Michael O’Brien on Dystopian Literature

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I recently conducted an interview with Michael O’Brien at The Jesuit Post in which he commented on the current state of dystopian literature.  He observed:

In short, authority in any form is presented as tragically flawed, and the solution presented is individualism combined with physical powers and, increasingly, distorted supernatural or preternatural powers. We all agree that tyranny is bad, but most people think it will be countered only when we, the “good” people, have enough knowledge and power—power of all kinds. In most story-lines this is usually combined with romance and sexual licentiousness—all the usual clichés about what freedom is. It’s basically an adolescent psychology. It would not stand up against any real tyrant, and surely not an Antichrist.

This analysis resonated with me, since I generally like dystopian literature and to some degree try to keep up with it.  But I’m generally disappointed.  Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised when adolescent dystopian literature — like The Hunger Games or Divergent — manifest an “adolescent psychology.”  To be expected I guess.  Although, as I’ve said beforeThe Hunger Games was at least a richer experience to the degree that as far as I could tell only one character in all three books manifested anything like Christian moral character.  And I always like when an author doesn’t really side with anyone.   Still, that only barely mitigated how bad I thought the third book was. 

But when a dystopian book like The Road exchanges moments of true metaphysical insight concerning “borrowed time and borrowed world and borrowed eyes with which to sorrow it” for the whimpering individualistic conclusion that one must “carry the fire… that is inside you,” I despair again.  What makes Michael O’Brien’s dystopian literature so much more appealing — and I can’t wait for his new novel Elijah in Jerusalem to come out — is that his Catholic imagination inspires him to posit real Tyrants and a real Eschatology, kind of like you find in Canticle for Leibowitz.  Enjoy the interview. 

  • http://gravatar.com/hornorsilk Henry Karlson

    I have a hard time finding the Catholic imagination with Michael O’Brien with the kinds of comments he has made over Harry Potter and similar works. The Catholic imagination is the yes and — his is the fundamentalist no, no. He’s quite immature, when it comes to the search for truth, imo.

    • Thales

      Henry,
      Don’t base your judgment of O’Brien solely on the fact that he doesn’t like Harry Potter. Give him a read first, before coming to a judgment. I recommend Island of the World, just as Nathan suggests.

  • K

    While I find beautiful the paintings of Mr. O’Brien, I do not see literary merit in the novels of his that I have read. Because I do not think that he is a talented writer, I do not find him effectively communicating whatever Catholic imagination he possesses. Nathan, could you recommend to me one of his novels where you feel he effectively communicates that imagination?

    Graham Greene, one of my favourites, despised having his status as a writer prefaced by the identification that he was Catholic. O’Brien, in my view, possesses a problem similar to other Christian / Catholic writers, filmmakers and / or musicians. That problem, in my view, is that such work stands on the identification of the Christian identity of such writers, filmmakers and / or musicians, and not on the merit of their product. Even though the gentleman, who introduces your interview, does not intend his words in the way I am going to interpret them, I agree: O’Brien has chosen to shout. I, for one, initially lent my ear. I later withdrew it as I did not believe Mr. O’Brien to be a talented writer.

    I do not doubt that he is a devout man and I know something of the relationship which exists between his family and the Society of Jesus but to find him praised for the Catholic imagination that, I feel, he does not particularly effectively communicate and then to find Cormac McCarthy derided is, kind of, ironic. Cormac McCarthy is someone about whom a conversation regarding Catholic imagination would be very interesting. Instead, this post advertises a misreading of him and, as an admirer of McCarthy, I feel inclined to respond.

    • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

      I really like this reply, and I agree wholeheartedly with your assertion that most Christians will praise a book/movie/music because the maker identifies it as a Christian work, NOT because the work has any artistic merit.

      A couple of summers ago my mother and I performed an intriguing experiment. We watched a Mormon film. The film was a fictional story of a family’s encounter with Joseph Smith. It is similar in style and artistic merit to most Christian films, but with a Mormon twist. We did not like the film, and we complained about many of the motifs that the film used, how heavy handed it was, etc. It also gave us insight into how non-Christians might feel watching a Christian film.I think that every Christian who likes Christian films should perform this experiment.

      I’ve never read either O’Brien or McCarthy, though the identification of O’Brien as a shouter means that I probably won’t. Still, I’m curious to hear more of your thoughts on both of them.

    • http://underachindolea.blogspot.com Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

      I love Cormac McCarthy. He is actually my favorite novelist, alongside Tolkien and Dostoevsky. I can’t think of better novelists than those three. Having grown up in New Mexico, I can’t get enough of his border material. The first time I read “All the Pretty Horses,” I stayed up all night reading it in one sitting. I also think that there is no grace in McCarthy’s best material, like “Blood Meridian.” His is a sacramental world that points nowhere. As Nick Ripatrazone explains, “humanity is afraid of divine retribution but still resorts to violence instead of grace.” In his later stuff like “The Road,” I think he resorts to images of grace without real grace, sentimental humanistic expressions of salvation. I don’t really like that.

      What have you read of O’Brien? My favorite is “Island of the World.” Have you read that? I don’t mind his shouting because often I find he shouts very well. Often his message is heavy-handed; but often it is beautiful I think. And I find his Catholic imagination often coming through very clearly especially in many of the conversations of his characters.

