Friday, October 28, 2022

Walter R. Brooks, Freddy and Simon the Dictator (1956)

Aside from one passing reference to that time they tried to go to Mars, there is no mention here of the science-fiction stuff.  Men from Mars?  Never heard of 'em! 

So SOMEONE is riling up the animals against their human overlords.  The book tries a bit to create suspense over who, but...come on, man.  That title.  Simon is aided in his efforts by Herb Garble, the most-recurring villain in the series, who keeps trying to ship Freddy to his uncle's slaughterhouse in Montana.  Anyway, a lot of animals, wild and domestic, DO rise up against humans.  Can the loyalists stop them?  What do you think?  There's also a parallel plot where Mr. Camphor is being convinced against his better judgment to run for governor of New York.

Freddy and the Red Scare, I have to say.  This book is really an ungodly mess.  Where to even start?  Well, I guess the central thing is this: throughout the series, Brooks has done a good job of treading lightly over the essential contradictions of his world: that these are sentient animals, and yet they're still, if you think about it even for a second, slaves, and the idea of people eating them or them eating each other is just gruesome.  But that stuff is always just background, and it never intrudes on the central narrative.  Well, not here.  Brooks is more explicitly ideological by a very wide margin than he's ever been before, and when you stress-test this stuff...well, it does NOT hold up.

So “Red Scare” is not just subtext here: Brooks makes more than a few hectoring comparisons of Simon's uprising to communism (although he kind of stops doing this about halfway through; I guess he thought he'd made his point).  But...well, let's look at an example:

“The way this speaker up at the Grimboy house is talking to the animals is the Communist way.  Tell a big lie, and the first time, nobody believes it much.  Like the Beans having rabbit stew.  But keep repeating it, and by and by somebody says: 'I wonder if maybe they did have rabbit stew!'  And then it's told and repeated so often that everybody comes to believe it.”

Right.  Okay.  It's a filthy lie that the Beans would eat rabbit stew.  Please let's note that in this very book, Freddy imagines Mr. Bean eating “roast turkey and plum pudding,” and there have been allusions to them and others eating meat fairly frequently throughout the series.  So...why are we supposed to be so goddamn bothered about them eating rabbits?  Just because we know these rabbits personally, whereas to the best of my recollection there have been no turkey characters in the series?  If this was meant to illustration the incoherence of anti-communist propaganda, great job, but it's definitely not.

But why else would animals want to get involved in this revolution?  Uncle Solomon the screech owl will explain:

“[Mr. Bean] has been nicer to his animals, and more thoughtful for their comforts, than most farmers. . . . But suppose that you're a pig on any of these other farms around here.  You live in a dirty pig pen, and the farmer feeds you plenty, but what kind of food is it?  The least you can say is that it's pretty coarse stuff, and not very daintily served either.  And then somebody comes along and says: 'how'd you like to change places with this farmer, and have him live in the pen and eat out of a trough, and you sit down at the table with a nice white tablecloth with only a few spots on it, and sleep between nice clean sheets—' Well, what are you going to say to that?”

“I guess you're going to say: 'I'm for it,'” Freddy replied.

I mean...yes?  Good job acknowledging that animals are mistreated and, at the very least, have good reason to be unhappy with their lot!  Sure, maybe we shouldn't go straight from oppressing animals to oppressing humans, but...how is this worse than the status quo?  Well!

“Those who think they're going to have a vote under an animal dictator are very much mistaken,” said Uncle Solomon.  “The country will be run the way Russia is; every animal will be told what to do, and if he knows what's good for him he'll do it.”

Oh.  So you mean, it'll be exactly like it is now?  You can skate over these contradictions when you're not making them the point of your narrative, but when you are, you spectacularly crash through the ice and drown (actually, Brooks sort-of addresses that point about voting—we'll get to that).

If we wanted to be fancy, we could say that the book traps itself in an unproductive dialectic: yes, animals have it bad...and also, the status quo is good!

At one point, Mr. Camphor gives a speech to some disaffected animals to try to talk them down.  Here he's just pointed out that you need humans to work some of the mechanical devices:

But will they do it well or willingly if they are under the orders of a cat or horse?  Men will have to be slaves, and there will be hatred between men and animals, as always between masters and slaves.  Will life be as pleasant for either men or animals under those circumstances?

