Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Very Private Life by Michael Frayn

This is what she always wanted to know--how the outside classes live, what the world is like outside the holovision circuits.  And this is it.  She gazes about her with benevolence.  These are real people, undistorted by holovision!  This is the real world!
My copy
Remember how much I loved Paul Lehr's cover for Croyd? Well, here we have another Lehr masterpiece, the cover to the Dell 1969 edition of Michael Frayn's 1968 novel A Very Private Life.  The colors, the shadows, the tubes, the sphere, the man's face, the sharp points of the sphere's stand, the woman's nude body, the red arcs of electricity...beautiful!  (This gorgeous painting would later appear in non-English markets on the covers of other books, even though all the elements of the illustration are directly based on things in Frayn's text.)

I've never read anything by Frayn before, though he is an important playwright and my wife is a big fan of Copenhagen in particular.  Let's see what A Very Private Life is all about. 

A Very Private Life is written in the style of a fairy tale--its first line is "Once upon a time there will be a little girl called Uncumber."  Its tone and its short chapters reminded me of a children's book, but this is a fairy tale for adults, written in the future tense and the present tense, about social class and familial and sexual relationships, about the vast social and psychological distances between individuals and between groups of people, distances which make satisfying connections between people so difficult to achieve.

In the future, middle-class people, known as "the inside classes," live in hermetically sealed underground houses, houses which they never leave.  All the air, food (largely pills and goop that comes out of a tap) and goods they need are brought in, and all the waste they produce sent out, via pipes and tubes.  Communication and entertainment is provided through the holovision system, a network which will strongly remind 21st-century readers of the internet.  Nobody ever comes to visit; education and socializing, including sex, are all conducted over the holovision; members of the inside classes almost never lay their eyes directly on a fellow human being--they even wear dark glasses around the house, though they leave their bodies bare, and family members living in the same house tend to communicate via the holovision with each other rather than leave their personal rooms.  Married couples even send their sperm and ova out through a tube, and later receive their baby via tube!

First edition
The inside classes control their moods via drugs; among other things, their pharmacopoeia includes "calmants" should they get anxious and "Hilarin," to be taken before a party to ensure they laugh at even the oldest and weakest jokes.  A hallucinogen, "Libidin," is taken during their long distance love making sessions, along with "Orgasmin;" lovers share visions of flying over mountains and through clouds and such romantic claptrap.

We learn all this as we follow the maturation of Uncumber, the daughter of a "decider" (a kind of government bureaucrat) who lives in one of the houses with her father, mother and a younger brother.  Uncumber is a curious, troublesome child who refuses to take her drugs and wonders what it is like outside.  When, in her late teens, she dials a wrong number on her holovision and meets a man named Noli, who lives far away and speaks a foreign language, Uncumber inexplicably falls in love with him.  She leaves the house and travels thousands of miles to meet Noli, having numerous adventures in the strange outside world of the teeming working classes, who wear clothes, breathe the air the house dwellers fear because it is full of germs and pollution, and perform the manual labor that produces the food and other goods consumed by the inside classes.

Having observed the life of ease and privacy lived by the inside classes, we experience the generally drab and monotonous, but occasionally passionate and dangerous, life of the lower orders as Uncumber moves in with Noli's family, who reside in a ruined mansion.  Noli's large family has only one holovision, one of Noli's three wives cooks their food herself on a stove, and Noli not only has physical sex with his wives, but sometimes strikes them.  To Uncumber's disappointment, when Noli finally has sex with her, instead of engaging in the intimate all-natural sex she craves, he apes the practices of the inside classes and takes Libidin pills before coupling with her:
She has corrupted him, she realizes.  The world which she represents still hangs about her, even though she has rejected it.  It has touched against Noli's world and bruised it, just as wealthier worlds have always bruised and destroyed the poorer ones they have come into contact with down the ages, however good the intentions of their representatives.
In the final third of the novel Uncumber leaves Noli's family but gets lost in a forest on her way to the rocket terminal.  Desperate for help, she knocks on the airlocks of various houses, but her fellow members of the middle-class refuse to aid her, and she almost starves to death before being captured by a band of nomadic brigands.  She briefly experiences life among the lowest of the low, accompanying them as they break into a house and murder its inhabitants.  When they catch up with the murderers Uncumber is taken into custody by the police, known as "the Kind People" in this world, an apparent reference to Aeschylus' play The Eumenides; "Eumenides," which means "Kindly Ones," is a name for the Furies, the Greek goddesses of vengeance who punish wrongdoers.

A recent British edition; I guess
this is a stock photo--it could
apply to just about any story
about a (Caucasian) teenage girl 
Uncumber is provided a house of her own by the authorities; for reasons that felt a little contrived (disappointing in a novel which otherwise is so convincing, in which everybody's feelings and actions feel so natural) she is not put back in contact with her family.  In the closing chapters of the book Frayn informs us that over the decades and centuries the inside classes will grow even more isolated and individualistic, insiders Uncumber's age deciding to forgo having children and to break contact with their elder relatives and to live out their centuries in solitude.

I take Frayn's argument to be that we are doomed to be alone because we cannot know one another, and that our relationships are bound to be disappointing or destructive.  Illustrating the unbridgeable gaps between peoples and individuals, and how these gaps distort our views of each other, Uncumber, as a young child, calls the people who live outside houses "animals," but when as an adult she meets Noli and his large family, because they live in a (albeit ruined) palace, she calls them "kings and queens."  Our views of each other are shallow and inaccurate, based more on our own desires and fears than knowledge of each other, such knowledge being almost impossible to obtain.

In our last episode we talked about Anthony Burgess' The Wanting Seed, so I guess you could say this is our second dystopia in a row by a British writer with major cred in the literary mainstream.  I was a little lukewarm about The Wanting Seed; it is amusing and full of challenging ideas and literary allusions, but doesn't provide emotional depth.  I can be more enthusiastic about Frayn's A Very Private Life; while not as dense and complex as the Burgess, it has the kind of sharp clear images and emotional weight that move me: despite its fairy tale tone, it feels very "real."  Frayn's depictions of human relationships and Uncumber's feelings ring true and pull at the heartstrings, while his descriptions of Uncumber's world--her home; a seaside dominated by the machinery of industrialized aquaculture; the grounds of Noli's ruined mansion; the forest where she encounters despair, hope, and then atrocity--paint vivid images in the mind.

Very good.  My wife owns a copy of Frayn's 1966 novel The Tin Men; maybe I should check it out as well.      

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