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Friday, January 20, 2012


First sentences: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

A squat grey building of only thirty-four storeys.

So we see our first glimpse of Huxley's dystopian future, through a voice that simultaneously mimics and rises above the indoctrinated habits of its characters.

Most obvious is the mimicry: thirty-four storeys merits an 'only'? The image is at once visual and conceptual, pulling us with delicate uncertainty between the two. Is it called 'squat' because the narrative voice, or at least the characters it invokes, judges entirely on its lack of floors - that is, does the building look like a contemporary skyscraper? (Brave New World was first published in 1932; New York had been able to boast of the Chrysler and Empire State Buildings for a couple of decades, making them a feature of life well placed to occupy speculative fiction: new enough to be notable, old enough to be familiar to everyone.) Or is it thirty-four storeys high and still squat judged by contemporary proportions? The former invokes a city of mountainous needles reaching into the sky; the latter a city with buildings of gargantuan size - and in both cases, a rather sterile and ugly place where the buildings are grey and unattractive. Either is an environment calculated to daunt even the most forward-looking reader: overbearingly urban, utterly out of human scale ... and yet populated by people who can be expected to shrug off this mammoth edifice as nothing much.

We are, in other words, in a world that is both hostile and filled with citizens who see no hostility therein. The essence of Brave New World is to present a world soullessly mechanised, filled with inhabitants who are ruthlessly institutionalised: brain-damage to foetuses who might otherwise be bored at the menial jobs they are destined for, communal raising and hypnotic sex education designed to break down the possibility of intimacy or passion, consumerism and shallowness the ultimate virtues ... all streamlined along with a program of conditioning to make this a world of blissful contentment for its victims. The inhabitants of this new world do not ask - do not even question - what has been done to them. But the state does not even do this in secret; it happily acknowledges it and boasts of its success. So complete is the indoctrination that almost nobody thinks twice about the implications of the system; they're told straight out that they've been engineered for contented submission from their test-tube conceptions, and they don't think anything much of it. This cheerful horror is at the centre of the novel, and this first sentence begins to establish the central tone: we see through eyes that do not perceive the magnitude of what is before them. They can see what's there, but they don't think it's anything remarkable.

At the same time, the narrative voice has a certain distance from this viewpoint - has to, if it's going to notice and point out the features of the world that will be important to readers. It's notable that the sentence is impersonal: no pronouns, no names, no character to see things for us. Like the consumerist society it introduces, it's entirely preoccupied with the material. This narrative voice is detached, impersonal, not even bothering to qualify 'A squat grey building...' with 'They approached a squat grey building' or 'There was a squat grey building.' The building is presented to us deadpan, almost shorthand. Like the inhabitants of this world, we are thrown in with a fait accompli: the narrative voice will point things out to us, but will not describe, explain, or analyse. Dispute will come, but from fallible humans: for the narrative voice - it's hardly human enough to call a narrator - there is nothing to be said. The world now is how it is; it won't change, it doesn't trouble to hide its mechanisms, and its magnitude is such that it renders the narrative almost speechless. Only the title, with its ironic nod to Shakespeare, offers a quiet cry of fury: the rest is silence.

At the same time, this is not a chastened narrative voice: no narration that clips its clauses with the brisk authority of this first sentence can be. Rather, it moves in and out of mimicry with a confidence we can already see in this opening: 'A squat grey building' is crisply authoritative and definitely written rather than spoken in tone; the mimicking 'only' takes place after the voice has established its willingness to invoke and dispense with phrases with smart dispatch.

The effect is of a narrative voice that may be deadpan, but is also highly flexible: it can shift in and out of the characters' perceptions as it sees fit. In effect, 'squat' and 'only' have invisible quotation marks around them: this is not a deceived voice. (The fact that it thinks to call our attention to the building's dimensions at all indicates that it knows what we'll find surprising here.) I have said that the voice doesn't analyse, but this isn't exactly true: later on, characters will analyse the functioning of society and the narrative voice will, rather than correcting or usurping their analyses, expand upon them. The Controller takes us on a tour in the opening chapter, explaining how this society works, and the narrative voice will repeat and enlarge upon his themes; Helmholtz Watson remarks that he's been experimenting with celibacy in the hopes of improving his poetry and the narrative remarks that introspection can lead to asceticism just as, in the case of Bernard Marx, sexual frustration leads to introspection ... but in all cases, the narrative voice isn't analysing the characters from outside. Instead, it is merely riffing upon themes that they introduce, putting things more clearly than they can put things themselves. The narrative voice doesn't so much analyse the characters as follow their lead: whatever abstract idea they suggest, it will rephrase at greater length by way of furthering our understanding, with no suggestion at all that it might agree or disagree with the idea itself. The characters are not companions to us; they are elements of a scientific experiment, and the narrative voice reports their findings without editorial bias. It happens at greater length throughout the book, but with the simple 'squat' and 'only', it begins here.

