Weep for the billboards: Fahrenheit 451

Recently I started to believe in a higher power after years of staunch naturalistic atheism.

Now when I say “higher power” I don’t necessarily mean God, but it has become undeniably clear to me that there is some sort of protective spirit, some guiding force at work in the cosmos. The revelation came to me when I was looking through a massive stash of epubs I torrented a few months back my local bookshop and spotted Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. It’s a book I had known about from its reputation for years, and several times when I had some spare cash or a book voucher I almost bought it. I’m a big dystopia fan, and it’s about, like, censorship and crap. Censorship is bad! Sounds like my kind of thing.

But something always stopped me. A few times I even got as far as the check out desk before thinking “Mmmm……nah” and turning back. It was almost like some sort of invisible force guiding my hand, subtly influencing me to return the book to its shelf.

Having read Fahrenheit 451 in its entirety, I now realize that this could only have been a guardian angel attempting to protect my sanity. I ignored its warnings, and for my foolish hubris I have paid a dear price indeed.

Guy Montag is a fireman in a near-future (from the perspective of 1956) society. Since all houses are now fireproof what this job actually involves is burning books, five days a week, 52 weeks a year. A society with an entire profession devoted entirely to torching novels must be pretty fucked up, right? There must be some kind of well thought out political landscape underpinning this bleak near-future society, right?

Right?

Anyway, Guy is pretty damn happy with his life. Burning books all day is fulfilling and rewarding, truly the job he was born to do. One day while walking home with a spring in his step and the smell of burning cellulose warming his heart he comes across a 16 year old Manic Pixie Dream Girl named Clarisse. They talk for five minutes, at which point the scales instantly fall from his eyes and he awakens to the horror of the bleak dystopian nightmare that American has become. This happens on page 7.

Because this is the internet and sarcasm is hard to convey in text I should point out here that I knew Fahrenheit 451 isn’t actually about censorship before I started reading it; that’s a common misconception, possibly stemming from the fact that some people had to read this in high school (God help those people). But I didn’t really know what the book was actually about going in. I didn’t have to wait long to find out though, because Ray Bradbury wants to make sure you get the message right from the very first paragraph, and that message is:

 Why is she holding the book upside down?

See, Clarisse isn’t like the depressed, mindless peons trundling through life listening to music on headphones (evil headphones) and never communicating honestly with their fellow people. No, she- or rather her uncle, who she seems to worship in a creepily patriarchal way- still remembers when families sat around a merry fireplace in the evening instead of sitting alone with their giant wall-to-wall televisions. She goes for long walks and picks flowers and tastes the rain oh isn’t she a special snowflake.

The opening section of this book basically consists of Guy slowly awakening to the Grim Darkness of the 21st century inter-cut with frequent conversations with Clarisse which flit randomly from topic to topic so Bradbury can get his spleen good and vented about all of the horrors of modern life. Literally her only purpose in the story is to go on and on and on and on about all of the ways that Nu America sucks compared to America Classic. Well, that and being put on a pedestal high enough to reach near-Earth orbit. Here’s Guy describing her minutes after meeting her:

Her face, turned to him now, was fragile milk crystal with a soft and constant light in it. It was not the hysterical light of electricity but-what? But the strangely comfortable and rare and gently flattering light of the candle. One time, when he was a child, in a power-failure, his mother had found and lit a last candle and there had been a brief hour of rediscovery, of such illumination that space lost its vast dimensions and drew comfortably around them, and they, mother and son, alone, transformed, hoping that the power might not come on again too soon ….

And so on, several times throughout the first 20 pages. This also serves as an example of how overblown Bradbury’s prose is at times.

The conversations she has with Guy are literally incoherent, jumping randomly to whatever topic Bradbury was thinking about at the time. This leads to the book’s most astonishingly idiotic moment, when Clarisse laments the growth of billboard size:

“Did you know that once billboards were only twenty feet long?
But cars started rushing by so quickly they had to stretch the advertising out so it
would last.”

This somehow failed to drive me to rage against the tyranny of new media.

More of the things Ray Bradbury doesn’t like/regrets the loss of/thinks there should be more of:

“Oh, just my mother and father and uncle sitting around, talking. It’s like being a
pedestrian, only rarer. My uncle was arrested another time-did I tell you?-for being a
pedestrian. Oh, we’re most peculiar.”

Oh aren’t we just such special snowflakes?

