When people today speak of “George Orwell,” they’re often referring to either of two people. The first is the historical Orwell, the hack critic and columnist who wrote two monumental novels and plenty of damn good essays amidst a torrent of less significant work. The second is Orwell the legend, known primary, if not exclusively, through Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. This Orwell is an exemplar of truth and freedom, a saint. (Never mind, though, that the historical Orwell developed a McCarthyist streak in the last decade of his life, and wrote that “saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.”)
At its best, Andrew Ervin’s adolescent first novel Burning Down George Orwell’s House deals with Orwell the saint. Most of the time, it doesn’t even do that. “George Orwell” is simply the name of the Great Writer idolized by a man undergoing a midlife crisis.
That man is Ray Wheeler, a Chicago ad executive. Born a humble farm boy, he’s made good by selling the masses stuff they don’t need. Ray’s most successful ad campaign involved putting anonymous graffiti (OIL HOGG) on SUVs, so that buying the gas guzzlers became an act of rebellion against perceived eco-vigilantes.
But Ray is sick of it all. He doesn’t want to take his firm’s next project, which would entail trying to convince people that fracking is perfectly safe. His wife is cheating on him, and divorce is imminent. Walking amidst the “cubicle farmers” in the “march-step choreography of the herd” on the streets of Chicago, painfully aware of the advertising and surveillance from which there is no escape, he feels like Winston Smith in Oceania, surrounded by unthinking proles, hoping for an impossible authenticity.
So Ray quits his job and travels to the remote Isle of Jura off Scotland, where Orwell composed his masterpiece, to read Saint George’s works and drink scotch. The villagers, unfortunately, are none too friendly, especially the father of a precocious teenager who may be too smart for such a small island.
What results is a standard story of a man traveling to a remote land, getting to know the locals and their strange ways, and leaving after having made his mark on it—and the land having made a mark on him.
Ray is full of righteous indignation at society, and Ervin never fails to indulge, pausing so Ray can frown at the sheeple. Here he is watching the students at his ex-wife’s university:
The class bells rang, and faster than he could say Ivan Petrovich Pavlov the corridor teemed with rival tribes differentiated by the number of beats per minute throbbing around their precious heads and the corporate logos adorned on their too-tightly clothed chests. A hundred cell phones chirped at once, a collaborative ringtone technique destined to put Schoenberg and Webern out to pasture.
It’s moments like these when Burning is not just dull but adolescent (I’ll explain that term shortly). Has it ever occurred to Ray that the members of the “rival tribes” may have lives with doubts and struggles just as legitimate as his? Even if a student wears Beats by Dre and a Hollister T-shirt, who’s to say he’s not slamming Red Bull because his dishwashing gig keeps him up all night, that he’s not a first-generation college student struggling to win in a game his family never had the chance to play? Ray—in the name of his own commitment to authenticity—dismisses the possibility of authenticity in those who aren’t as loudly jaded as he is.
I call this worldview “adolescent” not because adolescents are the only ones who think this way, but because it’s most closely associated with, and celebrated in, teenagers and young adults. Weren’t we all like Ray at one point? I remember walking through the streets of San Francisco in my late teens, dividing the passersby into hipsters and airheads and taking comfort in the though that, though they may be more successful than I am, they’re not as a thoughtful. But I grew out of it, or at least gained the decency to be ashamed of it.
It’s an Orwell novel, actually, that helped me do so. The protagonist of Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Gordon Comstock, is a once-promising poet who quits a job as an ad copywriter so he can sink into poverty and get away from “the money-god” that enslaves society. (An aspidistra is a houseplant.) Often, he wishes to see the streets of London blown to bits. At the end of the novel, though, after resolving to marry his pregnant girlfriend, Gordon sees a bit of authenticity in the lives of the money-god’s supplicants:
Our civilization is founded on greed and fear, but in the lives of common men the greed and fear are mysteriously transmuted into something nobler. The lower-middle-class people in there, behind their lace curtains, with their children and their scraps of furniture and their aspidistras—they lived by the money-code, sure enough, and yet they contrived to keep their decency. The money-code as they interpreted it was not merely cynical and hoggish. They had their standards, their inviolable points of honor. They “kept themselves respectable”—kept the aspidistra flying. Besides, they were alive. They begot children, which is what the saints and the soul-savers never by any chance do.
Max never has a realization like Gordon’s. This alone would not sink the novel. Plenty of protagonists fail to learn the error of their ways, but at least their novelists hold them accountable, rather than cheering them on. Ray, in contrast, never gets his arrogance deflated. In fact, he never even realizes that it’s arrogance—both he and Ervin mistake it for wisdom.
And while his reading of Nineteen Eighty-Four evolves somewhat, he never realizes that there’s more to Orwell than dystopian paranoia. You’d think someone obsessed enough with Orwell to travel to Jura would reference more of his works.
Burning Down George Orwell’s House fails because the protagonist’s adolescent worldview is allowed to run unexamined, and because the figure “George Orwell” alluded to is hardly worthy of the name of the actual writer. There are some bright spots, particularly Ervin’s descriptions of Jura’s landscapes, people, food and drink (haggis is described as “a possum that had puked up its own guts”). But these do the novel as much good as pingpong balls thrown to a drowning man.
Burning Down George Orwell’s House. By Andrew Ervin. Published in May by Soho Press. 272 pages. $18.25