Monday, June 18, 2012

Last Week's Book: White Fang

As long as I can read this week's book in five days, I'll be set! That shouldn't be too hard. Meanwhile, here's an American classic. Since I only have about six weeks left in this grand nation, I figure I'll spend as many of them as possible reading books by American authors that are either classics or about the country itself in some way. You're welcome to consider Generations a head-start in this area if you like, although White Fang is the true first installment.

June 10-16: White Fang by Jack London

Literature (1906 - 194 pp.) 

Much like In the Days of the Comet, I'd been waiting years to read this, only saved from that waiting by Book a Week. Also much like In the Days of the CometWhite Fang was released in 1906 to great commercial success and critical acclaim. The page counts are also far lower in my versions than any others I have come across, making these deceptively long books. There are no other similarities, I assure you. 

The most striking aspect of White Fang is how gory it is. Far from the early '90s movies and TV show, which portray White Fang's world just a teensy bit rosier than Jack London does, White Fang reads like it influenced slasher movies. Graphic descriptions of assault, murder and cannibalism are found frequently - indeed, they personify the nasty aspects of nature London is intent on letting the reader feel. He certainly succeeds in making the world that shapes and damages his eponymous character not only appear but also feel terrible. The Nietzsche meets socialism meets scientific racism that pops up whenever poor little White Fang learns a lesson about the world call to mind more easily the rantings of a deranged lunatic than a celebrated historical figure, yet this is what London establishes as the savagery of the wild. 

Whatever London's political leanings, debated as they are by people far more educated in literature than I am, it is plainly clear that White Fang is not really about wolves at all. It is for all the allegory and symbolism about human nature, and its interactions with the natural world, that I find the lack of realism completely acceptable. Wolves simply do not eat lynx or dogs, yet White Fang imagines a world so horrible they do. This book shouldn't be taken literally as some sort of manual regarding the habits of wild animals. If at least that lesson isn't learned, maybe a sad part of this book's legacy involves some unwarranted mistrust of forested areas and the canines inhabiting them. The wild of White Fang is like a city in Paul Auster's In the Country of Last Things, released eighty years later, a distortion of the real crafted to illustrate a point. London's point is at least as much about the nature of man and society as it is about the harsh cold of Yukon. 

As to whether this was a fun read, it's tough to say. The first third flew by, the second third became difficult, and then the last third flew by again. It's definitely worthwhile for its narrative structure. To see White Fang's life unfold is impressive. To see a book I thought of as the most disturbing thing I'd ever read transform into something truly tear-jerking in the span of about three or four pages is even more impressive. The political insertions can get a little jagged at times, in that didactic Rasselas way, yet London replaces Dr. Johnson's attentive teacher with a prophet of doom. How a cartoon boy and his faithful furred pal emerged from this tale of carnage, I'll never understand. 

Ease of Reading: 6 
Educational Content: 2

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