Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Reading H.G. Wells' Tono-Bungay

It is unsurprising that the early science fiction of H.G. Wells continues to be celebrated much more than any of his later work. The image of a working class degraded to Morlocks, massacring beautiful, hapless Elois in The Time Machine (1894); the note of despair at humanity's animality in The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896); the viciousness and insanity of Griffin in The Invisible Man (1897); the annihilation of human civilization by a technologically superior species that is itself helpless before a humble microbe in War of the Worlds (1898); such things naturally appeal to the lovers of things "dark and gritty" who set the fashion for these times.

By contrast, Wells' penchant for satire; his daring to envision positive alternatives; his growing into the "scientific world-view"; do not appeal to them. And so his later science fiction, to say nothing of his realist fiction, have tended to be neglected or dismissed, with Tono-Bungay (1909) no exception.

In fairness, the book is not totally bereft of science fiction-al elements, the plot coming to hinge on radioactive "quap," and George Ponderovo's experiments with a flying machine. Still, on the whole the story of young George Ponderovo sticks with the quotidian, and quickly demonstrates that Wells does not need the devices of science fiction to work an effective satire of class and capitalism and colonialism, of social and sexual mores. Real life supplies all the absurdity he can want, starting with Bladesover itself--the estate on which George is born, and grows up, the son of a servant.

As George (and Herbert George) present it, the place is an anachronism, a piece of the seventeenth century enduring at the edge of the twentieth, where everyone had their assigned place in a hierarchy, with the country gentry on top, and their values and priorities predominant, and everyone confident or complacent that everything was so settled forever--oblivious as they are to the scientific-industrial, globalized, urbanized world with which it was not just tied up, but on which it was parasitic. And when George gets out of Bladesover, and sees something more of the country in which he lives, he finds that England is Bladesover writ large, muddling along similarly obvlivious to the larger world, and to contemporary reality.

Throughout, Wells paints his picture with broad strokes. Indeed, in the "Digression on Novels" in his later Experiment in Autobiography (one of the boldest, most challenging and most incisive pieces of literary theory I have ever encountered) Wells acknowledged, somewhat apologetically, that he tended toward caricature in his desire to make his point. However, there is caricature, and then there is caricature. Wells' caricatures here have a Dickensian vividness and incisiveness, married to a far stronger social vision than Dickens ever displayed, whether in the underworld of Nicodemus Frapp, or Teddy Ponderovo's meteoric rise in the world on the basis of a fraudulent patent medicine, and they contribute strongly to fulfilling Wells' quite traditional object of giving us an image of the world--of capital "L" Life--on the page.

To be sure, the book is not without its flaws. Again, as Wells noted in that "Digression," he was in this phase of his career more interested in the larger social scene than the individual personalities within it--and this too is the case here. When his attention shifts from the scene to the individuals, construed not as caricatures but as feeling human beings, the writing becomes less compelling. George's romances, for example, lost their interest when they shifted out of satire (for instance, his dealing with Marion's ideas of romance and sex) into personal drama, and the treatment of his marriage certainly ran overlong. When Wells gets away from his principal subject, England in his time, he also seems to be on less firm ground, as in the quap episode (though it is not without its points of interest, among them a parody of Joseph Conrad and his Heart of Darkness). And the conclusion is uneven. George's sailing down the Thames is a descriptive tour de force--but his doing so from aboard a destroyer seems an unnecessarily ambiguous note (a fact for which Mark Schorer took Wells to task in "Technique as Discovery"). All the same, the strengths of the book far outweigh its weaknesses, and remind one that literary history has not been altogether fair to this side of Wells' body of work.

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