Mockingbird by Walter Tevis

‘Don’t ask; relax.’

Every week I take a train journey of about two hours. Once, I would take this journey twice each day, and although it eventually became too large a bite out of my life, for a while I was able to lose myself in the time. I’d write on a small laptop— a book of short stories, the beginnings of a novel— or I would watch the landscape unreeling past the window.

These days, I can be tired out by the return journey, and the old routines have slipped. Where I would once write, I began reading, and later still, once the technology had improved, I would watch a film. A hundred and twenty minutes is standard movie time, after all. Once you buy an Ipad, all the ideals go out of the window.

This slip in personal standards occurred to me recently, when, on that journey, I read Mockingbird by Walter Tevis. The author of the novels of The Hustler, The Colour of Money and The Man Who Fell to Earth, Tevis is a writer who owes something to film, especially if you think of films as being more permanent adverts for books which might have been forgotten.

Written in 1980, four years before Tevis’s death, Mockingbird follows the relationship between three characters in a distant Earth future: Spofforth, a Make Nine robot who, over hundreds of years, has grown to become overseer of all New York, and two humans Paul Bentley, and Mary Lou. Both artificial and natural life exist in states of conditioned anguish. Make Nines have a history of committing suicide, although, crucially Spofforth has had that potential programmed out of his system. People now expend their aggressive tendencies on violent TV shows and porn, insulate themselves from reality through drugs, avoid any kind of public display of intimacy, and practice functional casual sex (‘quick sex is best’). If that all gets too much, they kill themselves in public conflagrations.

More importantly, for the trajectory of the novel, no one now reads. That is, until Bentley, an obscure university lecturer (‘when I was teaching, I used to make a little joke during my hallucinating-to-orgasm lecture’) discovers an educational film with an accompanying book, and teaches himself this lost art. While Bentley wants to educate others, Spofforth has him decode the titles on a library of silent films. It’s an activity which connects Bentley to the past, and thereby attunes him to a world beyond everything he has previously known. Reading soon leads Bentley to writing, to ‘memorize’ every day of his life in the way that previously would have been unthinkable.

You know that part of you that wants to list every person or incident that has ever pissed you off…? There’s times where Mockingbird might resemble that, a chance at the end of his life for Tevis to settle a few philosophical or personal scores. As an example, check out the part when Mary Lou stumbles on ‘the last book ever published by Random House… called Heavy Rape.’

‘”With this novel, fifth in a series, Random House closes its editorial doors. The abolition of reading programmes in schools during the past twenty years has helped bring this about…'”

In case you were worried, Heavy Rape won’t be published until 2189, so  James Patterson can keep cranking the death factory for a few years yet…

By the end of the book, Bentley and Mary-Lou have been cast as a new Adam and Eve, given the chance to name things in the garden, a pure, Utopian act, where the acts of writing and reading are almost blurred. I don’t want to get all doomy, and claim that in the age of Youtube and iPads that we’re on the road to Mockingbird‘s state of ignorant subservience. (There’s always Kindle, after all…) But technology is fading out print, and amongst some sections of the population, the appetite for reading wanes. Watch a film, and lull yourself into non-thinking, get yourself anaesthetised as you skim over the skin of dreams. Compared to that, reading is never a passive activity, but a life affirming, even creative act. However beguiling The Image, in Tevis’s warning, you can’t forget The Word.

‘Reading is too intimate,’ Spofforth said. ‘it will put you too close to the feelings and the ideas of others. It will disturb and confuse you.’

Text © Daniel Bennett

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