Monday, November 28, 2011

#88 - The Call of the Wild

Jack London (1876-1916) was a turn-of-the-century journalist and fiction writer, and (a quarter-century before the advent of the New Yorker) something of an American pioneer in the medium of magazine short fiction. He is another one of the over-assigned and the over-taught writers on our list - I read a few of his short stories ("To Build a Fire") in middle school and the Call of the Wild early in high school.

What they don't tend to teach to school children is that he was also a card-carrying socialist, who wrote one of the first great "Dystopian" novels of the 20th Century, The Iron Heel (beating Aldous by 20 years and George by 40). I am also informed by Wikipedia that on one occasion, he made a statement of working-class solidarity by wearing a flannel outfit to a high-society function, qualifying him as one of the earliest obnoxious hipsters.

The Call of the Wild tells the story of Buck, a German Shepherd stolen away from domestic life to serve as a sled-team dog during the Yukon gold rush, and of his struggles under a series of owners when he arrives there. Although at first a creature of comfort, hard conditions and a certain primordial instinct eventually drive him away from domestication altogether and into the eponymous Wild. [1]

Jack London is known for a certain energy of style and imagery, and a certain unforgiving harshness. The former quality is on display here – the story moves along at a brisk pace through images that are specific and vivid. Seemingly a bit more comfortable telling short stories than a short novel, Jack keeps the action episodic, with each change in Buck’s ownership or situation marking a distinct episode. There is only a small amount of connection between these scenes, which lends the whole thing a slightly disjointed effect.

What was surprising to me specifically after reading and contemplating Nathanael West’s Day of the Locust was the way that the second quality I mentioned- the harshness – does not quite meet with my expectations. For a story that has as its central theme the descent of a civilized dog into a world of violence and dominance and wolfery, Jack restrains Savage Nature to decidedly PG-13 exposition, alluding rather than giving it in its bareness. Here is Jack’s rendition of a fatal dogfight:
Wherever his fangs struck for the softer flesh, they were countered by the fangs of Spitz. Fang clashed fang, and lips were cut and bleeding, but Buck could not penetrate his enemy's guard. Then he warmed up and enveloped Spitz in a whirlwind of rushes. Time and time again he tried for the snow-white throat, where life bubbled near to the surface, and each time and every time Spitz slashed him and got away. Then Buck took to rushing, as though for the throat, when, suddenly drawing back his head and curving in from the side, he would drive his shoulder at the shoulder of Spitz, as a ram by which to overthrow him. But instead, Buck's shoulder was slashed down each time as Spitz leaped lightly away.
The imagery is, as I said, precise and it moves quickly. But this is the description of a gentleman’s duel, not Nature, red in Tooth and Claw. Compared to the brutal (and brutally drawn-out) cock fight towards the end of Locust, the savagery of the Yukon seems a little tame.

The other problem I had with Call of the Wild was its narrator (which, of course, has been something of a theme as I’ve been reading.) The book is supposed to be a dog’s eye view of the falling-away of Civilization. But the idiosyncratic narrator spends half the time trying to cultivate that primeval (and primitive) viewpoint, while persisting in omniscient interjections giving us geographical details, personal details about the humans that Buck encounters, and so on. Frequently, he goes out of his way to point out that Buck did not know the things that he is telling us. While in a certain way these asides enrich the narrative with details – and too rigid an attempt to exclude this sort of thing would lead to a badly ‘experimental’ kind of dog’s-eye fiction – they do force us to remain on the outside watching Buck’s journey, rather than really taking it alongside him.

Does Call of the Wild belong on the list of the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century? In a nutshell, no. Jack London was no doubt a talented writer– I’ve read and enjoyed several of his short stories, and The Iron Heel is a decently entertaining science fiction yarn. Any list of the great architects of modern American letters would have to include him, and I think it was in acknowledgement of this that the Modern Library awarded him a spot on this list. However, Jack was not really at home in the novelistic form (as I said before, Call of the Wild fairly transparently breaks down into shorter episodes which are only uncomfortably glued together). The book has an imaginative premise and a few good lines, but as a novel, it is decidedly average.

[1] This isn’t really the place for this kind of musing, but I can’t help myself – it seems to me that Call of the Wild, with its romantic view of primeval nature and the struggle for dominance of the pack, and its contempt for "civilization", is an odd book to have been written by a professed Socialist. This may or may not have been commented on by critics – if not, it would be a fruitful avenue for investigation.

1 comment:

  1. Glad to be a part of this story, though someday I hope a Spitz fight scene novel makes the top 10 all time. I plan to write an entire novella about a Spitz fighting various animals, including three penguins and every Harry Potter character. Sounds like easy victories to me.