Just finished writing this. Unedited. Comments welcome, I'm always trying to improve, but I don't plan to publish it anywhere besides here.




THAT HIDEOUS BOOK

AN AUTOPSY OF C.S. LEWIS' GREATEST FAILURE


By BornForBurning(with a lot of help from folks I know irl, thanks for all the great talks, guys!)





C.S. Lewis is, with good reason, considered some kind of giant within the world of modern Christian apologists. He wasn't so much known for being a philosophical genius (though he certainly wasn't lacking in that regard) as he was known for taking highly complex topics and boiling them down to a powerful good versus evil dichotomy. The primary goal of his writings is not so much deep thinking as it is pragmatic application. In this sense, C.S. Lewis was the 'working man's' apologist, and I do not use the term disparagingly. He wished to construct apologia that would actually be useful to the common man, as opposed to getting lost in the infinite philosophical passages that twist through the ivory halls of academia.

Lewis, then, for all his fanfare, was really a writer of simple truths. He either spoke of the archetypes of pure goodness (virile green women, crystalline, all-knowing xenomorphs) or of the demonic: the 'squirming, toothless worms' that dwell 'under the rind,' as Doctor Weston, the primary antagonist of Lewis' Space Trilogy, says. He rarely made the mistake of attempting subtlety, that great pitfall that all really good pulp authors fall into sooner or later. And a pulp author Lewis was, if one that infused his delicious imagery-laden prose with philosophical musings. When he wasn't writing philosophy, Lewis wrote fantasy, sci-fi, and even (to the great chagrin of his close friend and fellow Inkling J.R.R. Tolkien), allegory. Unfortunately, subtlety was clearly the goal when he initially drew up the concept for his great failure, the final act of his Trilogy,entitled That Hideous Strength.

In the secular world, That Hideous Strength is mostly famous for two things: one, the fact that Tolkien famously denounced it as 'That Hideous Book', and secondly, its rather bizarre treatment of women. And bizzare really is the word. The issue of women, and Lewis' characterization of them will be visited frequently throughout this review, but one thing to note at the outset is that in this author's opinion, 'misogynistic' isn't the right word. Even if correct, it hardly sums up just what an eyebrow-raiser this book often is, and in the strangest ways. As for Tolkien, his insult may be an obvious quip, but a reading of both the novel's intro and Tolkien's essay On Fairy-Stories sheds some light on why he despised it so strongly. Lewis claims that Hideous was written as 'a Fairy-tale for adults.' Hideous may be many things, but a fairy-tale it is not, especially not by Tolkien's definition. The themes in Hideous are not woven inextricably into the narrative the way they would be in Beowulf or Tyrfing. It is, in short, philosophy as narrative dialog, a book in the vein of Plato's Republic that also happens to have some competent (if disturbing) pulp-horror setpieces.

So, if Hideous isn't really even a novel, the question arises, why even review it as one? Two reasons. One, it tries, very, very hard to be a novel, despite obviously not being one. Thus, it deserves to be reviewed as a novel in the same sense a man who puts on a uniform deserves to be judged as a soldier, whether he really is one or not. The second is that this book has largely escaped the scathing critique it deserves due to the depth of the 'themes' and the 'commentary' that is possible to extract from the narrative. The fact that said narrative totally sucks is something that, apparently, never occurred to said analysts. As a sidenote, I don't want to disparage the incredibly deep and genuinely intriguing work that has been done analyzing Hideous from a purely philosophical perspective. If that's your thing, there's a really excellent blog called The Musings of Mr. Bultitude that goes through Hideous with a fine tooth and comb, chapter-by-chapter, page-by-page. I highly recommend it. However, in this review, while not being completely absent, philosophical analysis will be taking a backseat. I will be reading Hideous as literature! Literature, on the same shelf as Max Brand and Frank Herbert and Lovecraft and the hundreds of other authors that, like Lewis attempted in Hideous, write 'fairy-stories.'

Onto the fun stuff!



