Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Mockingbird by Walter Tevis

mockingbird
Bantam Paperback 1981

Every couple of years or so, I pick up Walter Tevis’ wonderful dystopian novel, Mockingbird, to read again. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve read it since I first came across it in 1981 and fell head over heels in love with it.

My old Bantam paperback edition of it is holding up well thank goodness, as I don’t know what I’d do if I could never get another copy of it. It’s THAT important to me, one of my all time favourite books.

Fortunately it has pretty much stayed in print through the almost three decades since its first imprint in January 1980. It is currently available in the SF masterworks series.

So what makes Mockingbird so special?

It is indeed one of those books, like Whittemore’s Jerusalem Quartet, that reveals its treasures in repeated perusals. Even though I know the plot of the novel from start to finish, there are passages within it that take my breath away every time through the potency of their imagery.

Take this passage, for instance, where Spofforth the robot shows Bentley an old silent film.

“The great ape sat wearily on the overturned side of a bus. The city was deserted.

At the center of the screen a white vortex appeared and began to enlarge and whirl. When it stopped it had filled more than half the screen. It became clear it was the front page of a newspaper, with a huge headline.

Spofforth stopped the projector with the headline on the screen. “Read that,” he said.

Bentley cleared his throat nervously. “Monster Ape Terrifies City,” he read.

“Good,” Spofforth said. He started the projector again.

The rest of the film had no written words on it. They watched it in silence, through the ape’s final destructive rampage, his pathetic failure to be able to express his love, on through to his death as he fell, as though floating, from the impossibly tall building to the wide and empty street below.”

This passage relates very poignantly to both the beginning and ending of the novel. You only know that if you have read the book as many times as I have.

There’s another passage that never fails to delight me with its reference to the temptation of Adam in the Garden of Eden.

Some background first…

Mockingbird is set in a 25th Century New York, where humanity is in decline. The young are raised in dormitories and conditioned to introversion, encouraged to maintain privacy and distance from each other. Personal relationships and emotions are discouraged – “quick sex is best” is a catch phrase as is “don’t ask, forget”. They emerge from the dormitories as virtual zombies, drugged by sopors and the readily available marijuana cigarettes, and are given some meaningless task to perform. Most of the real work is done by robots

This future New York is controlled by a Make Nine robot called Robert Spofforth, the most sophisticated robot ever made. He is the last Make Nine robot, his fellow Make Nines having all gone mad and/or committed suicide. Spofforth has been modified so he cannot kill himself, but really, the only thing he has ever wanted, in his long artificial life, is to die.

Enter Paul Bentley, who has taught himself to read. He approaches Spofforth with the idea of getting a job teaching others to do so.

Spofforth instead gives him a job transcribing the text of old silent movies into speech - a useless task in itself, but important to Bentley. Through his developing skill at reading and writing he comes to realise several important changes in his mind, which leads him to an awakening from his sleepwalker state.

In time he meets Mary Lou, a dormitory drop out and the only unprogrammed human in the world. Sopors make her physically ill, so she doesn’t take them and is clear headed. She is the ultimate outsider from this society. Having escaped from the dormitories, she is hiding out in the Bronx Zoo, subsisting on stolen sandwiches and sleeping in the Reptile House. The development of the relationship between the two is slow, but gathers apace when Mary Lou breaks the cage of the python an act of vandalism shocking to the conventional Paul. Hauling the snake out of the smashed case she demonstrates that it and all the other animals at the zoo are robots.

The following passage is the one I referred to above:

“I looked at the broken glass on the floor and then at the broken case with the plastic tree in it, now empty of movement. Then I looked at her, standing there in the House of Reptiles in the bright artificial light, calm, undrugged, and – I was afraid –totally out of her head.

She was looking toward the python’s case. From one of the higher branches of the tree inside there was hanging some sort of fruit. Abruptly, she reached her arm inside the cage and stretched up toward the fruit, clearly intending to pick it.

I stared at her. The branch was quite high, and she had to stand tiptoed and reach up as far as she could reach, just to catch the bottom of the fruit with her fingertips. With the strong light from the inside of the case coming through her dress her body was outlined clearly; it was beautiful.

She plucked the fruit and stood there poised like a dancer with it for a moment. Then she brought it down level with her breasts and, turning it over in her hand, looked at it, It was hard to tell what kind of fruit it was; it seemed to be some kind of mango. For a moment I thought she was going to try to eat it., even though I was certain it was plastic, but then she stretched her arm out and handed the thing to me. “This certainly can’t be eaten,” she said. Her voice was surprisingly calm, resigned.

