Thursday, November 24, 2011

The Wayward Bus - John Steinbeck

 I read John Steinbeck's 1947 novel The Wayward Bus several months ago and absolutely loved it. But even though loving it I have found it difficult to write a review that does justice to such a remarkable novel. Now John Steinbeck should really need no introductions should he? After all he is quite possibly the greatest American writer of the 20th Century. Over a career that spanned 50 years he wrote three of America's most seminal novels which raked in a 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature in the process.

 Of course those three novels are the 1939 Pulitzer winning The Grapes of Wrath, 1952's East of Eden, and the 1937 novella Of Mice and Men. All three have been adapted to film with East of Eden starring James Dean. Unfortunately I haven't read anything else by Steinbeck so it is hard to gauge how good, or how well, this 350 page novel stacks up against his acknowledged masterworks. I believe it is considered one of his weaker works even though it was at the time financially more successful than any of his previous novels.

 Well for me it is pointless trying to gauge this against his other novels since I haven't read any of them. So I can only critique it as a stand alone novel. Well the first thing I can say is this. If this is considered a weaker Steinbeck novel I can't wait to read his better ones! Seriously this is a superb novel and I just haven't been able to stop thinking about it since I read it. What makes it so memorable? For me it is the characterisations and how incredibly vivid they are. Steinbeck wrote all the characters so believable that any reader can recognise at least some of them from their own lives. It is a short novel that takes place over the space of one day and involves a disparate group of people on a short bus trip between bus stops.

 But it isn't the trip that is the focus, it is the people themselves, their individuals lives and characters. There are nine protagonists of whom none dominates the narrative. The viewpoint shifts between them all and changes from external dialogue to internal monologue as the reader experiences each individuals thoughts. This is the novel's core as it establishes and delineates each character. The obscure bus stop and the bus trip are just a back drop and setting to the people. Not a lot actually happens in the novel as it is characterisations that its heart and how each is so different from the other which mirrors real life.

 What I like is just how vivid a picture of each character Steinbeck paints. He is such a great writer that as I read the novel I became so engrossed in it that everything else around me ceased to exist. It transported me into its 1947 setting and I quite literally felt as if I was there with these people. But Steinbeck goes a bit further because with his personal monologues the reader gets into each characters mind and how each views themselves, their situations, lives, and those around them. It is just as we ourselves do which is why I found this such a remarkable work. It is about humans and how individualistic we are all the whilst inter-acting with other humans around us.

 I won't take up your time in describing each character individually. But of the nine one was a particular stand out for me. Before that though I'll highlight what makes Steinbeck such a remarkable writer. In one scene the wife of the bus driver stays behind whilst her husband and passengers trundle off in the dilapidated old bus to the next stop. She does so with the express purpose of getting sozzled. And sozzled she does!! The remarkable thing is that Steinbeck's writing skills are so keen that the reader themselves feel as if it is themselves getting wasted and not a character in a novel. It is an incredible piece of writing and I marveled at how I quite literally felt myself getting more and more light headed just as the woman was! Suffice to say though she gets so inebriated that she falls over and passes out....and passes out of the novel completely. It was such a vivid scene that I pictured in my minds eye as if I actually there witnessing it. Just a superb piece of writing.

 The other characters are the woman's husband who is also co owner of the cafe and the bus driver, their hired help young guy with a dreadful case of acne, a waitress who quits after her mail is read by the cafe owner, a traveling salesman who has the Medal of Honour, a family of three traveling to Mexico for a holiday, and a local going back home. But the last is the most interesting character of them all. She is a young, curvy, stunning blonde woman who is the only character who remains un-named. Of them all she was also the most realised hence the most interesting ( to my mind at least ).

 What makes her so interesting is that her incredible looks are an actual curse. Other females feel threatened by her because she is so stunning and males just want to screw her. Steinbeck writes from inside her mind as she details her curse and how she has tried to combat it. Everything from wearing severe clothes to drab, to letting herself be ' kept ' be several rich men to keep other males away, to living alone or with another females. But what is so wonderful is her absolute ability to read men! She just knows which ones are going to instantly proposition her and the ones who try to be ' friends'  in the hope of scoring later. In one scene she knows what is about to be said by one guy as inside her mind she says ' Here it comes. ' And sure enough the guy starts hitting on her!

