Tuesday, October 30, 2018

The Wanting Seed

Anthony Burgess
Completed 10/27/2018, Reviewed 10/27/2018
2 stars

I did not like this book.  Written in 1962, it’s a “comedy” about overpopulation and the resulting in a degradation of society: famine, reproductive control, cannibalism, and war.  This is known as a Malthusian comedy, derived from the theories of population versus resources by Thomas Robert Malthus (Yes, I had to look it up, though I did remember it from high school social studies after reading a few sentences about it).  I didn’t find it remotely funny, not even in a satirical sense.  Being nearly sixty years old, this book is full of the prejudices against race and sexuality, using them for satirical purposes, but ends up coming across as racist, sexist, and homophobic. 

The story is set in a dystopian future.  It’s about Tristram and Beatrice-Joanna, a married couple living in an overcrowded world with strict rationing of food, propaganda against having more than one child, and government promotion of homosexuality as a further means of birth control.  Tristram and Beatrice-Joanna’s first child has died.  Now officially, they can’t have any more children.  Beatrice-Joanna is having an affair with Tristram’s brother Derek, who is posing as gay man to advance in the government.  She gets pregnant by him causing a rift in the marriage.  Tristram, a social studies teacher, goes out for a drink, for what passes as alcohol.  He ends up in jail after happening to be at worker’s strike that turns violent.  From there his life goes from bad to worse.  He then escapes from jail, only to be tricked into conscripting with the British Army.

I thought the characters and basic plot were rather soapy and were merely present to convey the message.  No thought was put into making the characters anything but cardboard stiff upper-lip Brits.  Tristram’s experience is Kafkaesque, but it doesn’t have any of the profound absurdity of Kafka’s “The Trial”.  It’s simply tedious.  Beatrice-Joanna is just a character out of a soap opera.  Her life is simply being a wife, mother, or a lover.  Not that that’s a bad thing in and of itself considering the time it was written, but she has no depth and nothing else defining her except that she goes for walks and talks to the sea. 

I found the homosexual content of the book to be deeply insulting.  It’s meant to be a joke that the world is promoting homosexuality as a means of birth control.  It implies that it is a choice rather than an orientation.  It’s lumped into the same category as the cannibalistic content of the book.  And once the government falls, the people go crazy sexually, with heterosexual orgies and bizarre fertility rites.  Even Derek, Tristram’s brother, “switches” his sexuality to maintain his position in the new government.  It’s all rather disgusting and I was pretty deeply offended by it.

By the same token, racism is rampant throughout the book as well.  Black, bi- and multi-racial people abound in the book, but they are the butts of the joke as much as the sexuality is.  I think it would have been less offensive if the book had no people of color at all, rather then use them to get a satirical point across.

I give this book two stars out of five.  I don’t think this book could have been published today.  It’s supposed to be satire.  I get that.  But I found it merely offensive.  This is an example of the sort of novel that would be widely read for its scandalous ideas, setting any sort of human rights struggle back fifty years.  I gave it two stars instead of one because at least the prose was decent. 

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