I took it from her. “Why did you pick it?” I said.

“I don’t know,” she said. “It seemed to be the thing to do”

I looked at her for a long time, saying nothing. Despite the age lines and sleep lines in her face, and despite the uncombed look of her hair, she was very beautiful. And yet I felt no desire for her – only a kind of awe. And a slight sense of fear.

Then I stuffed the plastic fruit into my pocket and said “I’m going back to the library and take some sopors”

She turned away, looking back toward the empty case. “Okay,” she said. “Good night”

When I got back I put the fruit on top of Dictionary and sat on my bed-and-desk. Then I took three sopors. And slept until noon today.

The fruit is still sitting there. I want it to mean something; but it doesn’t.”

Mockingbird is full of references; to old films, to other dystopian novels, Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty Four in particular. It is haunting and has a gentle melancholy feel throughout. It arouses a sympathetic reaction in the reader, just as haunting as the ghosts of memory that torment Spofforth or the chance phrases from silent films and poetry that arouse unfamiliar feelings in Paul and Mary Lou.

There are some lovely twists. Instead of Thought Police, the world of Mockingbird has Thought Buses, public transport that can read a passenger’s intended destination telepathically and take them there. As Spofforth explains to Mary Lou, the first models of thought buses were two way telepaths, with the ability to directly communicate with the passengers, but they had to discontinue them. Mary Lou asks why. Spofforth’s reply is that that although they were incapable of breaking down, it was because people wouldn’t get off.

Walter Tevis was an astounding writer. Before his death in 1984 he wrote a total of six novels and a number of short stories. Three of his books were made into films, The Hustler, The Color of Money and the Man Who Fell to Earth. But he has virtually been forgotten by the mainstream these days.

I think Mockingbird is an almost perfect novel. Beautifully written, masterfully plotted, it’s a wondrous fable of the future that is compulsively readable, no matter how many times you’ve read it. I’ve never, before or since, ever come across a novel that explains so intelligently the process of reading and learning to read.

Get yourself a copy and read it. You won’t regret it. I’ve given away many copies of this novel – I am evangelistic about it– and every recipient has loved it. If I had a spare copy at the moment, I’d give it to someone. Unfortunately second hand copies are few and far between these days. Even so, I keep looking.

7 comments:

John Coulthart said...

I didn't realise he'd written another sf novel. That at least makes The Man Who Fell to Earth seem less anomalous. Odd to that Newton's girlfriend in the film of TMWFTE is named Mary Lou yet in the novel she's Betty Jo. Maybe Paul Mayersberg read Mockingbird as well?

Anne S said...

John, He actually wrote three SF novels. There's also "Steps of the Sun" which is good too.

I have noted too that Mary Lou pops up in both The Man Who Fell To Earth movie and Mockingbird. However, as the film was made in 1976, and Mockingbird was published in 1980, I think it's more the other way round - Tevis may have adopted the name from the film.

John Coulthart said...

Oops, didn't check the timeline...ha!

Wanda said...

I just read Mockingbird for an English class this semester and was deeply moved by it. It is, indeed, an incredibly powerful and melancholy novel, and I will definitely be revisiting it for years to come.

Anne S said...

Right on Wanda!

So glad you agree - as does everyone who actually reads the book.

I think the ending is one of the powerful and moving endings of a novel I've ever read.

It's up there with the ending of the Great Gatsby as far as I am concerned.

whisperinggums said...

Thanks Anne for pointing me to your review - which is a lovely one, by the way. I have never heard of it, or him - which bears out your comment perfectly - and yet one of your commenters have studied him. A revival perhaps. I have of course heard of the films you mention. Have no idea when I would get to read it, but I will keep an eye out for it when I am out and about.

Christian Hertzog said...

Just finished reading this last night, devoured it in 3 days (I've owned a copy for many years, but never read it). It's difficult to think of another novel which celebrates why reading is so important. Alas, it's predictions of gradual but inevitable population decline seem quaint now.

There is satirical commentary on the Me Decade, as the 70s were called, in the future society's emphasis on personal gratification.

As you point out, a very wonderful complement to Brave New World, 1984, as well as Fahrenheit 451, a rather different novel in which reading is a crime.