Book Report: Dune
21 March 2005, 11:20 AM
So, Your Humble Blogger read Dune again, for the first time in a few years. I’m surprised to say that I enjoyed it a lot. The last time I read it, I found myself unable to shake the prose of Doon, the brilliant Ellis Weiner parody.
Digression: I had never really looked at Mr. Weiner’s career, and it seems there’s some sort of odd happenstance putting him in connection with things I really like, and not (as one might imagine) all in the same field. For instance, Doon is a parody of a book which was one of my absolute favorites when I was in my early teens. When I was, say, five or six years old, though, my favorite books were the Ramona the Pest books, which Mr. Weiner has evidently adapted for television. After leaving college, when I started watching prime time television again, my favorite show was Northern Exposure; he wrote a cookbook and a sort of epistolary novel tied into the show. Much later, I got into Klezmer music, which is generally sung in Yiddish, if there are lyrics; Mr. Wiener wrote the controversial Yiddish with Dick and Jane. I also worked for a while near the realm of intellectual property, which is where that books controversy stems. What else ... he evidently wrote the novelization of The Great Muppet Caper, my least favorite of the early Muppet Movies, but then I’m a huge fan of the Muppets. He’s also connected, equally indirectly, with Howard the Duck, ALF, and Puzzle Place, with which I have no emotional investment myself, although in each case I have a friend who does. And, it turns out, that his Decade of the Year is perhaps Francis’ favorite humor book. Just an odd sort of coincidence ... or is it? End Digression.
So, the last time I reread the book, I couldn’t get past the dialogue. The dialogue is preposterous, of course, bizarrely circuitous and longwinded. In addition, characters frequently ask ludicrous questions or make nonsensical comments in order to provoke a particularly memorable response. For lots of those, the response really is magnificent, but on the third reading, it’s really really really really really obvious that the feed line is just that, and makes no sense whatsoever otherwise. This time through, though, the language just naturally felt like ritual language, not meant to imitate vernacular speech, and it all worked again. I give most of the credit for that to Adam Nicolson, whose God’s Secretaries reminded me that the Translators were aiming at a particular language unlike any actually used in conversation, a language that told the reader that the text was Scripture. Not that Frank Herbert was aiming at Scripture, but he was clearly attempting a prose style in which majesty was more important than naturalism. And I’m OK with that.
In general, I have little use for naturalism. At least, little use for naturalism as a goal; imitation of “real life” is fine when it works as a storytelling tool, but I don’t need it in itself. I live in real life. Something else is good, too. And, in fact, a non-naturalistic style is often better, less distracting and more, well, more majestic, or more ominous, or more beautiful, or sillier, or just bigger.
And that, ultimately, is why I like Dune so much. It’s so big. It’s so pretentious. It’s so complete. It’s easy to get lost in it. The characters are archetypes, or ideas; the settings are pictures, rather than places, and Mr. Herbert invites us to admire the brush strokes with which they are drawn. Not that the book is an allegory, exactly. And the plot, as outrageous as it is, works as a plot, although of course it has the problem of the hero gaining super-human powers and then the pathetic villains pose no threat whatsoever. But before that happens, there’s plenty of excitement, and enough of (what appear to be) the main characters get killed off early that there’s a sense of danger maintained almost up to the end. Up to where young Pall, called Mauve-Bib by the Freedmenmen, known as Asol to his intimates, the Lasagna AlaMode of legend, the Kumquaat Haagendasz of the Boni Maroni, rightfully titled Duke Pall Agamemnides, with the immense profusion of names that alone denotes true greatness, becomes all-seeing, all-knowing, and all-wise. After that, it’s pretty much downhill.
chazak, chazak, v’nitchazek,