1. JANE AND MARK STUDDOCK
(aka protagonists as sleeping pills)

So to make a long story very, very short, the core problem with That Hideous Strength is that the two main characters are utterly passive and boring. They aren't even really revolting. It's difficult to feel any emotion watching these two people bumble through their days besides boredom and the occasional spark of irritation. Jane is probably the less annoying, but more boring of the two. Despite being a 'liberated' woman, she's never really allowed by the author to make any truly bad decisions. The fact that she has essentially no strong convictions besides vaguely not wanting to be killed and vaguely wanting to finish her dissertation (yes, really) makes for a dry, loathsome experience that is best equated with swallowing jumbo-sized cotton balls. She basically just moves with the tide. Jane doesn't want to listen to those wacky conservative Christians, until bad guys show up and oop, now she does. Jane doesn't want to listen to that weird old lady, until she starts having creepy dreams again and oop, now she does. Jane doesn't want to listen to the reincarnation of King Arthur because he 'might make her part of his harem' (what) until she walks inside his throne room and finds him attractive (WHAT).

Now this is the point where Lewis might try to politely argue that Jane is meant to represent the kind of liberal, educated, rootless female that was starting to become ubiquitous in academia in his day, and have arguably come to dominate the contemporary University. Unfortunately, this argument holds absolutely no water. Jane might represent some archetype of vapid, castrated femininity quite accurately. But this is a story. And stories need to have characters, not philosophical archetypes that can be used to demonstrate a moral flaw in an opponent's argument. And as a character, Jane has no positive qualities besides being occasionally described as 'pretty.' I'm fairly certain that the only reason I see her more positively than I do Mark (and we'll get to Mark!) is that as a man I'm biologically programmed to sympathize with distressed young women. A girl could probably be the most vapid thing on planet earth, and I'd still feel bad for her if she started crying. The only really good thing about Jane is how other characters react to her. At one point, a reawakened Merlin suggests they should chop off her head due to her being separated from her husband (genuinely hilarious).

Unfortunately, I'd rather reserve the executioner's axe for Mark Studdock. Mark Studdock! After reading his book, I'm certain that C.S. Lewis is some kind of literary prophet. Not only did he predict the psycho female dominatrix that shows up in every anime ever (Miss Hardcastle, and oh yes, we'll get to her) but he also managed to predict the bumbling, spineless male protagonist that also also shows up in every anime ever. Mark Studdock. Where to start. Is there anything admirable about this character? He's stupid, cowardly, backbiting, disloyal, onanistic...at least he's driven. Otherwise there'd have been literally no plot. Over half the novel hinges on his yawn-inducing social shenanigans climbing the totem pole of the N.I.C.E. (National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments. Yes, they're the bad guys, how did you guess?)

But Mark Studdock has one positive quality that Jane lacks. He actually makes a decision, and in the face of overwhelming opposition, no less. This, in my opinion, makes him a far better character than Jane, though certainly he's still a less likable one. But enough about the protagonists. Did I mention the N.I.C.E.? Oh yes, the N.I.C.E...



2. THE N.I.C.E.
(and why ripping off Charles Williams is a really bad idea for multiple reasons)

The N.I.C.E. are villains. We know this, because they act creepy and weird, smile too big, and engage in ominous hand-rubbing at most, if not all times. Remember what I said earlier, about subtlety? These saturday-morning cartoon villains, don't forget, for adults! (which basically just means sex and boredom are thrown into the mix) are Lewis' aforementioned attempt at subtlety. It's meant to be deep. It's meant to be cutting. It might even be intended as some kind of satire. What it is, in fact, is an obvious rip-off.

Who is Charles Williams? That's probably the question you're asking yourself right about now. Don't feel bad. Williams is the definition of esoteric. He's also the definition of obscure, both for the aforementioned esotericism and other reasons. But these things aside, he was first and foremost a literary genius, and alongside Tolkien and Lewis, a prominent member of the Inklings. Williams did not care to make his work accessible. He hardly cared if anyone read it. He simply wrote, and as a result, we have some of the greatest Christian fiction ever put to print. Descent into Hell in particular is a masterpiece of characterization, plotting, imagery and prose. It's also a master of subtlety. Villains are hardly noticeable when they first show up in a Williams novel. It's the little things that start to tip you off. "Oh, what's so wrong about dreaming?" giggles an aging college socialite, who turns out to be a literal demonic incarnation of lust. Ew. Gross. Horrible. But you don't truly see it, not until the end.

