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Box Of Paperbacks Book Club: Limbo by Bernard Wolfe (1952)

(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 17.)

It took me a while to get through Limbo and it's going to take me a while to forget it. First published in 1952, it's been out of print since the '80s and now seems to be one of those novels that only five people or so read a year but all five of them declare it brilliant. I'm not going to go that far, yet. But it's sticking with me in ways I had not anticipated. (Then again, the Fergie song "Clumsy" is also sticking with me, but that doesn't make it good.)


For starters, let's drop right in the middle of the action. Our hero, after abandoning civilization in the middle of the Third World War returns to what used to be the United States after an 18-year absence. (Destroyed on both coasts, it's now known as "The Inland Strip.") Sitting outside on a bench, he notices a beautiful woman he's seen several times since his arrival sketching him. Stepping over to watch her work, he finds "a charcoal sketch of himself, very cleverly done, showing him reposing in a little basket. He was without arms and legs, there was a beatific, saintly expression on his face." This is meant as a come-on.

Let's back up: The year is 1990 and our hero, Dr. Martine, doesn't seem to be missing civilization at all. He lives on Mandunji, an uncharted island somewhere in the Indian Ocean where, surprisingly, his background as a neurosurgeon has served him well. Settling in with the natives, he finds they "cure" their overly aggressive members with "Mandunga," a primitive form of lobotomy. Martine helps them improve the process, but it keeps him awake at night. He's not comfortable tampering with the "Siamese twins" of sexuality and aggression or the way the process tends to make virtual neuters out of those it's meant to help. He's even less comfortable with the way society plays loose with the notion of who needs Mandunga and who does not. Some are sent simply for smoking ganja, a crime Martine commits as well. A passage tracing the history of Mandunga portrays it as a systematic and, in its own way, quite successful attempt to breed aggression of out of society. Their island subjected to one violent conquest after another, the Mandunjians begin declaring anyone aggressive mad and shutting them down on a biological level.Madness is that which is not socially acceptable as defined by those in power.


I'm pretty sure Wolfe had not read Michel Foucault's Madness And Civilization, especially since Foucault wouldn't write it for another decade, but they no doubt would have had a lot to talk about. I couldn't find a lot of biographical details on Wolfe, but I do know he studied psychology at Yale and served in the Merchant Marines. Anyone might have guessed as much. Limbo is littered with references to psychology, military service, and attempts to make the latter irrelevant with the former. Martine will find the Mandunjians' need to weed out aggression writ large once he hits the mainland. He's drawn out of hiding by the unexpected arrival of a man named Brother Theo and a team of athletes all equipped with elaborate artificial limbs that allow them to perform spectacular feats impossible with mere human limbs.

Arriving home–and I'm skipping a lot here and there will be spoilers in what follows–Martine discovers that these amputees aren't unusual. In fact, many men now have artificial limbs. Some choose to stay without limbs at all and one's position in society is inversely proportional to the number of limbs one has. Less, in other words, is more. Or, in still other words, borrowed from the slogans on the Inland Strip's propaganda: "TWO LEGS SHORTER, A HEAD TALLER" and "PACIFISM MEANS PASSIVITY." And there it is. Turns out that prevailing philosophy on both sides of the former Iron Curtain now belongs to Immob, an organization that promotes peace through dis-armament. And dis-legement. An amputee, the thinking goes, will lose the instinct to strike. And a man who gives up his limbs voluntarily (a "Volamp," in the parlance of the day) Well that's a man truly committed to peace. That's a man to be lauded. (Just men? No women? Well, yeah, mostly. But we'll get to that in a moment.)


Also, the whole place is littered with references to how everyone must, "DODGE THE STEAMROLLER!" When Martine asks about this he's told little more than The Steamroller must be dodged. On other subjects he gets his fair share of talking and thinking done, however. Much of Limbo–let me go ahead and say too much of Limbo–is given over to long, Socratic dialogues laying out how Immob works, and why it makes sense. One convert goes on at length about "The Hyphen," the tissue that connects seemingly disparate ideas into a holistic unity. ("Poles are apart only in the old vocabulary. Immob supplies the Hyphen.") Martine also has the good fortune of stumbling into a lengthy lecture–captured in its entirety, of course–that catches him up on what he's missed. (Well, most of it anyway.) Then there's long passages relating it all to William James and pioneering cybernetics thinker Norbert Weiner, a particularly strong inspiration both for the book and the society it captures.