I’ve got news for you here: this down-home folksy lifestyle can be just as suffocating and dispiriting as alienation and social isolation. If you read between the lines Clarrise appears to be mentally under the thumb of a dominating patriarchal figure (every single one of her opinions seems to come from her uncle, with no indication that she’s capable of, or permitted to, think for herself) which really doesn’t paint as rosy a picture of her upbringing and home life as I think Bradbury intended.

Oh, speaking of which:

My uncle says his grandfather remembered when children didn’t kill each other. But that was a long time ago when they had things different. They believed in responsibility, my uncle says. Do you know, I’m responsible. I was spanked when I needed it, years ago. And I do all the shopping and house-cleaning by hand.

Kids these days, am I right? With their guns and their rap music. Obviously bringing back corporal punishment will fix everything because uuuuhhhhhhhhhh. If this is how Bradbury saw things in 1953 God knows what he was like before he died in June.

(I’m not even going to start on the “shopping and house-cleaning by hand” bollocks).

And in her ears the little Seashells, the thimble radios tamped tight, and an electronic ocean of sound, of music and talk and music and talk coming in, coming in on the shore of her unsleeping mind. The room was indeed empty. Every night the waves came in and bore her off on their great tides of sound, floating her, wide-eyed, toward morning.

There had been no night in the last two years that Mildred had not swum that sea, had not gladly gone down in it for the third time.

You thought I was joking about the evil headphones, didn’t you?

“I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers, because they never
see them slowly,” she said. “If you showed a driver a green blur, Oh yes! he’d say,
that’s grass! A pink blur? That’s a rose-garden! White blurs are houses. Brown blurs
are cows. My uncle drove slowly on a highway once. He drove forty miles an hour
and they jailed him for two days. Isn’t that funny, and sad, too?”

NO IT ISN’T NO ONE FUCKING CARES

This eventually leads to the part that irked me the most, when Bradbury hobbles up out of his rocking chair to take a few incoherent swipes at medical technology. Guy comes home to find that his emotionally estranged wife has overdosed on pills, which apparently happens all the time because of how stifling and depressing the technological wonderland they live in is. Calling 911 summons two workmanlike EMTs who fix her up with a set of portable, easy to use machines that pump her stomach and perform a complete course of dialysis on her blood with no need for a hospital or any medical backup (think of how many lives this technology would save if it existed in real life). This is how Guy responds to the whole thing:

Nobody knows anyone. Strangers come and violate you. Strangers come and cut
your heart out. Strangers come and take your blood. Good God, who were those
men? I never saw them before in my life!

Yeah, never mind that they just saved your wife from a fucking overdose, it’s such a shame that your good old family doctor has been replaced by miraculous wonder-technology.

If I may be allowed to go off on my own author filibuster for a moment: the past sucked. No really, it did. The rise of “Idiocracy” in western nations is an idea I would have sympathy with, and maybe you could make an argument that we had more of a community spirit and a more harmonious lifestyle (people who could afford to have one, at least) 50 or 60 years ago, but you know what we also had? Polio. And the Cold War. And rampant institutionalized sexism. And rampant institutionalized racism (segregation was still legal in many parts of America when this book was published). And colonialism. And pretty much non-existent concepts of homosexuality as a legitimate sexual identity compared to what we have today. The golden age Bradbury is gnashing his teeth over losing- and keep in mind at one point a character explicitly identifies the Civil War, not Bradbury’s own time, as the beginning of the decline in American society- was a time when it was socially acceptable or even virtuous for people to treat each other like shit as long as it was the right combination of people in the abuser/victim position (by which I mean primarily white, straight adult men /everyone else). Obviously we still have that problem, but most people will at least pretend to recognize that it is a problem instead of treating it as just How Things Are, or actively resisting change. So fuck yes Bradbury, I’ll take that over your cheery domestic patriarchy, you crotchety little shit.

This first section of the book shoots the entire narrative in the foot. Partially because by the time I had reached the 30 page mark I was already thoroughly sick of Bradbury’s preaching- and that would have been true even if every one of his opinions wasn’t either inane or reprehensible- and partially because the universe he establishes is such a goofy caricature it’s impossible to take seriously. At one point Clarisse tells Guy her friends are routinely killed in car crashes and gun crimes; no one seems to think this is a problem or appears to even notice it all that much. A future where intellectual curiosity has been stifled and withered is one thing, but asking me to believe in a stable, peaceful society in which the violent death of teenagers isn’t an issue is just a non-starter.

