Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Disappearance by Philip Wylie


The Disappearance
by Philip Wylie
1951
*
1 star - couldn't finish - TWICE (head slap)


Here's the setup.

In a moment, two parallel worlds are created. One without men, one without women. Cool, right?

I attempted this book for the first time back when I was a teenager. As decades passed, I would occasionally ask myself why I hadn't liked it. I recalled that I enjoyed it well enough in the beginning, but ultimately couldn't finish.

As decades passed, I figured that the primary reason my adolescent mind got frustrated was that, true to the era, there just wasn't enough sex in the book (yes, my teenage self scoured the shelves at my family estate for stories that would answer my questions about s-e-x). Thus, I decided to give it another try.

Sure enough, the book started off well enough and I was tut tut'ing my silly younger self for dismissing it. The parallel worlds evolve as expected. The men promptly wipe out a few million people by dropping every bomb they have, the women scramble and tussle and form committees. Understand that in the 1950's, women were relegated to the home almost exclusively. So their world was a bit harsh in that commerce was near shut down. Nobody to drive the trucks, nobody to run the harvesting equipment, no police, fire, politicians (well, there's a mercy), few doctors. 

The two primary characters are Bill and Paula Gaunt. He, a philosopher, she a homemaker. The chapters alternate between the men's world and the women's world (although many more pages to the men).

Bill Gaunt, being a philosopher, allows the author to digress into philosophical meditations into the nature of being human and the inequalities between men and women. How smugly I absorbed those early portions of the book, thinking, "Stupid teenage self! You missed the whole point." That is until, just after the midpoint, the reader is delivered a multi page "excerpt" from the great tome that Bill Gaunt is writing in his role as head of the board of philosophy for the new America (or some such nonsense). 

I plowed onward, determined, but my concentration flagged. "How long can this continue?," I wondered. Oh, very long, pages and pages long. Flip, flip, flip, "WTF? Let's get back to the action!" And things were never the same again.

More and more philosophical rants, more page skipping, more skimming. A brief bright spot when the men create animated (and anatomically correct) life-sized toy women and a near miss when Paula Gaunt is given the opportunity to form a romantic alliance with another woman (an opportunity which ultimately repulses her as is appropriate for a mid 20th century woman - whatever).

"Continue! Persist! Finish!" I commanded myself. My efforts were rewarded as I neared the home stretch and Bill Gaunt finds himself in a gun battle with thieves intent on robbing his home. But... oh no! Even a "tense" shootout wasn't keeping my attention. And then, a mere 20 pages shy of the end, I stopped. No amount of telling myself "just finish it, how long can it take to read 20 pages?" could prompt me to crack that book open one more time. 

So here's the summation. This would be a good reading club or philosophy course book. Something to read in small doses and discuss endlessly. Plus there are many well stated rants which align somewhat with my own philosophy (always satisfying). Comparing the psychological warping of the American mind to the physical deformities imposed by "primitive" cultures to meet some standard of normalcy:

"The American mind, its imagination channelized, its logic limited, its know-how hugely and uncritically specialized, is footbound, flat-headed and plate-lipped psychologically. It presents a personality with so little room for normal function and so much atrophy that the nation itself has no clear idea of what a person might, could or ought to be. As savages gloat over their induced deformities, so Americans dote upon the warped intellect of the public. A Babbitt is the envied norm here; a Nazi, or a Communist, elsewhere; a normal man would be anathema. So civilization has advanced but one step where two need to be made. It has ceased the arrogant, savage tricks of misshaping itself biologically but it has as yet not even much investigated its equally savage rituals of psychological deformation. Indeed, the general populace is not in any way aware that what it thinks, feels, dreams and employs for motive is often monstrous."

Gulp.

I have to applaud teenage Mango Momma for even getting halfway through. I know that the book gave my mushy adolescent brain a lot to think about. That's a good thing. But my middle aged brain has done plenty of musing already, thank you very much. Not to mention, I became increasingly angry that all the "good stuff" was reserved for the male protagonist. Leaving the female with only the revelation that women can actually "do stuff" when they act more like men. Hello?

Of course, at the end of the day, this might not be a bad book to add to my permanent collection. It will come in handy in the post apocalyptic world. Something to shake in people's faces.

In fact the book is so jam packed with observations about the folly of human nature and tips on rising above all that I could see it emerging to form its own religious following. The difficult language will really help survivors like me, who have maintained a good grasp of English, to become deacons in the "Church of the Disappearance." Translating the words for the unwashed masses and adding my own thoughts into the mix. I can hear them now "oh, that is what it means." Yup, like I said, foolish, tweeting, LOL people.

Just as long as we spare a few cozy mysteries as well to pass the time.

2 comments:

  1. It always amazes us when our teenage selves actually make judgements with which our (gulp) older, more mature selves agree, doesn't it? That said, are you expecting a Zombie Apocalypse? My kids keep telling me to fortify the fence, and that the generator will serve us well in the post apocalyptic world. Maybe with this book to wave at the tweeting zombie masses.

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  2. Perhaps it would work better if we imagined this Mr. Gaunt is related to the Mr. Gaunt from "Needful Things" ...

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