Babbittry and a Guy from the Sky

17 Sep

Our spouse picked up a couple paperback books that had been sitting on the ‘free’ table of the local college and presented them to us, thinking we’d actually read them. What the heck, we did. One was Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt (1922). The other was Robert Silverberg’s The Masks of Time (1968).

Babbitt was a best seller in 1922, and it’s the book from which we derive the word ‘babbittry’ (sometimes spelled ‘babbitry’) which, according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, means ‘a person and especially a business or professional man who conforms unthinkingly to prevailing middle-class standards.’ Yep, that’s that main character, George Babbitt alright. George is the Nietzschean herd man, careful not to form an opinion without first checking with his next door neighbor and the members of the Booster’s club.

We read that Lewis had planned for the novel comprise a twenty-four hour period in the life of his character. He apparently abandoned this approach, so that only the first four chapters follow this structure. These early chapters are slow-going and Lewis often tells us rather than shows us his characters’ traits. For example, an early passage informs us “She [Babbitt’s wife, Myra] was a good woman, a kind woman, a diligent woman, but no one save perhaps Tinka, her ten-year-old, was at all interested in her or entirely aware that she was alive.”

Babbitt would not be an interesting character if he did not have a crisis of faith, which comes when his best friend commits a shocking crime. Babbitt then goes off the rails a bit, flirting with infidelity, and even more disquieting to his friends, begins to form opinions counter to common dogma. Hearing his friends discussing a labor strike, Babbitt pipes up “Oh rats, Clarence, they look just about like you and me, and I certainly didn’t notice any bombs.” This seemingly mild statement and other similar statements endanger his standing in the fictional town of Zenith.

Though not tightly plotted, the novel is often funny, and despite a slow start, it kept us interested. It’s satirical snapshot of America before the Great Depression.

Give it a look

Give it a look

Robert Silverberg’s The Masks of Time, on the other hand, deals with life in the future, as least the future from the point of view of 1968, when the book was published. On December 25, 1998, Vornan-19 descends from the sky naked, traveling at several thousand feet per second. He lands in Rome, proclaiming himself a visitor from the year 2999 and administering an electric shock to the policeman who tries to clothe him. Vornan-19 is nothing if not randy; he almost immediately inquires as to the location of the nearest ‘house of intercourse.’

The book is narrated by Leo Garfield, a physicist specializing in sending sub-atomic particles into the past. Leo is the mentor of Jack Bryant, a brilliant student who quits physics just as he’s on the verge of discovering a means of totally liberating the atom using neither fission nor fusion. Jack marries a woman named Shirley and hangs out in the Arizona desert, where Leo is frequent guest.

A lot of the story revolves around the question of whether the bisexual Vornan-19 is a visitor from 2999 or a hoaxer. Leo alternately believes him to be a fraud and the genuine article. He eventually joins a team of scientists (and rather poorly behaved ones at that) who show Vornan-19 around the US. The government is using the supposed man from the future as a counterweight to the nihilistic doomsday cult that has arisen in advance of the millennium.

The novel has been derided as a rip-off of Robert A. Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, but although both deal with the theme of an interloper who transforms a culture, we don’t think that Silverberg is ripping off Heinlein.

There’s a whole bunch of sex in the novel (it was written in the 60s after all), and the ending is a little weak, but we nonetheless found the book entertaining (the ending of Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle is weak too, and that novel is still beloved.) Despite being written over 45 years ago, it holds up rather well. It’s not top-drawer, but it’s not a bad read.

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