When I was a teenager, in the course of a few years I gobbled books by all the masters of science fiction — Heinlein, Asimov, Bradbury, Harlan Ellison — paying more attention to plot than prose. That was mostly appropriate, both as a 13-year-old and because for most, what made the books special was their exquisite and inventive plots. I know I read Fahrenheit 451: what I remembered most vividly was the ending scenes of old men whispering excerpts to one another, which is where its stellar plot takes you. After I left the boys behind for a more varied literary canon, I lumped Bradbury in with the others and never looked back.
This week, the book came into my hands almost accidentally. “OK, how come no one told me he’s a poet?” I asked Rachel, astonished by its first pages.
It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flicked the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. … Montag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by flame. He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror. Later, going to sleep, he would feel the fiery smile still gripped by his face muscles, in the dark. It never went away, that smile, it never ever went away, as long as he remembered.
What a fool I was at 13, I thought. Just as I was then sneering at Kerouac. in the Bradbury I sped past something that would have mattered to me a scant two years later, the year I discovered James Joyce. I looked at the copyright date, 1950, and first saw the obvious: Miller, HUAC Berryman. But I was also taken by its only-slightly-off-base prefiguring of our televisual age, which I now know Bradbury later identified as the book’s core message. In Montag’s house,the walls are alive: three of them, at least. Those walls are filled with a story half-acted by people his wife calls “the family”, just as my students at CUNY saw J-Lo and Kobe Bryant as members of theirs. I think Bradbury also did pretty well for 1950 in predicting reality TV:
The homemaker, that’s me, is the missing part. When it comes time for the missing lines, they all look at me out of the three walls and I say the lines. Isn’t that fun, Guy?
“How long you figure before we save up and get the fourth wall torn out and a fourth wall-TV put in?” the protagonist’s wife asks him. “It’s only two thousand dollars.” That’s about the price of the bigger plasma TVs out there now, that are all the rage (a sale of which prompted those awful Walmart tramplings on Black Friday). And while the books are burned to keep control over the ideas within them, Bradbury knows by then that we’re not actually in Orwell’s world, we’re in Aldous Huxley’s. I wonder if the director of the inevitable new movie based on the book (superseding the visual poetry of the Truffaut film above) will know to riff on those themes, or if he’s planning to turn Montag into some Neo. I hear Tom Hanks has dropped out, which is just as well: this is obviously a job for Ironman.