Monday, October 6, 2008

Contorting Conformity by Alison Ross (Book Review)

Babbit, by Sinclair Lewis, was one the first novels I read when I emerged into a more “ripened” social awareness. I had always entertained twinges of conscience from a very early age, but once the Bush fascists took hold, I bloomed into full consciousness. His adminstration’s malevolent misdeeds have served to illuminate vast swaths of wrongdoing throughout the history of this country. The U.S. has always been an imperialist bully, but I was not wholly vigilant of this fact until Bush forced me to be more introspective about where I live. (Thank you Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky, Michael Parenti, et al, for helping light my way toward extinguishing my benighted ignorance.)

In addition to being brutally colonialistic in its global role, the U.S. has, for over century now, been mired in a corportacracy of sorts. The system is only ostensibly democratic capitalism, but when corporations hold more sway than people - indeed are CONSIDERED people with more rights than an ACTUAL human - then you know something is disoncertingly awry. Not to mention that simply working for a corporation is a soul-squashing experience, and that corporate dominance in everyday life sucks the creative vibrancy right out of it. It enforces a deadly conformity and a twisted introvertedness that is contrary to our authentic nature.

So anyway, Sinclair Lewis’ satirical novel dwells on this very theme of fascist capitalism and stifling conformity, and it has helped inform the way I view the economic and social conditions of my country.

What struck me most about Babbitt is that it was written in the early 1920s, and yet has disturbing relevance to these times. Granted, the best novels trascend time and place, at least thematically, but sometimes a reader must actually acquire a sense of history in order to grasp elements of a given book. With Babbitt, granted, it’s crucial to understand that it was set several years before the Great Depression. But for the most part, the novel’s characters and social conditions are so eerily similar to our era that it’s easy to dimiss the time and setting.

Another striking element of the story is Lewis' deeply nuanced sardonic attitude toward his protagonist. Lewis does display a small-but-palpable sympathy for Babbitt, but mostly he regards him as a cowering conformist, the pitiable paradigm of a follow-the-herd caricature. Lewis is sharply condemning of this persona, one who never ventures outside of the narrow confines of comfort. Yet Lewis never explicitly condemns - it's all deliciously implicit in his tightly woven prose.

Babbit’s life lacks poetry, hence the reason for his distraught state. He lives a rote, robotic existence, void of passion and imagination. He is, indeed, esconced in a middle class lifestyle that has come to typify the American middle class. He works for a real estate firm, and is married with three children. But while he lives what most would deem to be a happy life, he experiences acute distress in the face of such a vacuous, complacent existence. At one point Babbit does indeed indulge a rebellious attitude against rigid acquiescence, only to lapse back into it by the culimatinon of the novel. However, there is a sliver of hope in Babbit’s impish son.

Babbit is a throroughly engaging caustic cautionary tale about the tragic outcomes of subjugating oneself to societal expectations. It doubles as a tirade on the corporate state and what such an anti-democratic system has wrought on American life.

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