A Canticle for Leibowitz
Walter Miller, 1959
After the Flame Deluge that ended civilization as we know it, a new Dark
Ages have settled over North America. The setting is an abbey in what
used to be called Texas, where Catholic monks painstakingly copy by hand
whatever scraps of the vanished civilization they can find, even though
they are millennia away from being able to understand such documents as
"Transistorized Control System for Unit Six-B." Over the course of 1800
years, humanity drags itself back to the atomic age.
Evaluation and commentary
This will be my final nuclear war novel for a while, and I'm ending with
one I had already read multiple times and already owned. Needless to say,
it's quite good: absorbing, insightful, even darkly funny at times. A lot
of the best works of art are those that employ unusual combinations of
elements, and A Canticle for Leibowitz is a perfect example: there
are lots and lots of novels and stories about nuclear apocalypse, and quite
a few about Catholic monasteries — but post-apocalyptic Catholic
monasteries? That seems like a fairly odd juxtaposition. But of course
it's not! Follow the train of thought: a nuclear war, if it did not wipe
out humankind completely, would at least bring about a new Dark Ages...
and therefore it is reasonable to ask, what were the previous Dark Ages
like? Might not the new ones be similar, with a handful of literate
ecclesiastics preserving the relics of a long-dead advanced civilization
the way Irish monks preserved pagan Latin literature through the centuries
until the Renaissance produced a new audience for these works over a
thousand years later? Once you really think about the implications
of the phrase "New Dark Ages" you wonder why someone didn't think to write
this book before Miller did. It's fortunate that Miller got there first,
because he did a good job of it and obviated the need for anyone else to
revisit this theme, at least in this way.
Samuel Beckett, 1956
Some guy makes up stream-of-consciousness stories as he dies.
This is one of the worst books I have ever read. It is not a novel; it is a
pile of words. I am tempted to modify that description to "steaming pile."
Wikipedia says, "One does not get a sense of plot, character development, or
even setting in this novel," and that's not vandalism — that's NPOV.
(You know what else one does not get a sense of in Malone Dies?
Last semester I crashed a nuclear war class and wrote about a bunch of books
that were on the syllabus; the new semester just started, and Malone Dies
was the first book on the syllabus for a class on the contemporary novel that
I've been going to. This means that I have heard the professor try to justify
this book's existence. He started by free-associating about the various Christ
symbols in the book. This struck me as an exercise on par with examining some
shit and pointing out all the corn.
Eventually he got to a more promising train of thought, talking about how
Beckett felt that in the aftermath of World War II, with nuclear apocalypse
on the horizon, one could no longer write stories. Malone Dies and
the rest of Beckett's postwar work is therefore anti-literature. Very well.
I guess that explains why it is also, y'know, anti-good.
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