Fahrenheit 451

There ought to be a better explanation. At the height of my science-fiction phase (junior high, naturally), I counted Ray Bradbury among my favorite authors. And yet it took me more than two decades to get around to Fahrenheit 451, easily his best-known novel, and perhaps his best-known work, period.

This was in the pre-critical phase when I devoured everything by authors I loved, with no judgment I can remember as to each work’s relative quality. How else to explain the complete series of Lucky Starr novels, the juvenile adventure stories written by a pseudonymous Isaac Asimov, that now languish in a box in my basement? I still carry a vivid memory of waiting for Neil Gaiman to sign my copies of his Miracleman run, hearing him tell the person in front of me that he respected the ideas in Piers Anthony’s Incarnations Of Immortality series, but that as for the writing, “You’d have more fun sandpapering your fingertips.” I don’t think it had yet occurred to me that I might pause to savor (or reject) the quality of Anthony’s prose, rather than tearing through each Xanth novel as fast as I could.

Ray Bradbury was different. As Jimmy Webb put it, “He was the prettiest writer of all those guys,” the one whose prose seemed so elegant that I assumed he must be English. (It wasn’t until I worked my way around to The Martian Chronicles that I stopped to ask why a British writer would be so obsessed with Iowa.) His writing all but forces readers to consider its finer qualities. Where more hard-edged science-fiction writers plow relentlessly forward, Bradbury turns pirouettes, tracing lyrical curlicues too delicate to bear the weight of big ideas. 

I was in seventh grade when I had Bradbury thrust upon me, in the form of an 800-page tome called something like The Stories Of Ray Bradbury, which was my award for winning some school prize or other. During my brief career as a bookseller, I recognized the familiar form of an oversize tome with raggedly cut pages as a classic remainder title, the kind that probably set my teacher back all of a five-spot. But at the time, it seemed impossibly generous, and enough of a challenge to spark my interest.

I fell in love. Stories like “There Will Come Soft Rains” and “The Veldt” were both wondrous and frightening, mixing plausible futurism with a kind of dystopian fable. They were powerful rather than just intriguing, their elegant simplicity lending added resonance. I was shocked to realized only months ago that “Rains” runs only a handful of pages, but its brevity is part of its power. The story is essentially one gradually unfolding tableau, an automated house revealed step by step as if in some speculative industrial film, with no happy homemaker to step in and provide a semblance of plot.

Perhaps I felt that Bradbury couldn’t sustain his high-wire act over the long haul, or perhaps my interest just waned before I’d finished the last story in The Toynbee Convector. But I moved on, and even though Bradbury remained one of the few authors from that period I wasn’t vaguely ashamed to have indulged an interest in, I never went back. 

Twenty-plus years later, I’m out from under Bradbury’s spell, which made reading Fahrenheit 451 a somewhat bittersweet experience. In one of his introductions to the most recent edition (there are several, each accreted from a previous printing), Bradbury describes how his novels were written in compressed bursts of energy, poured out onto the page, whereas his stories were honed to a fine point. It pains me slightly to report that the difference is clear. Where the stories sidle up to the line between poetic and poetical, the novel often tips into full-blown floridity, as in this description of the Mechanical Hound that keeps watch over the firehouse where protagonist Guy Montag works:

It was like a great bee come home from some field where the honey is full of poison wildness, of insanity and nightmare, its body crammed with that over-rich nectar and now it was sleeping the evil out of itself.

So the hound is like a bee, and the honey is poisoned with nightmares, and, well… what? 

To be fair, the passage makes slightly more sense in context. Montag, a fireman whose principal job is burning books, has just come from an encounter with Clarisse, a teenage free spirit whose giddy inhalation of their natural environment has deeply unsettled Montag’s purely functional existence. In the novel’s future world, books have been made obsolete, perishing primarily due to the public’s lack of interest. Technical manuals and rule books still survive, but the firemen make sure that anyone so foolish as to harbor a forbidden volume regrets the mistake. It is a world protected against the invasion of foreign ideas, anything that might cause people to question their brutally vacant lives. Suicides are commonplace, and children with nothing better to do are regularly killed drag-racing at insane speeds, but this decadent extinction is apparently of less concern than the risk of wakening a thoroughly narcotized society.

So when Montag meets this comely nonconformist who’s so much more attractive than his entertainment-addled wife, he’s deeply shaken. (Let’s not delve into the fact that Bradbury had a wife and young child waiting for him at home as he pounded out Fahrenheit.) It’s as if a dam holding back an ocean of similes has been shattered, and the prolix prose pours forth in purple gushers. 

The idea behind Fahrenheit 451 (named for the temperature at which books catch fire) is powerful, and Bradbury puts some nifty spin on it. Unlike the present-day Luddites who fetishize paper for its own sake, Bradbury makes plain that the books themselves are only vessels, a way of passing down history and collective memory. The words matter, not the paper they’re printed on. As it turns out, a person will serve as well as a book—and perhaps better, since a person can’t remain on a shelf, gathering dust while his wisdom yellows and fades. (Bradbury, unfortunately, includes no women in his cabal of knowledge-warriors; apart from Clarisse, they’re all too busy disappearing into their plotless soap operas.)

In a sense, Fahrenheit 451 is a deeply conservative work. Bradbury is suspicious of all modern means of information transmission, including his metaphorical forerunners of flat-screen TVs and iPhone earbuds. There’s a brief interlude during which Montag takes guidance from an underground bibliophile via a two-transmitter hidden in his ear, but Montag’s eventual means of self-liberation are thoroughly low-tech. And bits of his allegory simply don’t scan. In his post-imaginative environment, fiction is foreign. The very idea of stories about people who never existed seems preposterous, which flies in the face of every repressive society that has used comforting narratives to soothe a restless populace. And check out this passage, in which Clarisse describes her observations of the average citizen’s vacuum-packed life:

They name a lot of cars or clothes or swimming pools mostly and say how swell! But they all say the same things and nobody says anything different from anyone else. And most of the time in the cafés they have the joke-boxes on and the same jokes most of the time, or the musical wall lit and all the colored patterns running up and down, but it’s only color and all abstract. And at the museums, have you ever been? All abstract. That’s all there is now. My uncle says it was different once. A long time back sometimes pictures said things or even showed people.

It would be difficult to find a dictator or a totalitarian regime anywhere in history who agreed with the idea that representational art was more dangerous than abstraction, a standard by which Jackson Pollock is a less revolutionary artist than LeRoy Neiman.

I’ve since revisited some of Bradbury’s stories, and they remain as potent and indelible as they were when I was 13. He’ll always be a writer who had a profound effect on me, one who—as with Jimmy Webb—allowed my mind to travel beyond the boundaries of the repressive conformity of the town where I grew up. But from now on, I’ll stick to the short stuff.

Filed Under: Books

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