Hey, Let’s Do the Limbo Rock …

17 Jun

We 1 and our spouse listened to some DVD lectures on utopian and dystopian literature, and all the usual suspects were there: Thomas More’s Utopia,  Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World,  Zamiatin’s We, and of course, George Orwell’s 1984. We asked Maryam (our spouse) if Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo was among the dystopian works. It was not. “How can this professor not include Limbo?”, we demanded.  Used to our irrational outbursts, Maryam merely smiled and said that she didn’t know how such an egregious mistake happened. Sheepish, we then realized we hadn’t actually read Wolfe’s book and hadn’t the foggiest idea what it was about. We set out to rectify that problem.

We first heard about Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo in college when we were editing lectures on utopian and dystopian works for broadcast on the campus radio station.  Using a razor blade, an editing block, and splicing tape (this was audio tape, in the days before digital), we soon became adept at removing long pauses, sneezes, ums, ahs, irrelevant announcements, and anything else that might interrupt the flow of an otherwise scholarly lecture. We remembered that one lecturer had said “Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo is a good book. It’s a good novel, it’s a good dystopian statement.” But was he right? Flash forward several decades – it was time to find out.

An inter-library loan later, we tore into the book, which soon started to bum us out. That’s not a criticism; Limbo is a dystopia after all, and any dystopia worth its salt is going to bum the reader out at some point. After our initial ennui  wore off, we had to admit that Wolfe’s premise is really clever.

Suppose, after a nuclear war, you found to your shock and surprise that a work you’d written 18 years earlier had become the basis of the culture in which you found yourself?  That’s the plight of Dr. Martine, Limbo’s main character.  As the novel unfolds, Martine finds both the Inland Strip (the former US ) and the East Union (formerly Russia) have interpreted his words in ways he hadn’t intended. That is all we can really tell you about the plot (and we worry that we may have already said too much, so forget the last several sentences!)


Works in the utopian/dystopian genre are really about the times in which they’re written, not the time in which they’re set. Limbo was published in 1952, but don’t let that throw you – in our humble opinion, it’s still very readable and relevant today. In an afterword, Wolfe describes the book as “a grab bag of ideas that were more or less around at the mid-century mark.” If the book has one weakness, it’s that at times the plot takes a back seat to the ideas in the book. Wolfe takes a heaping spoonful of Freud and adds Dostoevsky, Rimbaud, Malraux, Wilhelm Reich, and others into the pot. This material  enriches the book, but at times we found ourselves struggling to keep up with Wolfe’s multifaceted mixture.

So, we have to agree with the anonymous professor whose lecture we edited several decades ago: Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo is a good book. This book should take its rightful place in the canon of dystopian literature.

1. The writer of this blog has a habit of using the first person plural in lieu of the first person singular. This is an annoying affectation that this individual persists in using.


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