Review: ‘1984’ by George Orwell

19841984 by George Orwell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Years ago, when I was in college, I took a class in utopian literature. Things started out with genuine, if sometimes satirical, visions of a better world: “Utopia,” “Looking Backward,” “News from Nowhere.”

Then the reading list took a turn for the dark, with the 20th-century one-two punch of Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” and George Orwell’s “1984.”

I hadn’t read Orwell since then, but how could you forget “1984”? It’s become part of our very language: “Big Brother,” “doublethink,” “memory hole.” Even the author’s name has come to signify a horrific, totalitarian society where everybody is under surveillance – a sad kind of immortality for a man who wrote some thoughtful and amusing stuff.

So when my book club decided to read it, I wondered how it would hold up – if there was a novel underneath the infamous terms.

Now that I’ve reread it, I’m not sure.

There’s a story there, all right. Three decades after an atomic war has reduced chunks of civilization to gray and rubble, Winston Smith works in Oceania’s Ministry of Truth, where his job is to rewrite history according to the events of the present. If Party members have been vaporized in the ensuing years, Smith writes them out of existence; if an economic forecast fails to meet the actual result, Smith tweaks the prediction so it’s come true. (Underpromise and overdeliver – that’s the way of Oceania.) He’s discontented with his lot, but in a furtive way. About his only rebellion is buying a diary and writing down his actual thoughts, even while he hides them from the ever-present telescreen.

Then he meets Julia, and his life turns upside-down. She’s sexually ravenous and openly adventurous, at least by 1984 standards. She finds ways to meet him and get black-market goods; he rents a room from an antiques dealer who seems surprisingly untouched by the modern world. Why, the dealer never even bought a telescreen.

Winston and Julia meet for regular assignations, and when Winston is contacted by his colleague O’Brien – a possible revolutionary member of the “Brotherhood” — he imagines himself as part of Oceania’s resistance. He reads the samizdat of Emmanuel Goldstein, the invisible rebel who represents Big Brother’s opposite, and entertains the idea of a coming revolution.

It’s not to be, of course. O’Brien isn’t a part of the Brotherhood, but a key member of the establishment. Winston is tortured and broken down, physically and psychologically. The end is as downbeat as they come, an image of a drunken, empty man who knows one thing: “He loved Big Brother.”

I couldn’t help but think of so many of “1984’s” children while reading the book. O’Brien’s speeches in the third and final section were obvious influences on Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network” character Arthur Jensen, who is alternately calming and chilling. And Terry Gilliam’s film “Brazil,” especially, takes Orwell’s vision and fleshes it out brilliantly; for all that movie’s flaws, nothing in “1984” can match Gilliam’s sheer imagination – ductwork and pneumatic tubes – not to mention the fiendish Central Services.

As a novel, though, “1984” often falls short — more polemic than fiction masterpiece. Frankly, I was rather bored by the first two sections. There’s lots of tell, not show. Winston is the most rounded character in the book, but there’s little backstory to him – no idea how he got from orphan with disappeared parents to low-level ministry worker. Julia is even flatter. She’s a cynical life force with an amazing sex drive, more symbol than person, and there’s no suggestion of what attracts her to Winston besides a snap judgment she made upon seeing his face. She cares little about history or philosophy – she dozes off while Winston reads Goldstein’s book aloud to her – and throws herself into their affair with more energy than love. (Though, given the circumstances of life in 1984, it’s hard to blame her.)

But the final section – the torture and breakage of Winston at the hands of O’Brien – well, that still has the power to terrify. O’Brien’s speeches sound like every politician who’s ever wanted to say, “Do you believe me or your own eyes?”, except without the humor. (I had a bitter laugh at his dismissal of the fossil record: “Have you ever seen those bones, Winston? Of course not. Nineteenth-century biologists invented them. Before man there was nothing.” Has the Creation Museum been reading Orwell?) It’s easy to see why the book still resonates. When I was in college, we had visions of Brezhnev’s bleak USSR taking over the world; now, the world is doing a pretty good job on its own.

I can’t say I enjoyed “1984.” If you’re going to read Orwell, I’d recommend first dipping into his essays, especially “Shooting an Elephant” and “Politics and the English Language” (the latter a dry run for elements of “1984”). But the book still has the power to shock and warn. For that alone, I hope it’s never dropped into the memory hole.

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Tom Petty, 1950-2017

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(Update: Petty died Monday night.)

Tom Petty was the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll fan.

Most rock musicians are fans, of course. That’s why they become rock musicians. John Lennon idolized Elvis Presley; Kurt Cobain was fond of Black Flag. But Petty both wore his love of music on his sleeve — and got to be friends with his heroes.

He and the Heartbreakers got to back up Bob Dylan — and then he was in a band with Dylan (and George Harrison, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne). Petty and the Heartbreakers later backed up Johnny Cash. And Petty, ever the fan, was genuinely pissed that pop and rock broadcast radio became boring and flat. That wasn’t what he signed up for. (He later created his own show, much like his friend Bob.)

Tom Petty is in grave condition. Earlier today, CBS News reported that he’d died after apparently suffering a massive heart attack Sunday night, less than a week after concluding the Heartbreakers’ 40th anniversary tour.

But as of 4:35 p.m. ET TMZ said Petty is still “clinging to life,” though he’s off life support and not expected to live past today. I hope TMZ is both right and wrong. CBS, now citing the LAPD, has pulled back on its obituary, and others that ran with the news are now backtracking, too.

He’s always been a fighter.

I could never say I was a hardcore Petty fan, unlike friends who have all his albums and were working his songs into their setlists 30 years ago. (Fans beget fans, the wonderful way of the world.) But I loved much of his music. “I Need to Know” is still a model of a balls-to-the-wall single (the fact that it couldn’t get into the Top 40 is criminal); “Love Is a Long Road” pours out both desperation and a touch of hope; “Girl on LSD” is the kind of absurd toss-off that’s all too uncommon in our smug and cynical times.

He could be passionate. Years before “The Last DJ,” it was Tom Petty who fought his record company from raising the price of what became the LP “Hard Promises” to $9.98. Petty was going to retitle the record “$8.98,” then the standard list price for albums, if he didn’t get his way.

He got his way.

His hero-friends, half a generation older, seemed to treat him like a welcome, impish younger brother. I’ve long felt, fairly or not, that it was Petty who gave Dylan his sense of humor back after that sometimes dour mixed bag of early-’80s albums. I don’t know that Dylan would have worked in a reference to Joe Piscopo on “Infidels.”

I also think it was Petty who was the secret weapon in the Wilburys, though this was a group with a world-class voice and a ukulele collector.

Then there was Petty the quiet observer. The best example of this Petty is “To Find a Friend,” off 1994’s “Wildflowers.” It’s as muted and finely wrought as a Raymond Carver short story:

In the middle of his life
He left his wife
And ran off to be bad
Boy, it was sad
But he bought a new car
Found a new bar
And went under another name
Created a whole new game

(Tom, I’ll forgive you for using “quiet as a mouse.” You knew what you were doing.)

I remember reading an article about Petty learning the craft of songwriting. I’m probably screwing up the timeline (and the story, for that matter), but what I recall was a Petty at loose ends after Mudcrutch, his earlier band, had broken up. So he’d sit with famed producer Denny Cordell, who’d signed him, and listen to record after record. Cordell would explain structure and musical choices, and Petty lapped it up. (Having colleagues like Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench didn’t hurt his education.) He wore those lessons on his sleeve long after he became a platinum-selling artist and created his own distinctive sound — passionate, a little funny, humane.

After all, he was a fan.