Also thrown in the mix: Dianetics, Freud, the death of Aristotelianism, Wilhelm Reich's Orgone energy, and, well, you name it. Limbo goes on and on and the non-dialogue sections tend to lapse into irritating, proto-Beat, be-bop inspired scat prose. On watching some Immob entertainment involving bumbling toy robots:

Immob was this too! A landscape of bleak solemnities punctuated with pratfalls both programmed and unprogrammed! A nation of unsmiling priests top-heavy with mission and frozen-mugged with dedication, stopping every so often, at every pratfall, to laugh at unholy glee at themselves and each other–at the symbols of their mission and the objects of their dedication. Here was ambivalence with a vengeance: a whole inspired people plunging the dagger of the horselaugh into the bowels of its inspiration.


Martine's mind is a pretty unpleasant mind to be in for 400 pages, too. (Again, more on that in a bit.) He's a sardonic hero who's never funny and whose wit depends on some awful puns. But every time I thought Limbo had lost me, Wolfe won me back, either through the central clever/ridiculous/audacious twist or through the sheer forcefulness of the novels ideas. That twist involves the secret source for all this madness about voluntary amputations and dodging the steamroller: It's Martine. The Inland Strip is run by Martine's old army companion Helder and Brother Theo, who, it turns out, is a former fighter pilot operated on by Martine shortly before he fled society in 1972. It was around this time that Martine started filling a notebook with black comedy philosophizing about how voluntary amputation might end war and allow humanity to dodge the steamroller of history, to become post-history. His cynical, borderline maniacal ravings have now become sacred text.

It's the cracked genius of this novel that this completely wild development actually makes sense. Maybe it's just that Wolfe goes on and on until it's impossible not to become engaged with ideas–unless you, you know, put the book down–but this book has a way of getting under your skin. Or at least under mine. It made me uneasy in a way that reading literature from perennial third-party presidential candidate Lyndon Larouche makes me uneasy. There's a lunatic persuasiveness to it. (What's that you say? Dick Cheney's the devil and functioning as a cat's paw for the British Royal Family? You know, I can see that.)


Not that Wolfe is a convert himself. Ultimately, this is a novel of dystopia. Immob ends up not working. Like Mandunga, it's just another attempt to suppress what it is to be human. Aggression and underground Realpolitik get in the way of its already dubious goals. But the novel is so thorough at seeing the project through to its logical end, with carefully articulated philosophical digressions at every step of the way, that it's weirdly infectious. And, intentionally or not, it makes the whole project of being human seem kind of ugly. That woman who attempts to seduce Martine ends up succeeding, if not in the way she set out to succeed. They make love, at her insistence, with her on top, like one would with an amputee. Martine finds the experience unsatisfying and rapes her, offering a half-hearted excuse that rape is usually in part due to "ambivalence" on the part of the raped. Yep, it's that ugly.

Maybe it's that scene alone that accounts for Limbo's general fade from popularity. Not that it was, best I can tell, a runaway bestseller at the time. Maybe it's the general attitude toward women. Maybe it's the punishing density. Maybe it's the fact that it reads like a great 250-page novel in search of an exacting editor. I don't know. But I do know that I haven't been able to get the book out of my head, even if I'm not going to join those calling it a lost masterpiece. (I went to a screening of Atonement the other night and during the war scenes found myself thinking that maybe some of the victims could end up as "amps" and then remembered that I wasn't in the world of the book anymore.)


There is one absolutely brilliant passage, however, and it comes in the "Author's Notes And Warnings" section at the end:

Anybody who "paints a picture" of some coming year is kidding–he's only fancying up something in the present or past, not blueprinting the future. All such writing is essentially satiric (today-centered), not utopic (tomorrow-centered). This book, then, is a rather bilious rib on 1950–on what 1950 might have been like if it had been allowed to fulfill itself, if it had gone on being 1950, only more and more so, for four more decades. But no year ever fulfills itself: The cowpath of History is littered with the corpses of years, their throats slit from ear to ear by the improbable.


I'll try too leave Limbo there along the cowpath of History, and happily move on to other books.

Next: The Shape Of Space, by Larry Niven


Then: Diamonds Are Forever, by Ian Fleming

Also: An update. I covered Moonraker a couple of entries back. I watched the movie a few nights ago. Holy crap is that a bad Bond emovie. I remember it being fun-bad but it's just boring-bad. It's got Ken Adam's wonderfully over-the-top production design work (his last for the series) going for it and that's about it.


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