In a dystopian future, a young girl called Marianne is brought up in a village shut off from the world. Dissatisfied with the clinical and routine-driven nature of her life, she runs away with a barbarian who lives in the wild outlands. Half-prisoner, she stays captive in his village, where she experiences a kind of sexual awakening with her barbarian king. Eventually she becomes his bride. They live a disgusting life, surrounding by filth, savages and garbage. But Marianne finds that although, in a rebellious bid for freedom, she has broken away from her rigid upbringing, the constructs inside her mind keep them both more imprisoned than any fence ever could.
Reading the plot summary on the back of the book, I thought the book would be some kind of erotic adventure story. I think the synopsis oversells – or at least mis-sells – the novel. There isn’t really any plot. A girl runs away from home, a few random things happen – there’s some sex, some fighting, some cryptic dialogue – and that’s it. There’s no narrative structure, or resolution, and the action all takes place in the language of smoke-filled symbolism. So this isn’t one of those plot books, this is one of those say-something-about-the-world books. And that’s fine. The trouble is, I call bullshit...
Richard Boston writing for the New York Times called Heroes and Villains ‘a fable that discusses the roles of reason and imagination in a civilized society.’ The novel definitely does do that, but what’s important isn’t ‘discussion’, it’s what a novel actually has to say, you know, about real life. My feeling about fiction in general is that too many novels use cryptic and symbolic language to make points that are either simple, obvious or even untrue. Further, that unclear or imprecise writing is actually a technique that is used quite cynically to mask meaning that, if it was spelled-out clearly, no one would be interested in or would be obviously wrong. It’s a shame because the best writers use symbolism not to mask their meaning, but to shed light on difficult subjects, or create complicated, intellectually satisfying mosaics of multiple meanings - Moby Dick, or Ulysses spring to mind as almost symphonic in this regard.
I think I’ve got a good bullshit detector, and – I’m sorry – but I picked up a lot of it in Heroes and Villains. Check out this quote:
“What do you see when you see me?' She asked him, burying her own face in his bosom.
'Do you want the truth?'
'The firing squad.'
'That's not the whole truth. Try again.'
'Insatiability,' he said with some bitterness.
'That's oblique but altogether too simple. Once more,' she insisted. 'One more time.'
He was silent for several minutes.
'The map of a country in which I only exist by virtue of the extravagance of my metaphors.'
'Now you're being too sophisticated. And, besides, what metaphors do we have in common?”
I think that’s completely meaningless. I can acknowledge that the writer might have some ideas about her characters that would make that passage make sense. I can ever construct some in my head. Here’s my try: Why does he see the firing squad? Perhaps because her culture is doomed. And insatiable? As it happens, Marianne isn’t particularly insatiable, but it could mean that her culture is. And 'The map of a country in which I only exist by virtue of the extravagance of my metaphors.' Eek. I don’t understand that at all. Perhaps it’s not about the meaning, but about how the words make you feel...
There are several possible half-meanings in that paragraph, but it’s just not clear enough to understand precisely. And any meaning I can extract from it doesn’t really add much value to my life. For example, our civilisation is insatiable and over-reaching itself, and we need to create the idea of savages to in some way define us (I actually don’t think either of those things are true).
The Last Word
So my view is that Heroes and Villains fails. Just like a pun is only funny if it has two distinct levels of meaning, I think symbolism in a book is only clever if the surface level – the plot, the characters etc – makes sense and is engaging. And secondly, hidden meaning is only worthwhile if the meaning you have to work hard to find is profound, or, at the very least, interesting. To me, Heroes and Villains is a masterwork of style over substance - of nice-sounding sentences over ideas, character and plot. I’ll close with this quote. I like how it sounds a lot - but I also think it illustrates well this books deeply vacuous heart:
“Darkness was made explicit in the altered contours of his face. He was like a work of art, as if created, not begotten, a fantastic dandy of the void whose true nature had been entirely subsumed to the alien and terrible beauty of a rhetorical gesture.”