Okay.  So the pretty damn clear syllogism is that currently, the animals are slaves.  Right?  What possible other logic is there?  Well...

Then he went on to remark that Simon had much to say about slavery.  But the relationship between men and animals was a partnership, he said, not slavery.  Cows were free to wander about the pastures; they did no work.  Horses worked, but their hours were not long; they were simply doing their share of the work that produced food for both them and the farmer.

Uh huh.  Okay.  Not slaves.  In that case, it's obvious that they would be free to quit anytime they wanted, right?  To move off the farm?

I dunno; I know I'm just sniping at the book at this point, fairly unproductively.  But it just doesn't feel honest.  Brooks is trying to bend the series in ways that it's not meant to bend in.  

You might wonder about that Native American dude on the cover.  And yes, this book has Indians in it, but in fairness, it's actually, by 1958 standards, more progressive than you might think.  At first, they seem very on the nose; pure Little Hiawatha stuff.  “Cow in woods, ugh, heap bad medicine.”  Brooks did trick me, I have to admit.  Because he's not doing that kind of racism; he's just doing the kind of racism where HA HA!  You assume they're savages, but actually they've effaced their entire culture and they're JUST LIKE WHITE PEOPLE!  "'Wampum!' said the chief.  'I'll bet it's been ten years since I've heard that word.  He was speaking perfectly good English.  'We must remember to use it on the customers, Ella.'"

Though actually, whether it was Brooks' intent or not, it's easy to just read this not as them having abandoned their culture, but rather putting on an act for racist tourists.  It's much less racist than that one extremely ill-advised episode of Jeeves and Wooster.

Sheesh, I just keep thinking of things I want to add.  So remember Eli?  The rat who wasn't sent off to Montana with the others in Freddy and the Man from Mars and who, we were assured, would make a return?  Well, he doesn't.  It's very strange.  He IS mentioned a few times, but he doesn't even appear to have rejoined Simon's gang.

There was only one, Eli, that didn't get shipped off to Montana. Simon sent him on an errand and he didn't get back till the rest had gone. But he's living quietly in Tushville. I've seen him once or twice in the movies in Centerboro. He walks over. Has a private entrance somewhere under the stage, he told me, so he doesn't have to pay admission.

The idea of an apostate rat would be interesting, but Brooks doesn't even go that far.  He's just mentioned and then...ignored.  Come on, man.

Anyway!  About that “voting” thing: at the end of the book, Mr. Camphor is elected, animals are given suffrage, and Freddy becomes the political boss of Otesaraga County, and later is elected mayor of Centerboro.  Wha?  According to the wikipedia entry, Brooks was in poor health while he was writing this, and there's definitely an air of finality to the whole thing—although, of course, he'd manage two more books.  I guess when you've been doing this for thirty years, it's kind of hard to just stop.  But this kind of shit is another thing the series was never mean to accommodate.  I hate these giant, world-changing plot twists.  It's supposed to be a cozy farm, dammit!  I don't WANT Freddy wielding real-world political power.

(and can I point out that if animals can vote, there's no need to stage a revolution; they can very easily elect themselves to all higher office?  Also, since we've acknowledged them as citizens, I think universal mandatory vegetarianism is also very necessary)

But damn, man, even if you accept that Brooks was trying to put a bow on the series...here's the final line in the book: “Freddy is now working on a bill to be brought up before the State Legislature, which will do away with all schools.”  Um.

2 Comments:

Blogger Thomas pontificated to the effect that...

I'm willing to bet Brooks meant to set up Eli as the dictator in this book, then thought better of it and used series regular Simon instead. He tied off the Eli set-up nicely enough by at least following up on it.

The "big lie" bit hits uncomfortably close to current times with the promulgation of fake news for political gain. Especially the way those lies are used to spread hatred.

7:15 AM  
Blogger GeoX, who is here to stay, like it or not. pontificated to the effect that...

Oh, no question re the big lie stuff, and we're going to see some even concrete-r examples of that in a mere week and a half. It's just that in the context of this book, it's completely nonsensical.

10:47 AM  

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