so this was a long-overdue reading.
Structurally, The Grapes Of Wrath is a fascinating combination of reportage and drama. It enables Steinbeck to communicate the economic and political scope of the ongoing disaster, equipping us to understand its personal impact on the displaced Joad family. Their powerlessness is magnified by the forces working continually to deny them the dignity of self-reliance that they crave. Contemporary writing often clings so close to intimate perspectives that it struggles to communicate external forces realistically. Instead, authors anthropomorphise social failures into a single villain, insert themselves into the story as a heroic reporter, or introduce a Basil Exposition character to explain the world.
Steinbeck leaves no doubt that the villains of his story are neither impersonal forces nor a single person. It is a campaign of the privileged against the vulnerable. Bankers lend money to smallholders at usurious rates, large farmers treat migrant workers as a disposable asset worth less than livestock and force smallholders to do the same, law enforcement wilfully victimises the weakest members of society, and politicians court the votes and wealth of those in power.
Perhaps the most depressing lesson The Grapes Of Wrath sends to authors is how little power literature has to transform society. The dustbowl and the refugee crisis should be a source of American shame, embedded in the minds of millions of students who continue to read this novel. It is impossible to read without seeing parallels in contemporary recessions, the climate crisis, the treatment of refugees and migrants, and the behaviour of those who have capital towards those who do not. Yet we continue to make the same mistakes and behave inhumanely to those most in need of human dignity.
Still, Steinbeck ends his novel with new life and a family that refuses to give up despite the world doing its best to destroy them. Maybe that’s a lesson, too.
Buy the books
The Book Corner season 5: ungainly adaptations
I hope you’ve enjoyed my impressions of these novels. I’d love to read your comments.
The writing group has now embarked on a new season of monthly diversions: book-to-film adaptations which haven’t worked as well as they should. We’ll start with Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion and conclude in 2024 with Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynn Jones. I’ll try to compile my reviews as we go this time.
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