Don't Judge a Book by Its (Inside) Cover
James Morrow is “[t]he most provocative satiric voice in science fiction.” I know this to be the case because (1) it is the first thing written on the first page of Shambling Towards Hiroshima, and (2) the quote is attributed to the Washington Post. James Gunn, apparently some fellow at the University of Kansas, has proclaimed Morrow to be “America’s best satirist.” If I continue to read all of the wonderful quotes that precede the text of Shambling Towards Hiroshima, I cannot help but anticipate that reading the book will be one of the best experiences of my literary life and that I should feel honored to be able to peruse its pages.
The problem, however, is that reviewers are not always right. They cannot speak for everyone or anticipate what every reader will enjoy. Pleasure is subjective, after all. Nevertheless, most reviewers are usually pretty good at making their reviews seem entirely objective. To disagree with a reviewer, or an army of reviewers, is to mark myself as intellectually deficient, culturally challenged and generally of a class of schlemiels worthy only of mockery and disdain, or so I tend to brand myself in those instances.
So it is that I realized that by about page thirty of Shambling Towards Hiroshima I recognized that I was just such a schlemiel, or quite possibly a schlimazel. I just wasn’t getting it. It’s not that the book is poorly written—it’s not. The characters are well developed. The story moves along at a good pace. The plot is interesting. It seems to have all of the ingredients for a good story. It just did not click with me. Of course, this led me to determine that I was deficient. I pictured myself telling Mr. Morrow, “Jim, really, it’s not you. It’s me. I am the problem. I should think your book is brilliant. I just have a lot of baggage and I am trying to work through some things. I think I really need to start reading other authors.” I also realized that Jim would very likely respond with a perfunctory “Who gives a shit?” and then I think he would probably go get some pizza.
Objectively, Shambling Towards Hiroshima should be a book that I love. It is a science fiction story set during World War II, both literary areas that I have enjoyed for years. Its protagonist, Syms Thorley, is a B movie actor conscripted in the summer of 1945 to don a monster suit and pretend to be a giant, fire breathing lizard that can destroy Japan. He would demonstrate the power of such lizards, one of several engineered by the U.S. Navy, to a Japanese delegation and, the U.S. Navy hoped, cause imperial Japan to surrender. Ideally, such a surrender would save the lives of hundreds of thousands of American soldiers who would not have to invade Japan and it would bring credit to the Navy by pre-empting the Army’s successful use of the atom bomb. Instead of the Atomic Age, it would herald the dawn of the Lizard Age.
The story is told from Syms Thorley’s perspective about forty years after the war has ended. Thorley spends a semi-intoxicated evening in a Holiday Inn writing the saga of Operation Knickerbocker (the code name for the lizard project) after receiving a lifetime achievement award for his acting in numerous B-grade horror films. In the time that he does not spend writing about Knickerbocker, he contemplates suicide, platonically entertains a prostitute who inadvertently visits his room, enthralls a bell hop with his stories, and finally shares the pain of the atom bombs with the nephew of a hibakusha—a survivor of the atom bomb attacks.
According to Webster, satire is “ a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn.”
I understand that but I rarely like it, and that may be part of my difficulty in appreciating Morrow’s particular brand of satire. After more than half a century since the dropping of the bombs (The Bombs, really), I don’t see where there is room for ridicule or scorn when it comes to writing about them. Either you agree with their use (Morrow clearly does not, or maybe he does . . . I’m not sure) or you do not. Don’t make me guess.
Writing about the lizards, Thorley recalls:
“Any one behemoth, acting on its own, could probably destroy a Japanese city in a matter of hours,” Admiral Strickland said. “Just to be on the safe side, we plan to release them in teams of three.”
“Dr. Groelish informs us that, besides Blondie, Dagwood, and Mr. Dithers, his team has has twenty embryonic behemoths in the hatchery,” Commander Barzak said. “There’s never been an arsenal like this. We can thank our lucky stars that Hitler never got the lizard.”
“We can thank our lucky starts that Hitler never got the lizard.” Yes it sounds absurd but until July 16, 1945, when Oppenheimer’s team tested the first operational atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico, the notion of an atomic bomb was just as absurd, at least outside of a relatively small number of scientists, soldiers and senior government officials. The parallels of course are also obvious. Both the A-Bomb and the lizards are weapons with massive destructive potential that might be uncontrollable. I get that but I just don’t find it that funny. Although I know that not everyone will agree with me, I actually believe that the decision to drop the atomic bombs was one of the bravest decisions made during the war. I also believe that the Manhattan Project was without questionable the most remarkable scientific project of the 20th century. Comparing the serious tasks faced by the military in the development of the Bomb and in President Truman’s decision to drop it to the development of a species of potentially uncontrollable giant lizards does not make the actual development of atomic weapons seem absurd. It just seems absurd.
By the time I got to the text quoted above, I was about twenty-five percent of the way through Shambling Towards Hiroshima and I was feeling (1) frustrated because I was not appreciating the apparent brilliance of the satire, (2) tired because I was trying to find the brilliance and it was making my head hurt, and (3) annoyed because I had picked up a book with which I was not going to fall in love but which I had to read because I had a deadline to meet.
I did what any rational person would do and I put down my book and made a cup of tea. Tea has a calming effect on me, no matter the situation. Then, properly refreshed, I returned to Shambling Towards Hiroshima but I brought with me a different attitude. I decided to ignore the reviewers who were quoted at the front of the book and to disregard the concept of satire. I also determined that I need to bring an apolitical view to the book and try to appreciate the story without regard for its underlying politics. After all, just because I am not aware of a giant lizard defense program does not mean that it does not exist.
And so I read on, and found that by not thinking about the deeper significance of what I was reading, I enjoyed the story much more and connected at a more fundamental level with the characters. I do not know whether Morrow is a hawk or a dove, a Republican, a Democrat, an Anarchist or a Communist. It does not matter. He wrote a fun story about a government plan to end the Second World War using giant fire breathing lizards and bureaucratic naval personnel who hire a bunch of civilian actors and filmmakers to help create an illusion of a Japanese city being destroyed by dwarf fire-breathing monster actually played by Syms Thorley wearing a monster costume.
Reading, at least for me, should never be only about the author’s purpose. If something I read happens to spark a thought, good. If it sparks a lot of thoughts, great. If I happen to agree with the author, that is even better. Nevertheless, if I have to look for the thoughts, I will almost necessarily lose the story, and that is always a shame.
I doubt that I’ll remember Shambling Towards Hiroshima a year or even a month from now, but that’s okay because after I got past the niggling feeling that there was a deeper meaning I had to find, I enjoyed the story today. That’s enough for me.
Books mentioned in this column: