We – Yevgeny Zamyatin

You will subjugate the unknown beings on other planets who may still be living in the primitive condition of freedom, to the beneficent yoke of reason. If they fail to understand that we bring them mathematically infallible happiness, it will be our duty to compel them to be happy.

As schoolchildren we all read (perhaps you have, too) that greatest literary monument to have been handed down to use from ancient days–“The Railway Guide.”

In the distant future, after the two hundred years’ war threatened to end the human race, there is a more civilized age that promises to bring people happiness under the aegis of the One State. Mankind lives in a state of logical, mechanical perfection, separated from nature by Green Walls. They are to consider themselves appendages of the collective body and are thus assigned numbers, roles, and schedules. People request sexual partners, receiving coupons to be redeemed within allotted times; only during these times are people allowed to lower the shades on their transparent apartments.

Life in the One State is dictated by their holy book handed down from ancient times: The Railway Guide.” The twin pillars of religion are Taylorism and the state. The Table of Hours, found in the Guide, structures the day, with only the briefest period wherein people are left to their own devices. All other time is devoted to the One State; to do otherwise is treasonous.

D-503, the author and protagonist of We, is the lead engineer on the Integral, a ship designed to spread the civilization of the One State to other planets. The project is nearing completion, so D-503 is pleased with his contribution to society and happily registered in his relationship with O-90. Then he meets I-330, who interjects herself into his life and challenges his entire world view. More than preying on D-503’s glimmer of biological urges, I-330 is part of a secret sect of “Mephi,” people who fundamentally reject the tenets of the One State and are working to undermine its existence, and who see the Integral as an opportunity to do just that. As a result of this encounter, D-503 becomes infected, he thinks, with the disease of imagination—an epidemic that threatens the very being of the One State.

Written in 1920/21 in the Soviet Union and (perhaps unsurprisingly) denied publication, We is a novel that pushes collectivism to its absurd extreme. Art still exists, but only in rational terms such as mathematical couplets. Imagination is a disease, nature a threat. Happiness comes from the absence of freedom and choice. Crime is unheard of and desires are met. The central narrative arc in We is one number’s (D-503) gradual awakening as an individual and the pain he suffers when this process causes him to be rejected from his community as though a cancerous cell. It is story of fall and salvation, with an overt parallelism to the Biblical story about the fall of man, this time from a mechanical Eden.

I have been meaning to reread We for a while because I had it high on my list of favorite novels, but found myself unable to remember much about the story outside a few turns of phrase. I worried that, perhaps, I had it listed too high. In short, I did not. We is a masterpiece, unrelenting in its vision of totalitarian society. Zamyatin is not blind to the virtues of collectivism or the importance of one’s community, but simultaneously exposes the importance of nature, of individualism, and even of heresy.

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It might be a little while before I write another of these book reviews because, on a whim, I decided to start reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. I am both super excited to finally start in on this novel by one of my favorite authors and nervous that a) I’m not in the right headspace to read it; b) that it’ll suffer from being overhype; and c) that I won’t get it. There is only one way to find out.

In the meantime, I am going to be writing about a few other topics, coming up, including hopefully more little vignettes from ancient sources and some reflections on the PhD process after my defense.

Top novel summaries, 10-1

Here are summaries for 20-11 of my top novels. See the introduction and list in its entirety here, summaries for 30-21 here and 20-11 here.

10. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin
A dystopian novel upon which Orwell drew for 1984. The entire society has been turned into a panopticon–the city is surrounded by a glass wall, everyone lives in glass house, there is no personality or identity and society is designed solely for productivity, including sex and reproduction. The story takes off when the protagonist becomes interested in one person who does show individuality and decides to oppose the will of the state himself.

9. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway
A close second to The Sun Also Rises for me among Hemingway’s novels, To Have and Have Not is on one level a story of rum running between Havana and Key West during the 1930s, but Hemingway manages to broaden the story and weave together the stories of several different male-female relationships that come to dominate the narrative. See a full review here.

8. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Gatsby is the only novel assigned to me in high school English class that I actually enjoyed and I have reread it twice in recent years (once for the purpose of teaching it to a class). I still feel a connection to Gatsby himself and Nick Carraway is still a creepy little man. Overall the story holds up well.

7. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell
Objectively, this may be Orwell’s best novel since 1984 may is at times over-blunt and simplistic. Set in 1930s London, his novel tells the story of Gordon Comstock, a young writer whose grandfather was wealthy, but the family has since frittered away the fortune and Gordon has declared war on money and the money society. Despite his best intentions, life has a way of drawing Gordon back to the money society that he detests.

6. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
Jake Barnes is an American ex-pat living in Paris, impotent from a war wound suffered during World War One and he is in love with the twice divorced and again engaged Lady Brett Ashley. The story takes place between Paris and Spain, where the companions go fishing and watch bullfights and nearly come to blows over Lady Brett. The novel is loaded with themes, but the one that drew me most strongly was the relationship between Jake and Lady Brett and the affection and desire that is impossible to consummate.

5. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
The story of the town of Macondo and the Buendia family written in parallel to the modernization of Columbia. It follows seven generations of the family, from the founding of Macondo through its expansion into the world and eventual decline caused by the arrival of a foreign fruit corporation that sets up shop in the neighborhood. I should also add that Marquez is one of the most notable authors in the Latin American magical realism genre that I have a great deal of fondness for.

4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
The Devil has come to Russia, wreaking havoc with the bureaucrats who don’t have the wherewithal to realize what is happening–only a small number of authors actually know this. The second setting for the story is the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate and the decision to execute Jesus, which is the topic of the Master’s novel that has been rejected by the literary bureaucracy. It is a brilliant satire of the Soviet system and the conditions of the literati that reflect Bulgakov’s experiences in the Soviet Union and the book was banned for decades.

3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse
Like most Hesse novels, Magister Ludi is a story about individuals seeking enlightenment, this time through the Glass Bead Game, an exercise and celebration of pure intellectual activity in one of a select number of disciplines. Joseph Knecht, whose biography contains the greater part of the story, is a successful practitioner of the game at its home in the semi-autonomous province of Castalia. Members of the order of the glass bead game are supposed to find their strength and growth from inside the order, but Knecht finds himself questioning the validity of this approach, daring to broach the question whether intellectuals have the right to withdraw from the affairs of the world at large. These questions take on an additional importance since the contemporary backdrop for the novel was the rise of Nazi Germany.

2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell
There are a variety of reasons why this sits so close to the top of the list even though I might recommend some of the books higher up over this one. The main reason is that it was a revelation, not of prophetic genius but of elegant writing and insights about humanity, when I first read it five or six years ago. I also maintain that the best known phrase “big brother is watching,” is a misleading interpretation of the work. Like other dystopian novels, Orwell draws out what happens when individuality and free will are eliminated from society, but the real terror of the book was not being constantly watched, but in the ability of a bureaucratic state to fundamentally rewrite existence as though the past never existed. Sure, the watching is a means of control, but to control the narrative is much more powerful.

1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis
Kazantzakis advances the idea that though Christ may be free from sin, he is nonetheless subject to the rest of the temptations and concerns that other humans face, particularly doubt and depression. It presents a more human Jesus who is forced to overcome the same difficulties as everyone else in order to fulfill his role as the redeemer of mankind. One particular scene that has stayed with me since I read this book close to ten years ago (it is on my list to reread this year) is one where a disciple is recording the gospel at the direction of an Archangel when Jesus becomes enraged because the account is disingenuous, but is forced to accept that this is beyond his control.