Sunday, June 10, 2012

Books That Grab Me: P. D. James’ The Children of Men


I like a book that I can admire and still despair over. I can wish it had been rendered differently or with different themes. Isn’t that where the great stories of the world come from, seeing potential in a nest of ideas that sit blandly, limply on a plate and being the one to render them differently, breathe more vivid life into them?

I love and hate The Children of Men as put into words by P.D. James. I love the kernel of the story: the people of earth have become infertile for unknown and unknowable reasons. The tale is set twenty five years after the last humans were born, as civilization begins to crumble and tire. People who once sought for a cure to the infertility have given up, too old to care. It’s a powerful conceit for a story, the spring from which a thousand different variants could flow.

I love the detail work that the author engages with. She’s spent tremendous time laboring over the details and getting the first half of the book vividly gilded and engemmed. For instance, how do people react without the sound of children’s laughter? With anger, some of them. They rip out playgrounds and disappear the children’s books out of libraries. With insanity, others of them. Women take to parading dolls around in baby carriages, infantalizing themselves because they can’t have the infants themselves. Or women who coo over the birth of kittens, carting off the substitute children for human baptisms. All these details, and the care put into the language, provide the beauty of the story, a world that’s gone mad and sterile in a particular, and particularly interesting, way.

The novel treads into Orwell territory (with a bland protagonist who keeps a diary and breaks the laws of the land for a woman he’d coming to love) which is always dangerous, sometimes in a good way, often in a bad one. The dystopian novels that get remembered do something special and unique. Orwell specialized in the pinpoint accuracy of the language used and gutted by a culture of tyranny. James has cloaked her tale in the garb of Christian allegory, even to the point where it is only a retired priest and a particularly faithful woman who are, of the billions of people on Earth, able to get pregnant by accident.

That The Children of Men seems meant as allegory means it is less a story than a message to be unwound and admired. For all of 1984’s problems (long passages of anti-Stalin polemic shoehorned into its fictional equivalent, too many pages spent on things other than the human story of Winston Smith, his illicit love affair, and the punishments he faces), 1984 is still a damned fine story where the ending matters most of all, chilling and bleak and resigned.

The story in this novel crumbles as it approached its end. From a tale rich with detail and moments of ‘yes, that’s exactly what would happen’ if the world went sterile, The Children of Men becomes a head scratcher. The film version of the tale (much different, much darker than the novel) posed the suggestion that the ruling cadre would try to kill the mother and infant because they threatened their power. Possible. But I like the direction James took the story (even hardened politicians crack and cry at the sound of a baby's squalling after twenty five years of no children) without liking how little the ending works.

Specifically, a mild-mannered historian ends up becoming a man-on-the-run for a few days before the woman he’s fond of gives birth. Rather than being snatched up and disappeared into the system, the dictator known as the Warden of England approaches the scene himself offering amnesty of a sort. This is not how dictatorships work, even where the dictator is related to the rebel-in-chief (the hero and the Warden are cousins). Of course, the Warden and the hero struggle, the hero kills the Warden, takes the old Warden’s power and role for himself, and...wait for it...NO ONE stops him. The forest where all this happened was surrounded by secret police. And four grasping politicians held in check by the old Warden.

Uh, no. Sorry.

The way this scene in the forest would have gone if the characters acted true to form (as in, during the first half of the book): the hero kills the old Warden, a greedy Council member orders the secret police to kill the hero, a Council member becomes the new Warden, takes the new baby, and then a news conference is held the next day to announce a successful transition in leadership and the miracle of a new baby. Accolades all around, no one would bother to think of the old Warden (or the dead hero). All hail baby Luke. The world has a future for humans again, maybe. One child for a people people to spoil.

Endings are hard. Especially in an allegory. The good guy must win in a particular way...even if the ending is more convoluted and unbelievable than the worst deus ex machina. In this book, the last few pages ruin everything that came before, the sensitive guesses as to how a world might crumble when faced with slow, inevitable human extinction transforms into a parade of ridiculousness and unbelievability.

As you can see, I'm pugnacious about this book. In fact, I love and hate this book...which means I’ll think about it for a long time to come. Perhaps in a few years, or a few decades, I’ll want to pick up a kernel very much like this and see how I can make it different...and better. There is so much potential here, so many great meandering paths to take as I ponder ‘what if?’

I just wish...

Those are the three most powerful words anyone who’s ever been tempted to pick up a pen and write a book could ever think. I just wish it went a different way. I just wish it had a different ending. I just wish...

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