 I like this character because through her Steinbeck shows how humanity can be so judgmental to other people. This young woman is so outcast because of her looks she has trouble finding work with other females. As to men, well all they try to do is fuck her. So she is pushed into the world of stripping to make a living. It is a shame because as she says to herself she is an intelligent well read person, but all the world can see is what is on the outside and don't bother looking past it. She has become adept at keeping people and herself at arms length from them by spinning stories about herself, which again is a shame as the real person is resorting to deceptions. This character is the reason I haven't been able to stop thinking about The Wayward Bus since I read it in early August.  For some reason her vividness and individual plight struck a chord because it is so true. It speaks not only for a stunning looking female but of anyone who looks or may be perceived as  'different ' and how people react and treat them.

 I have not had a day go by that I haven't thought of this novel. It is incredible to think that is is considered a ' weak ' novel because it is just so vividly realised. It may be a novel but John Steinbeck brings each character to life in a way no other author I have read has ever done. Each one is similar in one way or another to someone we know. Seriously read this novel! It isn't a difficult read but still a genuine piece of literature that both satisfies with its prose and its subject matter. All I can say in conclusion is this. If this is a weaker Steinbeck novel then I can't wait until I read his greater works...The Grapes of Wrath here I come!!

 In a word.....BRILLIANT.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Day Of The Triffids - John Wyndam

Cover of the first hardback edition.
 It is funny how things in life transpire isn't it?? I had no longer finished John Wyndam's classic 1951 sci-fi-horror The Day of the Triffids than the 2010 BBC mini-series re-played on telly!! This was quite cool because I got to watch that, then afterwards 1981 Bond film For Your Eyes Only. So it was quite a good night in front of the box! I won't bother with novel/series comparisons. Suffice to say there are differences, but overall it kept the essence of the novel quite well.

  I first read The Day of the Triffids way back in 1987 as a 17 year old in my last year of high school. For some reason I had a class where I had to read enough books that would equate to reading 1000km of words if they were laid out ( all within the space of six weeks ). Well I breezed that because I read Leon Uris' Exodus which took a great chunk out of the 1000km! I then turned my attention to John Wyndham's classic novel, of which I had wanted to read for some time.

 Suffice to say I've read it several times since. The last time must have been almost 15 years. So several weeks ago I decided to re-visit this novel and see if my initial impressions of it still stood. I'm sure all of you have read novels many years ago that you have re-read and found them to be different than from the first time round. Time, age, wisdom etc changes things and many novels I didn't like, or understand when younger, are now my first choice of reading material. Heaven forbid I remember the groans at school when we had to read Shakespeare and yet now I love reading the Bard!

 The Day of the Triffids is a novel that has always frustrated me. In 1987 I loved the first half of it but felt the second rather flat. That is the way it appeared to me in each of my subsequent readings as well. And after my lasted delve into it I still find it a novel that frustrates me. As I always do before writing a review I undertook some web searching on the novel. What I found was that many reviews elsewhere, from both professional and non-professional critics alik,e also comment on the novels unsatisfying second half and ambiguous ending.

 So what is it about? The Day of the Triffids is a 1951 post-apocalyptic novel written by English science fiction author John Wyndam Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris, more commonly known under his pen name John Wyndam ( thank goodness! ). He wrote numerous novels and short stories, but this is his best known work. The novel is about ' Triffids ', tall aggressive plants with intelligent behaviour that can move about on three legs. They can communicate with each other and have a deadly whip like poisonous sting that enables them to kill and fed on their prey. The novels main protagonist is Bill Masen who has worked with the Triffids ( their oils are superior to conventional vegetable oils and they are cultivated all over the world ). With his background he develops a theory that they were bio-engineered in the USSR and then accidentally released when a plane smuggling their seeds was shot down.

 The novel opens with Masen in hospital with his eyes bandaged up after Triffid venom was splashed in them. As he convalesces a meteor shower occurs which blinds all who witnessed it ( later on in the novel he theorises that it was a orbiting weapons system that caused the meteor shower after it mal-functioned ). After waking up. and finding a quiet hospital. he unbadages his eyes and finds London's population almost entirely blinded and civilisation collapsing. On the way he meets a sighted novelist Josella Playton who he rescues from a violent blind man who is forcing her to help him. From there the two encounter various groups with differing agendas. Some want to pair up the seeing with the blind and start re-populating the planet through monogamous sex. Whilst others want to abandon the blind to their fate and start colonies of the seeing alone. 

