Satirical doublespeak? New York Times Book Review calls Nineteen Eighty-four “outdated”

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I am very annoyed with The New York Times Book Review Podcast. They would go and make a fool of me for defending professional literary critics, wouldn’t they?

There I was in my pink rubber gloves, diligently doing the dishes while listening to podcasts from far-flung parts of the world when things started being said that made me splash soapy water, break wine glasses and prance angrily over dirty lino. It was a mess and I know precisely who is to blame.

There is no pretty way of introducing what I heard; the list of sins is long and of the most damning kind.

The topic was a newly published collection of George Orwell’s diaries called, simply, Diaries and the reviewer, Barry Gewen, was talking about Nineteen Eighty-four and Animal Farm. Hold tight, here we go:

“in addition to the pessimism …”

(NB: Gewen says pessimism, I say foresight, responsibility etc, but in the face of the crime to come that is a very small aside)

“ … what those books are most known for, is their attacks on totalitarianism, and I think for that reason they may be outdated. They may be the books that fall by the wayside because they were written at a particular period and had particular influence during the Cold War.”

Gah! Fall by the wayside? Outdated? Relevant only to a particular period?1984

I wonder what Gewen makes of the enormous surge in dystopian fiction of late, linked by threads about the size of – oh, I don’t know, a New York City bridge – to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four and the other dystopian greats.

Did he simply not notice the enormous amount of dystopian fiction that has been flying off bookshelves? Could he not have noticed the resurgence in dystopian literature, even though it is in the very pages of The New York Times Book Review – the most definitive meeting place between arithmetic and literature – that this nouveau dystopian turn has been documented?

I won’t lie, it worries me. Would it worry me if these words were a lone book blogger? Probably not, but when an established voice, an amplified voice, gets it so very wrong it’s confounding on a different level.

Gewen was presented on the podcast as an expert on Orwell, but how can he be if he doesn’t notice the real-time living legacy of Orwell’s most influential book? He couldn’t use words like “outdated” and “fall by the wayside” when discussing Nineteen Eighty-four if he wasn’t completely blind to the influence the book has today.

The fact that “Orwellian” is now a term that describes totalitarianism beyond the post-World War II period and the Cold War would, one might suspect, have provided more clues on the matter. Orwell himself was also absolutely clear regarding his own position:

“My recent novel is NOT intended as an attack on Socialism,” he said referring to Nineteen Eighty-four and added that his aim was specifically to show “that totalitarianism, if not fought against, could triumph anywhere.”

Orwell’s position is one that the book buying public has thoroughly endorsed.

My biggest fear is that Gewen dismissed the books that carry Orwell’s mantel because they are in large part books by women aimed at women and young people – demographics that are often sidelined by the established literati.

Women like Margaret Atwood, Ursula Le Guin and Lois Gowry eagerly delivered the popular dystopian legacy founded by Orwell into the twenty-first century; a mantel picked up by authors such as Suzanne Collins and Lauren Oliver. It is a connection that others at The New York Times Book Review haven’t missed. In a recent podcast about Lois Gowry’s latest novel, the last in her The Giver series, the links to and influence of Nineteen Eighty-four were endorsed by both Gowry and the interviewer.

To add to the insult the Diaries podcast include warning potential readers they may be disappointed by a lack of “gossip” and “sexual revelations” or bored by too many records “relating to daily life,” such as counting chicken eggs – warnings that were neither honourable nor insightful.

I think perhaps Gewen was trying to say that he prefers Orwell’s essays to his diaries and novels – a fair position to hold, but a case he left unmade.

Critics don’t get it right or wrong because of where they’re saying it – little book blog or enormous curator of cultural criticism; they get it right or wrong because of the quality of their insights. In this case The New York Times Book Review got it very, very wrong even though they are very, very established literati. I, on the other hand, have got it very, very right even though my voice echos from one side of the depths of obscurity to the other and back again.

Peter Stothart, Booker Prize panel judging chair, would have been just as correct in claiming that the status quo literati is ruining literary criticism as much as book bloggers.

Just because the method of doing the dishes changes it doesn’t mean the solution is to throw them into a hole in the garden, as tempting as it sometimes may seem. Dish by darstard dish, we will go on, caring more when the voice is amplified but trying to judge based on content rather than status.

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Orwell quote is from Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (Eds.), 1968, The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell IV, Secker & Warburg, London; p. 502.

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This article first appeared in Trebuchet Magazine on 18 March 2013.

Tofu Recall: An Elementary and Culinary Guide to Not Fretting About the Remake

This article first appeared in Trebuchet Magazine on 26 June 2012.

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Like many, when the pre-trailer trailer of the new Total Recall was released I was incensed.

The very idea that something as purely gold as Total Recall could be re-made felt like a travesty. It felt like trying to recreate Tutankhamun’s tomb out of turmeric. Why bother? We, the people, will see it for the fake it is; and, simply, it will suck.

I had no reason to suspect such a sophisticated rebuttal would tumble. At the time the very idea of a remake was like a full-scale Hollywood intrusion into the crevices of my heart. It was an assault on everything I held dear – on experience, on art, on gold, and perhaps most importantly, on memory.

