The Curmudgeon


Tuesday, December 26, 2017


The author of One, a dystopian novel published in 1953, was David Karp, later a noted TV screenwriter. Besides episodes for various long-running series, Karp wrote a fine TV film called The Brotherhood of the Bell, about a fraternity member who balks at his orders to betray a friend and finds his life being systematically taken apart.

The dystopian state in One is superficially benign, with no overt means of state terror; although, like the America where the book appeared, it does not shrink from using psychological torture and hypocritically disguised violence (such as arranged embolisms) upon those who step out of line. The state church typifies the general atmosphere: without formal doctrine or clergy, and with congregations who meet and testify Quaker-fashion, its adherents seem to be mainly neurotic housewives and toadying mediocrities whose ostentatious modesty extends to using their surnames instead of the word I.

At the time of its publication, One drew facile comparisons with Darkness at Noon, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, but it lacks their rigour in working out its ideas and Karp's style has slipshod moments which would never have escaped intact from Koestler, Orwell or Huxley. In its treatment of the relationship between the rebel and the inquisitor, One is perhaps a distant relative of Chesterton's Napoleon of Notting Hill, in which the representatives of order and freedom are shown to be reflections of one another.

Like the protagonist in The Brotherhood of the Bell, the rebel in One is a college professor; and like Rubashov in Darkness at Noon, Burden is a willing functionary of his eventual oppressors. He is a happy and self-complacent police spy, first seen using his lip-reading ability to eavesdrop at a distance in the college refectory. Unlike the protagonists in any of the three classic dystopias mentioned above, Burden's rebellion is entirely unintentional and unconscious; and the state only finds him out because his name happens to come up in a random sample for testing. Because Burden's case is purely subconscious - "a totally integrated heretic" - the Commissioner is all for simply hustling him off to execution; but the Commissioner's best inquisitor persuades him that for the sake of future generations an experiment in psychological reclamation should be made, and Burden is only too willing to co-operate.

The inquisitor, Lark, is characterised just as fully as Burden himself, and arguably more sympathetically; and this is both the book's greatest interest and its greatest frustration. As in Thomas M Disch's "Thesis on Social Forms and Social Controls in the USA", the state is imaginative enough to recruit heretics in its own service, and Lark himself is a testament to its success; but the story never explores either Lark's former rebellion or the possibility that Burden's present rebellion might be similarly put to work. Perhaps Burden is simply too mediocre to be useful (his rebellion never once extends beyond a largely unconscious and wholly unjustified sense of superiority); but if Karp had only found a way to extend Lark's experiment beyond the Commissioner's stipulated fortnight, One might well have deserved comparison with the classic English-language dystopias of the last century.


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