There was a big, pushy marketing drive towards dystopian fiction around the time that Trump was elected, and though I’d consumed most of the big hitters a long, long time ago, I realised then that I’d never read Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, which is pretty highly regarded. I bought a copy, but as happens with most books I buy, it got forgotten at the bottom of a pile (and then a box) for 18 months.
Recently, I transferred said book to my backpack when I decided, after my month of poetry, that I should try and read some easyish prose fiction again to remind myself of my first literary love. I read and was disappointed by Kingsley Amis’ Bond novel, after having read and been disappointed by Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood and a short story collection by M. John Harrison. Maybe, I began to worry, prose fiction isn’t for me any more!?
As I dug into Fahrenheit 451 I feared that genuinely might be the case, as I found this dully familiar novel underwhelming during pretty much every sentence of its first half. However, when protagonist Guy Montag truly flips and begins kicking against the dystopian system with real oomph, the novel leaps off the page. Bradbury, alas, isn’t a great writer, is a particularly unimpressive world-builder (which probably explains why I’d never heard of *a single one* of the many many many books in the “also by” section at the start of the book), but what he’s actually great at – other than guessing technological advancements – is writing truly exciting, thrilling, prose.
You don’t have to be a great writer to write a great thriller, and when Fahrenheit 451 stops being cod intellectualism and instead becomes a “man on the run” romp, it bursts outwards like an aerosol in a bonfire and sings like a [full] old-school kettle in a bonfire. Bradbury may not write well, but when he starts telling a story instead of creating a world, he does a fucking cracking job.
I didn’t really know what this was about, other than the origin of the title: 451 degrees Fahrenheit is the temperature, according to the futureworld, where the paper of books catch fire and burn. This translates – for people who aren’t syphilitic brexiteers or Americans – to 233°C, which sounds both too hot and not hot enough to burn paper. I don’t know very much about fire or the physics of paper, but I do know what temperature water boils at and I know that is hot enough to hurt if you get it on your skin. I think this fact is made up. I also think it’s fucking disgraceful that contemporary editions of the novel don’t translate that temperature into a unit that people who aren’t British empire apologists or Americans can understand. But, hey, that’s what Google is for and how I was able to quantify that figure.
Anyway, so, I went into 233°C (which is how I will be referring to the book for [most of] the rest of this blog) pretty much blind. Blind, but literate. I knew it was about bookburning in a creepy dystopia, but that was it. The main character is a guy called Guy Montag who works as a fireman: one of the people who burns books. He arrives home one night to find his wife has attempted suicide and then the next day – after he calls for an ambulance and her stomach is pumped by workmanlike men who casually comment that this “happens all the time” – she refuses to discuss the incident. A bit shaken, Guy then goes into work, they heads out to burn a house of books and he becomes entranced by a book and slips it in his pocket, and then the owner of the house refuses to leave and burns with her library.
Oh, yeah, there will be spoilers.
Guy then takes the book home, is unable to leave his bed the next day, his boss comes over, then he confesses to his wife that he has a book, then he meets another guy who likes books – called Faber, like the fucking publisher – then he tells his wife that he actually has LOADS of books (I’m maybe getting the order confused here), he goes back to work with Faber communicating to him via what is basically an in-ear bluetooth headset, his boss then quotes like loads and loads of literature at him, then they rush out on a call to burn books and it is Guy’s house and his wife dobbed him in and then, rather than burn all his books, Guy turns his flamethrower on his boss and kills him, beats to death (I think, this is vague) two other firemen, goes on a mad citywide chase, ends up in the river, then wades south until he meets a group of people who each like memorise different books as part of a plan to keep literature alive until normalcy is restored and books can be legally produced again. Safe in the forest, they watch the city Guy has just escaped get totally bombed to shit and they all are happy. That’s the end.
Bradbury predicts ease of telecommunication (tho it is still “experimental tech” in this alternative future) and he guesses the mass anaesthetic use of television (“‘television is the opium of the masses’, ‘no, marijuana is the opium of the masses'” – don’t remember what I’m misquoting there), but he fails to even come close to imagining the realities of the surveillance state. There is no CCTV, there is no digital footprint, there is no DNA database. Guy is able to escape his pursuers because the river and a change of clothes change his scent sufficiently to outwit the robot attack dogs (lol, cute) that are sent after him. This dystopia is very much the imaginings of the future from a pre-digital age, and though Bradbury does go some way towards imagining the massive changes technology will do, he doesn’t quite get brave enough. Orwell and Huxley, tbh, predicted futures that feel far more believable than this one.
Additionally, there are massive potholes: the captain of the firemen is clearly an avid reader and lover of literature, so why is he not an ally? And how could he be such an dogmatic villain if he hated all the dogma? The start of the book very much portrays Guy’s book theft as his first time, however it quickly becomes apparent that he has stolen many, many, books before. There is no catalyst explored well enough to convey a significance sufficient to cause the changes within Guy that clearly happen. It also makes absolutely zero fucking sense that literacy hasn’t been stamped out when books are. It is much easier to not teach numerous generations how to read than to destroy all evidence of the written word, and to me this is where 233°C falls down. The world is badly described and the bits of it that work well, literarily, bash against other ideas that are flimsier than I’m expecting the paper of my debut poetry collection to be. HOWEVER, Bradbury may sketch out a messy landscape, but all of this is just the preamble to a thrilling, exciting, high stakes race against time. From the moment Guy and the other firemen arrive at his house, through until the end, this is an exciting and engaging book, and as soon as Bradbury stops TRYING to make up an entire society, the reader forgets how bad he is at that and is able, instead, to read a thrilling, exciting pop-y sci-fi adventure. When Bradbury tries to be clever, he drops the fucking ball, when he gives up and tries to spin a yarn, he drops the fucking bomb.
A cracking adventure set in a badly drawn world.
Just, seriously: what kind of book-hating dictator still lets his people learn how to read???
I’ll end with a quotation from Fahrenheit 451 (i.e. 233°C) that spoke, for me, a truth:
I knew it would happen! I’ve always said, poetry and tears, poetry and suicide and awful feelings, poetry and sickness: all that mush!
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