A character who says something obviously out of kilter with modern perceptions is a fairly common device, and often a comic one. On that level, the method of Huxley's first sentence is pretty straightforward. What makes it more than a hoary old trick is the fact that the narrative voice is simultaneously out of kilter ... and omniscient. For all the polemic fervour of the novel, its speaking voice slides in and out of irony without comment, seeing all and adding nothing. By its very refusal to criticise, the narrative forces us to be what the happy citizens of this brave new world are not: critical observers.

I know you're only looking at first sentences, but in this case I'm tempted to take the first two together, especially as they form a short paragraph, and as they are of a kind. They're both simple noun phrases and they read like a stage setting at the opening of a play.

That seems to me to suggest that we're to understand the novel (at least at the point where we begin it) as something of an entertainment--"don't take it seriously; this is just a play." That is, "this is not truly the future; it is a presentation of what a future might be." (Of course, any novel about the future will necessarily be precisely that, but when a novel imitates a play, I think something else is going on. There is something about plays that puts the artificiality front and center.)

I'm not sure I'm making a huge amount of sense, but that's what I thought of when reading the first sentence and then checking the second.

(Hmm: verification word "ofert," and I'm not sure whether to take it as "offered," meaning I'm just suggesting this, or "overt," suggesting I'm only looking at the surface.)
Sorry. If I'm going to refer to the second sentence, I should probably present it here for convenience: "Over the main entrance the words, CENTRAL LONDON HATCHERY AND CONDITIONING CENTRE, and, in a shield, the World State's motto, COMMUNITY, IDENTITY, STABILITY."

Now that I look at that, I see that it departs from the standard stage-setting instructions in providing more background than such instructions would provide. A play would simply refer to "the motto" and leave it to the later action to specify that it's the World State's motto, of course.
Hi Kit,

Just dropped in to say I nominated you on my blog today - just a bit of fun :-)
Glad you're well and I'm enjoying these first sentence posts of yours.
All the best,
In 1932, New York had only been able to boast of the Chrysler building for two years and the Empire State Building for one. There was something of a race going on to build the world's tallest building. The Empire State Building is 80 stories high, and the Chrysler Building 77, and this is the "brave new world" a reader of 1932 would find hirself in, one in which important buildings are supposed to reach those glorified heights. So, yes, in contrast to what would be expected in the reader's brave new world, in Huxley's Brave New World, the Central London Hatchery is not 80 stories tall, it's only 34.

What else is 34 stories tall is Huey P. Long's Louisiana State Capitol Building, built in 1929 in the Art Deco style and still the tallest state capitol building in the United States. That's not something even most people in the US know, and I don't know if Huxley would have been aware of Long and his politics, but if Huxley had been writing in the US, I would wonder if a "grey building of only thirty-four storeys" was meant to evoke Huey Long and his demagoguery.
Really? I guess I relied overmuch on either Wikipedia or my ability to perform simple arithmetic. Oops. Thanks for the information, though; glad someone knows what they're talking about on this subject!
What always stood out to me was the fact that the sentence has no verb, ushering us into a world in which meaningful action is impossible. (You can do whatever you want, but nothing you do will change anything and no one will every care. It's like living in an MMO.)
It is interesting to compare and contrast this sentence with the opening sentence of 1984:

"It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

Each begins a famous dystopia and each, in my opinion directs the reader in a particular direction from the first moment of the text.
So, we're looking for some medical facility in central London, in a grey building of 34 storeys? Guy's Hospital fits the bill nicely. If it's possible for so tall a structure to squat, Guy's manages it. That's before we surround it with mountainous needles, of course.
Massive Multiplayer Online game, I'm guessing. I've never played one, but I suspect that nothing you do in one will meaningfully change the plot.


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