The N.I.C.E., by contrast, are the literary of equivalent of walking into a room, puking all over the floor, then doing it several more times and when someone complains, explaining that 'rising action' is occurring and that by puking on the floor we are 'raising the stakes' and 'unfolding the plot.' No. A villain irritably kicking a dog in the first act and dropping the protagonist's girlfriend off a bridge in the third is 'rising action.' The distinction is that throughout the story we see the villain's character evolve. He's revealing new shades of his evil, and through his actions, we slowly see the evil for what it truly is. Lewis' method is essentially literary torture. No, I don't want to see a 'thick,' maybe-lesbian strip down and beat up someone's wife. No. No, I don't want to see Mark try to flex his social muscles for the six gorrillianth time. But what Lewis was attempting is obvious--he was open about the fact that Williams was the most prominent influence on Hideous. It isn't supposed to be torture. It's supposed to be slow burn. And it is, in the most literal interpretation of the phrase. Slow, and painful. Williams also features the myriad of characters, complex social maneuverings and esoteric plot that dominates the landscape of Hideous, but he makes it work because his characters stay intriguing and his plot stays unpredictable. Lewis, by contrast, has no twists. Every plot point can be seen from a mile away. His characters reveal themselves in a sentence and develop no further, not even after ten chapters.

I mentioned torture. Let's talk about torture, because there's a lot that makes me uncomfortable here. Miss Hardcastle is disgusting. Lesbian? Femdom? Pure sadist? On tvtropes, the debate rages on. And none of it matters. She's just gross, plain and simple! She's not a character, she's pure slime. In a better novel, her reveal would be the climax, the final incarnation of feminine evil. In this, she's insipid, annoying, nausea-inducing, and nearly made me put down the book. Oh yes, of course she's an ex-Nazi. Anything's good enough to hit the villains with in this universe, I suppose. Even her death brings me no satisfaction--it's unredemptive, predictable, and nauseating. 'Misogynistic' or 'dated' depiction of deviant feminity? Maybe. Fundamentally, she's just a poorly-written character.

Her girls. Oh yes, her girls. Do any women act like this, outside of pornography? Maybe a bad question. I get that in fiction we're allowed to have ultimate depictions of evil. But these people are theoretically supposed to be humans. And there's no humanity here. Only endless giggling, and whining. It isn't thrilling, it's grating.

But there's one positive about the N.I.C.E: that final ritual scene with Withers, Straik and Filostrato is absolutely terrifying. That's gonna haunt my nightmares for years.



3. THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE MERLIN
(wizard comes back from the dead, wacky hijinks ensue)

Let's talk some positives. Merlin comes back from the dead to defeat the N.I.C.E. and banish the Macrobes (big bads and that turn out to be demons from the MOON) back to the void from whence they came. It's funny, and kind of awesome. Merlin seems to be as annoyed with everyone in this story as I am, and he doesn't shirk from telling them. He's also a big, muscular man with a red beard. Nice. There's a pretty cool scene where a bunch of angels come down and pour their powers into him so he can defeat the N.I.C.E. Not much to say on this front. It's great imagery, laced with powerful mythological underpinnings. Classic Lewis.

Bill the Blizzard is probably my favorite character in this book. He also gets killed off after a single chapter. Drat. Guess we needed a plot device to tell us that the N.I.C.E. were bad, otherwise we'd have never known. He's funny because he's a total nonbeliever in everything but FACTS, LOGIC, AND REASON, meaning he finds the N.I.C.E.'s political maneuvering an embarrassment to real science, and he isn't afraid of telling them. MacPhee is a highly similar character, an ultra-skeptic who is quick to point out that the supernatural phenomena they experience could also be easily attributed to hallucinogens or altered states of consciousness. It's comical, but also endearing.

Here's another interesting positive: Filostrato, a true believer in science and gnosticism who doesn't see the N.I.C.E.'s truly demonic, anti-cosmic goals until the very end. A genuinely nuanced character who was at the very least pitiable. I wish he'd had a moment of redemption, in the end. I think he deserved it.



4. POST-MORTEM

I don't have much else to say. In the end, this book was mediocre. A story where the negatives slightly outweigh the positives, and the overall effect falls somewhere between disgust and relief. Lewis essentially admits in the introduction that this was intended to be a fictional representation of his philosophical theories. Bad idea, in my opinion. I'm in Tolkien's camp: you have to start with the raw stuff of myth, not try and construct myth from theory. Still, there is some to be enjoyed here: a bit of humour, a bit of awe, some truly terrifying horror. But overall, I'd still call reading this book an overall negative experience. The horrid characterization of the both the villains and the protagonists, by my standards, anyways, seals the deal.