Friday, 2 December 2011

Review: The Lathe of Heaven

The Lathe Of Heaven: A Novel by Ursula K Le Guin (1971)

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

William ShakespeareThe Tempest: Act 4, scene 1, 148–158
That's how The Lathe of Heaven should have started, but, instead, we get an obscure quote about Confucius.  It's neither a very apt quote and neither is it very surprising, which pretty much sums up the novel.  Despite her reputation, which I've always thought was due more to her politics than her talent, Le Guin has always been a very tepid writer who never could come to grip with her stories.  Some novels end, others stop, Le Guin's just peter out as she runs out of things to say.  From the detached, disinterested tone she brings to her writing, I often suspect that she simply gets bored with a project beyond a certain point and only wants to get shot of it.  The Lathe of Heaven is no exception.

George Orr is an unexceptional man of the year 2002.  In fact, he's so unexceptional that he's exceptional because of it.  On every scale he lands right on the mean.  The only true peculiarity about his is that when he dreams, they become reality, but only he is aware of this change.  Convicted of drug abuse after trying to dope himself into not dreaming, Orr is sent to Dr Haber,  a psychologist who specialises in dream research.  Haber soon discovers Orr's secret and starts to use it to alter the world to suit his own ends and a battle of wills soon develops.

This is a story that couldn't be written today; one seemingly about world-shaking consequences, but really a  fight between two men in a doctor's office.  In many ways, the sci fi element could be eliminated and this could be simply a drama about a man and his psychiatrist.  Orr is well drawn, though maddeningly passive, effeminate, ineffectual and (worst) fatalistic.  And we're supposed to identify with him.  Haber, on the other hand, is a walking caricature of a Benthamite gone wild; creating the greatest good for the greatest number right and left and damn the consequences.   Surprisingly for such an arch-Feminist author, Le Guinn's female character, Heather Lelache, is very sketchy and peripheral with Le Guinn imagining it's enough to make a woman "strong" by telling us she is.

The real problem is that this is a novel of ideas and most of them are half-digested New Age quasi-zen pap mixed in with Le Guinn's background research on dream psychology that she insists on sharing in toto.  Worse than that, she is incapable of merely making a point and then moving on.  Instead, she is forever circling back to something from earlier chapters and labours it until it's as thin as the seat of an old pair of trousers.  We got the point a hundred pages ago, please ease up and hold the literary flourishes.  Finally, the story doesn't so much resolve as take a last gasp of air and expire.

Adapted for the screen, once by PBS and remade with James Cann in what seemed like a fit of absent mindedness, The Lathe of Heaven is a decent story, but one that ultimately sinks under it's philosophical and literary pretences.

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