Eventually Clarisse gets run over by a car (put on a pedestal and then stuffed into the fridge) and the book mercifully enters the next stage of its plot, wherein Bradbury’s beefs against society cohere in one very specific direction:

funny_picdump_226_640_high_011

THE TELEVISIONS ARE STEALING OUR BRAINS TO THE BARRICADES MY BROTHERS

I haven’t read any commentary or literary criticism on this book because fuck that, but I suspect English professors and Bradbury fans will claim that books and their displacement by TV is supposed to serve as a short-hand for the general loss of intellectual curiosity and all the other bullshit I just spent 1700 words going on about above. I don’t buy that. Partially this is due to just how heavily the novel focuses on it over any of the arguably more important issues with Guy Montag’s world (what about all of those dead teenagers?). The burning of books is the only aspect that gets any significant explanation or historical grounding, in an extremely long speech by Guy’s boss that I’ll spare you by not quoting, where in minorities are partially implicated for the downfall of literature and zippers are blamed for shortening people’s attention spans (no, really).

There’s also the matter of A Pleasure to Burn, a series of short stories that includes some early Fahrenheit 451 prototypes and vaguely connected spin-off material. The idea of books being shunned as a medium and particularly of authors being forgotten by the ignorant masses is repeated throughout the collection, even in stories with no Fahrenheit connection. This is clearly an idea that exercised Bradbury mightily, possibly to the point of obsession. The whole “famous authors being left by the wayside” in particular angle casts Bradbury’s complaints about TV and new media as less of a rallying cry against the death of literature and more of a narcissistic fit of jealousy over the (mostly imagined) decline in popularity of his chosen creative medium.

Anyway eventually Guy Montag becomes bibliophile Jesus and starts sticking it to the government by preaching the word of Harper and Collins to the dim-witted masses. When this doesn’t work he goes in search of a quasi-resistance movement while trying to stay one step ahead of the authorities. It’s essentially the story of a man awakening to the true nature of reality and struggling to build his own psychological identity under the prying nose of an autocratic government. Basically the standard dystopian story format, found in such timeless classic works of English literature as George Orwell’s 1984 and Christian Bale’s Equilibrium.

equilibrium_21

Truly they are equally works of art

Sometimes it even approaches the realm of the interesting, such as Guy’s run-ins with a robotic dog that manage to be appropriately creepy and sinister. But mostly it’s just painfully dull and uninteresting. There’s an attempt to spice things up by implying that the return of reading will somehow save society from a vaguely sketched out impending war (because that’s worked so well before) but it can’t resolve the book’s crippling pacing issues, mostly because Bradbury can’t just shut the fuck up and let the story exist on its own terms.

I firmly believe that a good enough writer can make anything interesting, even gripping. You could make a story about someone trying to ban chocolate and it could be the most fascinating thing in the world (someone has actually done this, although I haven’t seen it). The key is that the story itself has to be able to convince the reader or viewer that the subject matter is important, not the author hijacking the narrative every other paragraph. I don’t care what it is you’re arguing for, that will always make me want to stop listening.

What amazes me about Fahrenheit 451 isn’t that it’s so universally acclaimed, but that it’s so beloved by geeks and nerds. Go onto any internet community in which average beard length stretches below the chin  and you’ll find “list your favourite book” threads routinely ranking Fahrenheit 451 in the top three. These are the same people who usually fancy themselves progressive and forward thinking and who certainly love the shit out of their new media, so why they find this pile of lukewarm tripe so appealing is beyond me. Or maybe it isn’t, given what most internet nerds are like.

I hated this book. Dear god did I hate it. Probably more than is strictly fair if I’m being honest, but it pushed several of my personal nuclear-meltdown buttons (in case that wasn’t obvious enough).

For some bonus reading, see Requires Only That You Hate‘s post on why getting kids to read is not necessarily a worthy endeavor, a post whose relevance to the subject material I probably don’t have to explain.

14 thoughts on “Weep for the billboards: Fahrenheit 451

  1. Jamie Tadlock

    I had a copy of this book that came with an afterword which, I believe, was excluded from most versions. It’s basically an insane rant where Bradbury talks about how much he hates headphones and “censorship” in the form of racial minorities and women wanting representation.

    Reply
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  3. Alasdair Murray

    I read Fahrenheit 451 for the first time last year, and while it’s got some fun stuff in it, I was struck by how it is very much a novel of its time. Everything about it, from the pulpy sci-fi style that makes no effort to be good writing, to the fear of technological change and nuclear war and longing for the ‘good old days’, screams ‘1950s America!’. The setting, with its nuclear families living in happy suburban homes while delinquent teenagers roam the roads, also perfectly illustrates the concerns of the time. Never have I read a novel that felt more like a time capsule.

