I have a habit of getting stuck on things. I would call myself a fan of the band Built to Spill, but I’ve only ever owned or listened to one of their albums (“Keep it Like a Secret”). There’s no particular reason I didn’t rush out to get the rest of their catalogue, or that I still haven’t, but I have listened to that album many many times.
Same goes for authors I’m into. I’ve read 5 Ursula Le Guin books (the Earthsea books 1-4 + Lathe of Heaven), which, actually, seems like a fair amount of a specific author’s writing. But of course she’s written quite a lot more, and it seems kind of obvious that I’d be interested in some of her other books, particularly Left Hand of Darkness, since it’s so well-regarded, and since I love her other books that I’ve read so so much.
Long story short: I decided to read The Dispossessed, perhaps because I’d like to break my own weird isolationism, but also because I wanted to read something I knew would be a little more than a yarn.
But a detour first! Since I mostly read on my phone, and since I can’t buy books from within the Kindle app., I went to the non-mobile Amazon site (which is incredibly hard to navigate on my phone), and I accidentally bought another book titled The Dispossessed. Are you kidding me?!
Do people title their self-pubbed books after other, actually good books on purpose to snare accidental purchasers? I’m half-pissed and half-impressed at their moxie.
For a few minutes I thought I should go ahead and read it. I mean, I did BUY IT after all. I guess I thought I should punish myself. But anyway, I didn’t. It’s unreadable. It wasn’t formatted for Kindle (or maybe the app. I’m using), so it looks like crap – I’d have had to read it with my phone sideways just to make out the text. Oh, and it sucks.
But The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin does not suck, and is in fact very excellent. I feel a little like I can’t discuss it without sounding like a first-year college student, because it definitely seems like that kind of book. There’s even a study guide at the back of the book.
Formally, it does some interesting things. The point of view is pretty fluid and drifts around, even though the entire book is focused on its main character (Shevek). And it’s told in two narratives that are told in-between each other – one that begins with his departure from his home world and ends with his return, and one that begins with his early life and ends with his departure. The symbol of the circle is prevalent throughout the book, so this narrative form makes a lot of sense, and is (I thought) a very intelligent use of structure to enhance a story thematically.
At a sentence level, Le Guin is absolutely one of my faves. Her descriptions are great and her language is precise. She’s very frank, in a way that makes you feel like you’ve temporarily moved to a more unashamed universe.
Plot-wise, the book is this: a guy leaves his home world, has some experiences that challenge and ultimately affirm his beliefs, gives his life’s work to the universe, and then goes home. Pretty thin, right? It does not feel thin.
The book is ridiculous in its intelligence, really. It works as a hard SF novel and as philosophy. It attempts no less than to deconstruct the human experience, and maybe even to plot a course for it. Somehow this all works.
It’s interesting though, because it seems like it’s somewhat out of style, since it’s so much a product of its time (1974).
I’m not a believer in the exceptionalism of the Baby Boom generation, or maybe I should say that I don’t believe in their exceptionalism quite as much as they seem to believe in their own exceptionalism. I’m probably just skeptical of those kind of claims in general. Like, I think some great things probably happened before and after the summer of 1967, or whatever.
Living so close to Berkeley probably gives me a skewed vantage point, but the ideas in this book – the politics (it describes an anarcho-syndicalist utopia), the openness to all types of sexuality and families, the feminism, etc. – while not completely controversial, are still very far from the reality we live in, no matter how they’ve been accepted as a part of what’s okay to be considered. In other words, this all still seemed very relevant.
While reading this book, I had the thought that it might be the antithesis of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, but then I thought about the fact that neither ideology discussed would have much interest in a state of any kind. Stranger in a Strange Land also came to mind.
The Dispossessed has some of the stridence that I might expect from a book written when this was written, but it never felt didactic to me. I think this is because Le Guin considers these ideas so thoroughly and carefully within the pages. Certainly all points of view get equal footing – the profiteers disarm Shevek by not being as horrible as he was led to believe; flaws in the anarchist ideals of his homeland are revealed.
In the end it seems to be about the need for evolution in thought, not so much about one ideology being preferable to another. Somehow, Le Guin makes this prospect optimistic, when I think it would be easier for most to present that as the intractable condition of humanity.
I saw that one of the publishing runs of this book has a simple black cover with a red anarchy symbol on it. It occurs to me that there are many ways to read this book. I don’t know that someone who self-identifies as an anarchist would find this to be an endorsement… I suppose that must be the case.
This is sort of where I realize that I could either write another 15,000 words about this book, or just kind of wrap up my thoughts on its politics, especially since I’m sure you can find a lot more coherent critiques of this work than I’m capable of.
For me, I feel like Le Guin is somehow underrated, which seems like a crazy thing to say – this book won the Hugo and Nebula awards. The edition I read has a study guide, which means that someone, somewhere, taught this book to college kids (I assume?). People have cared about this book and felt like it had something immediate and meaningful to say, and I completely agree.
There’s something so wonderful, to me, about her writing. If the author is revealed between the lines of their work, the person you see in her books seems pretty terrific. I had this impression while reading that she sees that this lever here makes that gear, way way over there, turn; she sees the world without “the walls” (her metaphor, and one that’s repeated throughout the book). And even with that insight, she still seems to find it all magnificent and beautiful, hopeful.
There’s something beyond the thought-provoking in this book, something that is also life-affirming. I mean, I think that’s pretty great. Who’s writing like that in genre right now?