Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Metropolis, or 222 Pages of "Huh?"

Once and a while, when I’m poking around at Deseret Industries looking for new used books to read, I stumble across one that’s considered, in some ways, to be a classic. As I try to expand my reading repertoire, I try to read these classics just to add to the base of useless cultural knowledge my brain possesses.

This time around, it was Metropolis, by Thea Von Harbou. I’m familiar with the movie on which this book was based (People try to tell me it’s the other way around, but as I understand it, the genesis is like this: The book is based on the film screenplay, which was produced before the book came out. So it’s kind of like 2001, with the chicken coming after the egg). I’ve seen parts of the movie and, frankly, was pretty bored by it. I think people get off on it because it’s a “first” – the first major science fiction movie. Fine. But that doesn’t stop the film from being dull. The story is dull. The book is dull. Yes, there are themes – oddly, that men seem to be driven to overthrowing oppressive tyrannies not by the glimpse of the poor guttersnipes who live in the subterranean worlds below or through experiencing the bone-wearyingness of the workaday Joe in the blue linens and sockless hard shoes, but by chance encounters with beautiful women. A romantic notion, that, but hardly convincing. (There’s also the theme of running back to Mommy for approval or approbation, as we see in the character of Joh Fredersen; kind of reminds me of the Iron Hans myth, but, oddly, in reverse.) Also, the theme of the hands and the brain needing a moderator, the heart. I get it. But I'm a little fuzzy as to how Freder is going to act as the heart/moderator, as he and Maria insist he will act. You don't act as a moderator simply because you're a rebel to the system. Josaphat and Georgi were also rebels, but no one asked them to moderate. Von Harbou fails to explain, in my opinion, what makes Freder all that special, other than that he's one of the Sons, and that his Daddy created the city and orders it destroyed so Freder can pursue the woman he loves. Love is a strong motivator, but tell that to Stalin or Hitler and watch them turn over the keys to the country . . .

I do appreciate that Rotwang is the prototype mad scientist, living in seclusion, ignoring or ignorant of the consequences of the machines and devices he has created, because he seems a prototype of the 20th century’s worst tyrants, including Stalin and Hitler (the latter, I understand, was a big fan of the film Metropolis). But throughout the book, the characterizations are so flat, it’s hard to see what motivates them to action, outside of the love (platonic) of a woman, be it robot, real, or Mama.

The writing is also odd. The style is cluttered, with some incomplete sentences flying into the text, leaving me to read them several times over and not getting much sense out of them. Von Harbou also tends to repeat herself, word-for-word, in description and metaphor, which, in some instances, is a good literary trick, but in this case it resembles only the boilerplates of the machines the comically-marching workers loathe (except for Grot, though, he being the only character who showed any three-dimensionality, even though, like the text, he’s repetitive). The back-cover blurb compares Von Harbou’s writing style to that of Ray Bradbury. Hardly. Bradbury is light years ahead of Von Harbou in knowing the rules and, more importantly, knowing how and when to break them for best effect. I think I’m particularly struck by the absence of good description of this metropolis where the story takes place; throughout the book, I had a hard time trying to create a mental picture of the city, and the individual places Von Harbou describes. I appreciate it when authors aren’t riveters, leaving some information to be filled in by the reader, but some, as in this case, take that too the extreme, leaving the description too much to the imagination. Even Rotwang’s house is difficult for me to describe; that may be remedied by another few readings, but I doubt it.

What makes the biggest difference, however, is that for me, sometimes great characterization can help me overcome other shortcomings, because I can concentrate on the character, which in many cases helps me more strongly elicit setting. But if both setting and characterization are weak, it’s harder for me to form a picture. This is good stuff for me to keep in mind as I work on my own writing.

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