On Memory

Of course, when I had these feelings I didn’t remember that memory is a central theme of the film because all I could recall was cheese. Lots and lots of cheese.

Sure the cheese is overwhelming to the point where it’s difficult to remember much else, but that’s what makes the film gold, right?

Dystopias are serious, they’re about the world falling apart and the struggle to change before we get to the dreadful ‘there.’ It’s in this environment that Arnie comes into his own. He tempers that seriousness a little so it’s digestible to a wider audience. He adds a layer of cheese that is unforced. He’s not a hipster fitting in, he’s a body builder moving around.

Having Arnie in a dystopia is like having something a little tart with something sweet. Like a little green tomato pickle – which is tasty and acidic and spicy, with cheese – which is soft and subtle and comforting. In this scenario the green tomato pickle is the dystopia and Arnie is the cheese.

The next thing I remember about the film is Sharon Stone. She reminds me of what my friend Jules calls a slutty cheese, like a soft brie that oozes and is always falling out of its dress. A slightly more sophisticated cheese perhaps, but cheese nonetheless.

I’ve never had a problem with cheese. In proof of point, a couple of years ago I went to a very bad cabaret variety show with only one performance that I loved – a woman doing the Sharon Stone Basic Instinct drill in the dark with a brightly lit flashing merkin. (Take a moment to visualise that). Yes, some people thought it was tacky – I thought it was gold. Perhaps that’s why I loved Total Recall so much. I don’t have a problem with tacky. In my memories of Total Recall it was the indelicate application of cheese that made the film.

Re-watch

It was in this spirit that I sat down for my first re-watch since learning of the travesty of the remake.

What a film! I thought in wonder, and silently started to count its merits.

The themes are as relevant as ever. The many guises of politics and power struggles. The mass media labelling freedom fighters as “terrorists.” It’s like lighting up a flashing sign that says: This is What Propaganda Looks Like.

Look as it is discussed so seamlessly! I thought with pride.

More than anything else Total Recall launches the idea that Anything We Can Do Technology Can Do Better to its limits – applying it to something as personal, as human, as memories.

Genius.

And, of course, I was also thinking: This movie isn’t cheese with green tomato pickle, this movie is tofu! Serious and healthy and a perfect base for sucking up the specifics. It’s like new age comfort food, like a tofu scramble!

In this scenario the dystopia is the tofu and Arnie the scramble that makes a suspicious product more presentable.

Smothered

Then, inevitably it seems now, the absurdity hit me hard.

Barely ten minutes into the film and there was Arnie, an enormous body builder with muscles that look like they belong on the cover of an Italiano staliano romance, not a construction site, acting (it hurts me to say this) pretty appallingly, and mucking about with a jackhammer – probably on a piece of painted foam.

It sucks. It’s distracting. I want more green tomato chutney with my cheese. Fuck it, I want the tofu scramble back. But it’s gone ….

The tofu is the material, the context, the message. The tofu is the story and it was being smothered with cheese before my eyes. A tofu scramble is one thing – some firm tofu crumbled with onion and garlic and diced vegetables, sautéed with a touch of turmeric for colour, salt and pepper and herbs to taste, perhaps even served with a little grated cheese on top. I’m not opposed. Smothering the tofu in cheese so it becomes a big congealed mess is another thing all together though. I don’t want to suggest that cheese is bad, but who wants their tofu covered in it?

And this is the trouble with Total Recall: it is a brilliant story, but the brilliant story is barely visible through the layers and layers of cheese.

Remembered Wholesale

Which brings us to the short story the film is based on – “We Can Remember it for You Wholesale” by Philip K. Dick.

Philip K. Dick? You will likely ask. Didn’t he also write “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?”

Well, yes, he did. I would likely answer.

Wasn’t that the story that is otherwise known as …. Here, you would likely draw breath. During the pause I would likely nod, encouraging you to go on. Then you would likely whisper in the revered tones it deserves …

… Blade Runner?

And then, we would likely gently sigh together and sit with that thought for a moment …

… because, of course, Blade Runner is not cheese.

Blade Runner is something hard-core delicate – like ninja knapsack food sustenance.

If Total Recall is tofu scramble smothered in cheese, then Blade Runner is spicy tofu perfectly wrapped in seaweed with a piece of cool cucumber slipped in for efficient hydration. Satisfying, transportable and sophisticated.

By coincidence I re-watched Blade Runner a couple of weeks before re-watching Total RecallBlade Runner outlives its era. It doesn’t feel old or dated. The fashion doesn’t stand out or stand in. The technology is seamless. The mis-en-scene is striking and clean. It doesn’t fade.

Total Recall on the other hand never left its era. It was released in 1990, eight years after Blade Runner, yet it has 1980s written all over it. The technology is clunky. The eighties aerobics outfits are garish. The total lack of ambiance is lazy. It will never transcend.

Why such dramatic differences? The question never occurred to me until my very insightful boyfriend suggested that the budget for Total Recall went on Arnie.

Revelation

And that is how I learnt that Philip K. Dick’s great story got covered in cheese, dressed up with turmeric, and made to look like gold. That is when I understood that Total Recall could be like Blade Runner and that doing it right might just be the motivation for the remake

Perhaps the remake will be smooth.

Perhaps it will be tight.

Perhaps it will be tofu.