Thursday, September 20, 2018

Inman Majors

Inman Majors is the author of five novels including the newly released Penelope Lemon: Game On!.

A native of Tennessee, Majors received his BA from Vanderbilt University and his MFA from The University of Alabama. He is a professor of English at James Madison University and makes his home in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Recently I asked Majors about what he was reading. His reply:
My daughter was reading Brave New World by Aldous Huxley for school and I realized I was the only American not to have read it. It’s a great book, and in my opinion the best of the dystopian novels. I found the concept of government control via pleasant distraction (guilt-free sex and feel good drugs known as feelies) to be much more in touch with our current milieu than the forced coercion of Orwell’s 1984 and more realistically ominous. A strange, excellent book and one that influenced a number of other books in the same genre.

This got me on a bit of dystopian bender, so I checked out Kurt Vonnegut’s first novel, Player Piano. I’m a huge fan of KV and had read Cat’s Cradle, Breakfast of Champions, The Sirens of Titan, and others multiple times. I still love all of those, but to me Vonnegut’s first novel is his most prescient. In it, he anticipates a world where the only jobs are for the military and engineers. Everyone else gets a monthly stipend that covers food, boarding, beer money, etc. but despite having basic needs covered, the general population is unhappy and unsettled. They want to work and feel worthwhile—essentially they desire to feel like contributing members of society. Here, in a book written in 1952, Vonnegut anticipates the universal wage. It’s not as funny as some of his other novels but it’s smart. It’s also the novel where I first realized Vonnegut’s debt to Sinclair Lewis, specifically his masterpiece, Babbitt. Player Piano is not just a commentary on the dangers of an industrial military machinery out of control, but also a look at society—the machinations and clubs of those in the successful crowd, the winners in life—through a narratively scientific lens. Sinclair Lewis is the best at this detached bugs-in-a-jar mode of fictive observation, and it was fun for me to see the early Vonnegut showing his influences (sidenote—Vonnegut said that he “cheerfully ripped off the plot of Brave New World for this one).

Continuing the dystopian jag I knocked out Fahrenheit 451. It also shows a futuristic world where the preferred population control is distraction. In it, people have wall-to-wall TVs in their dens and can participate in their own shows. That is, shows—soap operas, in particular—are tailored to the specific person. The end result is a population that can feel as if it’s interacting with the rest of the world while never leaving the comforts of home. There’s also the book burning of course, but it was the participatory entertainment stuff that seems to me to best anticipate the current milieu of ever-expanding—ever-encroaching— virtual reality. The novel ends, however, on an optimistic note as we see our protagonist, the former book-burning fireman, with his band of intellectual hoboes returning from their exile to try and rebuild society. Another good, weird, stimulating book.

A book I absolutely loved, and one I found strangely uplifting, was One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Dystopian in ways that the whole of Stalin-era Russia was, the novel follows a prisoner, falsely found guilty of spying during World War II, as he goes about a single workday in a gulag. The work the prisoners do is brutal, as is the monstrously cold temperature and the overall conditions. It’s like a Jack London novel of survival in a lot of ways. The novel effectively depicts the dehumanizing effect of Stalinism—or any totalitarian government—but it’s the humanity of the prisoners that carries the day. A sneakily simple book that resonates with a quiet hope and dignity. Highly recommended.
Visit Inman Majors's website.

The Page 69 Test: Penelope Lemon: Game On!.

--Marshal Zeringue