 During this the two are separated and Madsen spends his time trying to find Josella. He manages to with the help of a seeing girl called Susan. The three then go off on their own and establish a self sufficient farm for themselves with reasonable success. But as the Triffids grow more numerous it becomes harder to keep them out. Finally their hand is forced when a group of despotic soldiers appear who represent a new government which wants to establish feudal like enclaves across the country. The three escape with a former faction leader to a successfully established colony on the Isle of Wight. Wyndam ambiguously winds up the novel with the three joining the new colony determined to find a way to destroy the Triffids and reclaim the earth.

 Overall The Day of the Triffids is a very good post apocalyptic sci-fi novel. But it owes a debt to H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds as Wyndam freely acknowledges. But then again it has influenced other sci-fi ventures itself. The opening hospital scene in the film 28 Days Later is very much inspired by that of The Day of the Triffids. The novel also contains what became common Wyndam trademarks. This was his use of the Soviet Union as an opaque, inscrutable menace. Throughout his writings he went to great lengths in not explicitly detailing the origin of the threat faced by the protagonists. In other words it was obviously Soviet Union in origin but he doesn't state so explicitly, the reader need do no more than read betwwen the lines. Remember 1951 was the era of the era of the Cold War and the Soviet Union ( and communism ) were seen as real world wide threats.

 Wyndam's other themes include the dissection of human nature, and male and female gender roles. And as post a apocalyptic novel he focuses on issues of self sufficiency, which faces the survivors of the catastrophe. He clearly points out that living off scavenged tin food is not a viable survival strategy. He then goes even further along with this scavenger theme in that over time humanity would have to build and develop the capacity to make and grow what they need all over again.

 I have stated that I found the second part of the novel unsatisfying. It is up to a point. But what I mean is that Wyndam superbly shows what post-apocalyptic humanity would face just to survive. He shows how humanity breaks down in lawlessness and how we are tied to super markets etc to live. One of my favorite scenes from the second part of the novel is where Madsen is driving through a deserted London and the buildings, roads etc showing signs of decay and neglect. The sound of his engine and the rumble of the tyres makes several pieces of masonry to fall of buildings. It is an eerie scene and one which vividly shows Wyndam's vision of a post human world.

 The problem for me, and many others, is that whilst this is all good and well the Triffids are glaringly obvious for their absence. Wyndam starts the novel out as a sci-fi end of humanity novel and then goes into the world of the survivors. But what about the Triffids?? The novel loses track half way through and the cause of it all is pushed aside so that Wyndam can hold discourses on human nature. To be sure it is a post apocalyptic novel, and what humanity would be like as a central issue, but he needed to keep the Triffids to the fore as well. And this is why the second part of the novel is criticised by many.

 The Day of the Triffids then it is fair to say is a somewhat flawed novel. Its major failing is that it is two halves of which don't quite marry to one another. The first part is the end of humanity and the rise of the Triffids, and the second about how the survivors lived on. The problem is that the Triffids are all but absent when in all reality they should still have been a more visible and constant threat. But this is my only criticism, because otherwise the novel is a chilling look at post-apocalyptic life, and how the schisms in humanity would appear without law and order.

 So from a criticism to praise. I especially like the novel for its original sci-fi use of something else but aliens and spaceships! All too often the term ' sci-fi ' connotates just those two things. And yet it shouldn't be so, because what The Day of the Triffids shows is that sci-fi can include such an innocuous thing as a plant being the end of civilization.

 I do like this novel even though it frustrates me for its unsatisfying, ambiguous conclusion. After a great start it tails off somewhat and the sci-fi element is replaced by a somewhat philosophical look at humanity after a catastrophe. Both halves of the novel are excellent in themselves. It is just that they somehow don't fit together. It is as if two separate, unrelated books, had been ripped apart and then joined together. And to me this is how the novel feels, one of two halves, which doesn't work for me. But flaws aside The Day of the Triffids is an original sci-fi novel that is worth reading all the same.

 Amazon has this with 4.5/5 stars from 129 reviews. I'd agree with that ( even though it frustrates me as a novel ) simply because it is convincing, chilling and quite original.

 Click here for a fine essay on the novel:

 And here more some interesting stuff: