Monday, April 27, 2015

Modern Masterpieces

Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century

by Annette Ferran


Novels depicting a dystopian world of the writer’s future are intriguing, entertaining, and frightening, especially when read from a time vantage point well past when the novel’s future was supposed to have happened.  It is then that the novel’s staying power is tested and the predictive intelligence and imagination of the writer is spot-lighted.
            Brave New World (Aldous Huxley, #5) and 1984 (George Orwell, #13), along with A Clockwork Orange (Anthony Burgess, #65, discussed in a previous column) are the books on the Modern Library’s list that fit this description.  I would not have ranked them, relative to one another, the way the Modern Library did, but this is not the first time we have not seen eye to eye.  I would also have included Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale on the list.  Maybe a separate list covering just this genre is needed. 
            Phrases and notions from each of these books have entered into our common vocabulary and consciousness.  “Big Brother,” from 1984, is arguably the most entrenched.  It has also been co-opted in this post-ironic age of voyeuristic/exhibitionistic television “reality” dramas to the point that it’s quite possible the label is no longer associated with Orwell’s vision of an intrusive and controlling government and the loss of personal privacy at all levels.  Which is more frightening than the novel is.
            From Brave New World we get mood-controlling drugs and specially designed test tube babies.  These days, psychopharmaceuticals are so ordinary and prevalent that the pharmaceutical companies are now making up disorders to go with the drugs. And the animal way of making and delivering babies has seemingly become optional.
            The disintegration of society in Handmaid’s Tale starts with the elimination of cash transactions, which is so common now as to be unremarkable. Surrogacy for procreation, depicted so disturbingly in the novel, is also, while not exactly mainstream, no longer an abhorrent oddity.
            Obviously, these novels all made a mark, reflecting the atmospheres, and fears, of the times in which they were written, and capturing so well the logical trajectories of then-current developments that they read now as prophetic. This is a literary merit of each.
I prefer 1984 to Brave New World because I prefer Orwell’s writing style to Huxley’s.  Orwell’s writing is clean and swift.  He wastes no words (as he was famously known to advise) but does memorable things with the language. His characters are unique.  His plots unfold with a kind of stomach-churning relentlessness.
            By contrast, Huxley’s writing is pedantic and can become boring.  (In fact, his other novel on this list, Point Counterpoint, I dismissed as practically unreadable.)  Brave New World has just as compelling a premise, and just as well constructed and detailed a fantastical world, but the writing does not sing like Orwell’s does, and its characters do not live quite as fully off the page.  (Similar things could be said of Handmaid’s Tale.)
            1984, in its succinctness, is a thing of beauty.  Like some other slim novels on the list, it is made to be read again and again.
            Let’s say the criteria for “best” in a novel include the art of the story, the artistry of the writer, the significance of the novel culturally, images that achieve iconic value, and themes that transcend the writer’s own time.   Then let’s say that among the novels here judged “best,” some are more best than others.

Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher.  She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Inka Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.