    Bradbury was obviously a conservative and a technophobe, and made little secret of either. Fahrenheit 451 is one of his most hyperbolic stories, which ultimately suggests that television and political correctness will cause American civilisation to collapse and the Commies to win the Cold War. Briefer, but equally charming in its silliness, is ‘The Murderer’, which you can read here: http://www.proza.ru/2004/09/23-46 Though I do have to give Bradbury some credit for predicting the inanity of Facebook and Twitter…

    Reply
  4. the twisted spinster

    I could never stand Bradbury and have so far made it through life never having read this book, though unfortunately I have read some other of his stories, mostly in a futile search for the supposed “science fiction genius” they were supposed to contain. There was more “sense of wonder” in a single episode of Lost In Space than there was in the whole of the Martian Chronicles.

    Reply
  5. Linden

    As I’ve matured as a reader, I’ve acquired mixed feelings about Bradbury’s work. As a girl, I loved “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and “Dandelion Wine,” but as an adult, I realized these stories are so boy-centric that they don’t just ignore girls, they are actively anti-girl. Bradbury just can’t write women or girls, and for someone supposedly so imaginative to not be able to get into the head of anyone from the other half of the human race is a big fail (one he shares with most other SF authors, unfortunately).

    I didn’t enjoy “Fahrenheit 451″ either, and on a recent re-read of “The Martian Chronicles,” I found that it just didn’t hold up anymore. There’s been better stuff written since. But I still have to hand it to a guy who was able to generate so much writing output, and for his time he was a standout. Time has moved on, however.

    Reply
  6. ASG

    Oh man, I’ve been wanting to write exactly this rant for MONTHS now; thanks for doing it so I don’t have to.

    Weirdly, the thing that bothered me the most about F451 — even more than the breathless misogyny (the book passes Bechdel only because Bradbury was in such a hurry to prove that women are capable only of stupid conversations about TV) and the abhorrent politics — was the shitty blocking in that “climactic” scene with Montag’s boss. The boss is standing there speechifying for like twelve pages while the rest of the firemen in the platoon are standing absolutely silently nearby. It seems for all the world like Bradbury himself had forgotten about them, until they finally say something like “Let’s go” after the murder. It was just so amateurish; I kept imagining these poor unpaid extras, whose entire purpose was to stand there and watch the walls of text scroll by.

    Like you, I have a lot of suspicions about why this extremely clumsy piece of writing has come down as a “classic”, but perhaps this comment is long enough already. Anyway, thanks for writing out everything I was thinking. Do Brave New World next! It is almost as horrible/hilarious in almost exactly the same ways.

    Reply
    1. ronanwills Post author

      Funnily enough I have exactly the same “keep meaning to buy but then never quite get around to” status with Brave New World as I did with Fahrenheit 451 for a long time..

      Reply
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  8. MG

    I don’t think most of the people who list Fahrenheit 451 among their favorite books have actually read it, they’re just making the “Ray Bradbury = Genre Author Who Is Mainstream Popular and Thus Legitimate” connection

    Reply
  9. Robert Nielsen

    I really liked Fahenheit 415 when I first read it (well listened to it on audiobook which I suppose defeated the purpose). But you post has made me rethink it. It actually is a bit daft isn’t it? I’ll admit I was a bit uneasy listening to some commentary by the author that was added to the end of the version I got. He essentially blamed minorities (particularly the Irish which I didn’t like at all) and said that censoring books that offended ethnic groups would inevitably lead to his dystopia.

    Reply
  10. Rose (@composerose)

    Even when I read it in high school, I wanted to like Fahrenheit 451 (because I probably thought I “should”) but wasn’t that enthused with it? Mostly that it was boring and overly-simplistic, I suppose. One of the other books on our “banned books” reading list – Brave New World – was one I couldn’t read for the project because I’d already read it, and all I could think about was how Huxley’s book was so much better. (Granted, BNW has some condemnation of new media and technology as one of its major themes, too, but in a way that I, at least, thought was more sophisticated and thoughtful than in Fahrenheit 451.)

    I really think a lot of the reason so many people love or want to love this book is because they’re under the impression that it IS about censorship. But as you make clear, it’s not, and I think a lot of these same people, if they realized the real point of it, would see just how fucked-up it is. (Though I kind of wonder how they don’t, when it’s ALL OVER that book, unless they’re 15 and still convinced what their shitty English teachers say about literature matters more than their own impressions.)

    Reply
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