  • http://underachindolea.blogspot.com Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

    Ripatrazone’s thing can be found here:http://americamagazine.org/issue/culture/shards-faith

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Nathan,

    thanks for linking to this interview: I would never have seen it otherwise. Some years ago I taught a first year seminar on dystopian literature and preparing for it led me to read and view dozens of books and films in the genre. Based on this I think MIchael O’Brien has a rather shallow understanding of dystopian literature. The setting is often—though not always and perhaps not even in the majority of cases—the end of the world, but it is generally NOT about the end times or even the spirit of the antiChrist as he puts it. The best dystopian literature is intended to be a shrewd commentary on the world as it stands today. Even if this commentary is not Catholic, or even anti-religious in its orientation, it will have something to say that we should listen to. A very good example of this is Sheri Tepper’s novel, The Gate to Women’s Country, a book I strongly recommend.

  • http://underachindolea.blogspot.com Nathan O'Halloran, SJ

    I imagine he’s primarily concerned about the “solutions” they try to offer, when they indeed even venture that far. O’Brien doesn’t really write dystopian literature. His “apocalypses” are not about the end of the world either, any more than the book of Revelation is. But all of his books do attempt to delve deeply into the mystery of evil in the universe and, whatever folks think about him as an author, I tend to think he does so rather well. He has a keen eye for certain kinds of evil, although certainly not for every kind, and as Henry Karlson thinks, even for evil where it isn’t. But to the degree that he’s isolated a profound “rootlessness” like Percy as at the heart of much of the modern experience, he’s not going to have much patience for solutions based on rugged rootless cowboy individualism.

  • Mark VA

    One of the best dystopian novels, in my view, is “We”, by Yevgeny Zamyatin:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/We_%28novel%29

    It influenced several writers in the English speaking world, Orwell being one.

    Also, I agree with the sentiments expressed in the Michael O’Brian quote, but with one caveat: Broadly speaking, the distopian literature and film he’s talking about, is being produced by those who have not experienced actual tyranny. However, these writers and artists are engaging with the subject with what factual information they have, as complemented by the level of their art. Thus, it should not be surprising, if the final result sometimes feels uneven.

    The question is, perhaps, can someone with no experience of totalitarianism, explain its hidden essence? I would say, some can: Orwell comes very close. Zamyatin, on the other hand, did experience it, and not only got its essence right, but projected it to its logical destination.

    • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

      You bring up a good point. Has a person who experienced tyranny ever produced a distopian novel?

      • Mark VA

        Emma: Thank you for your reply.

        I think that to discuss such subjects in a productive way, there must first be a common understanding of terminology. Words like “tyranny”, or “real tyrant” (both used in the O”Brian quote), may mean one thing to those who have experienced tyranny and real tyrants, and another to those who only read about them, or seen them in a movie.

        I think that those who have no experience of such things, should use primary materials on these subjects, to refine their thinking first. For example, I would recommend this start:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leszek_Ko%C5%82akowski

        As far as your question, the answer is in the affirmative – Yevgeny Zamyatin experienced, captured, and correctly projected into the future the hidden nature of totalitarianism, and Orwell is in his league as well, but with one caveat.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I think you are narrowing the scope of distopian literature if you peg it solely to writing about tyranny or totalitarianism. Zamyatin did experience the early days of Stalinism and that shaped We. However, Orwell was not writing about Stalinism (or rather not only about Stalinism) in 1984: he was also commenting on the mindset of the labor party in England in 1948. Margaret Atwood was writing about misogyny and its aftermath in A Handmaid’s Tale. Tepper in A Gate To Women’s Country is writing about the cult of masculinity and violence. Le Guin in The Lathe of Heaven was writing about hubris and the belief that man can solve all problems through progress. Huxley in Brave New World was talking about corporatism and facile trust in technology.

      • Mark VA

        Good points, Mr. Cruz-Uribe, however:

        The issues associated with the Labour Party of England, misogyny, the cult of masculinity and its associated violence, hubris, and corporatism, absolutely pale in comparison with those of totalitarianism. They are not of the same class. The “distopia” for the former, is not the distopia of the latter. A distinction between the two needs to be maintained, for the sake of clarity.

        Thus I stand by what I wrote – the essence of totalitarianism is not easily discernible to those who have not felt its lash.

  • Julia Smucker

    The Hunger Games is the only series referred to here that I’ve actually read, and in regard to just that, I partly agree with O’Brien’s observation. The revolution in The Hunger Games’ Panem is most powerful when it is nonviolent, the most prominent example being the end of the first book when Katniss and Peeta beat the Capital at its game by refusing to play it, showing willingness to die if necessary rather than to kill. And there are other flashes of human solidarity, such as the mourning of fallen competitors. These things show dramatically how powerful a threat nonviolence can be to violent powers. But by the third book, Katniss becomes just another soldier, and the story loses its potency.

    • http://emmasrandomthoughts.wordpress.com emmasrandomthoughts

      I also think it’s important to remember that, in the first book, the biggest threat to Panem is the selflessness of the main characters. The whole idea of the Hunger Games is that people will do anything to stay alive. At the beginning of the story, Katniss is spared from the reaping, her sister is chosen instead. What does Katniss do? She volunteers to take Prim’s place. At the same time, Peta is chosen as the other tribute, and he silently resolves to do whatever he can to make sure Katniss survives The Hunger Games.

      It is very unfortunate that this theme is never fully developed or realized in the trilogy, but there is a hint of this in the books. I agree, the third book was a huge disappointment. Collins bit off way more than she could chew, and it shows.