Monday, February 3, 2014

I have no idea what happened here

I am just SO confused about Burton and Speke. I'm pretty sure that my mother-in-law gave it to my husband and I kidnapped it from him (he doesn't really read fiction) after I saw the last third of the movie based on the book on cable three years ago. When I saw the end of the movie the image quality and some directorial choices made me think that it was made in the 70s, as did the quote on the back of the book from James Dickey, who authored Deliverance. The novel certainly has a 70s sleaze feel that the film did an okay job of presenting, so color me surprised when I found out that the movie was released in the early 90s and the book was published in 1982.

I almost feel like I could forgive the book if I knew it was a product of the disco era because it seems like everything made or made popular from 1969 to 1980 was, in one way or another, sleazy. This oddity of timing is what allowed the career of Kiss to flourish, set the stage for Vanishing Point, and turned Staying Alive into an earthshaking hit. There was so much free-floating cocaine that the entire decade seemed a little high and detached from social and artistic norms.

But anyway, the book. The novel follows the careers of Richard Burton and John Speke as explorers in Africa trying to find the source of the Nile. It does a fantastic job of making exploration look unappealing, so maybe it was trying to be apologetic about imperialism. Speke is priggish and detestable while Burton is roguish and detestable so I'm not sure who you're supposed to be sympathetic to as the story progresses but you can pick either one if you like since they're both terrible. Much name-dropping of poets and explorers is done, so you have plenty of people to think of if you're sick of Burton and Speke (which you will be) and a couple of them are genuinely interesting (Sidi Bombay, the hired translator comes to mind).

The language describing Africa is a curious blank - scenery gets lost in the internal dramas of the fever-stricken and largely crazy narrators. For a book set in Victoria's reign there's a lot of talk of clitorises and plenty of wistful stares exchanged between closeted and out-ish gay men, so there's that. All of the actual descriptions of sex (again, a surprising amount considering the setting) are too mechanical to be considered truly pornographic, or even intriguing. The language describing inebriation is adequate and constant.

By the end of the novel I was sort of left wondering what I missed. Was there some class that detailed the feuds of British explorers and their challengers that I slept through in high school? Have I been making faux pas at parties by not being up-to-date on 19th century bureaucracy? Yes, Harrison built a little world that I spent some time in, he made characters that I understood well enough to not respect, and there was a complete arc to his story. What I couldn't figure out is why he bothered. Maybe there's some huge important message that he was trying to communicate, but I'm pretty sure that by 1982 we had figured out that shitting on entire ethnic groups is not a good thing, homosexuality isn't a curse, and rigid class structures are probably not the best societal model. But then again, maybe not - I wasn't alive for a lot of the 80s so what the fuck do I know. Well, I do know that thirty years later this book feels almost unbearably dated, is exhausting to read, and had trouble holding my interest for more than a half an hour at a time.

Hope you're reading something better,
     - Alli

Harrison, William. Burton and Speke. Ballantine Books. New York: New York. 1982.

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