Textual Detritus – Iron Heel
November 13, 2009
Posted by on
Textual Detritus is a running series of notes focused on my reading list for exams related to my PhD studies. These are not reviews so I will refrain from explaining plot lines. These posts also contain any number of spoilers for the books in question though I’ll try to keep them hidden behind a cut. Simply, the idea here is to get some of my immediate thoughts down in a coherent manner for later use or discussion. As such, I make no claim about the level of thought, coherence, or grammar to any of these posts.
Due to a cold I’ve been fighting for the last week, I’m playing a horrible game of catch-up (one that I’m losing I might add) so I’ll be doing a set of quick and shorter than normal Textual Detritus posts today. First up is Jack London’s Iron Heel. Written in 1908, Iron Heel is an oddly seductive text. To be honest, I can’t say that it’s all that well written, but it’s just compelling as hell despite (or perhaps because of) its faults. This, as a colleague told me, is not the Jack London we read in grade school. A thoroughly socialist novel, Iron Heel follows the fall of society into a capitalist controlled distopia and the subsequent revolutions to try to overthrow the controlling oligarchy. The narration is odd in that it’s written from the point of view of the principle revolutionary, Ernest Everhard’s wife. London adds a further layer through the voice of an editor that interprets the text six centuries after its writing. The editor provides an intriguing voice that’s my favorite part of the text. With six hundred years of hindsight, the narrator gets to pass judgment on all of novels events and subsequently hold up the socialist long view of history. The revolution eventually works out and while we’re only given glimpses on how that utopian society works, the editor’s firm tone suggests that all is well.
The editor’s presence leads back to my claim of the novel’s faults. The early bits of the novel that highlight Ernest’s proselytizing of socialist dogma essentially read like London was having an imaginary discussion in his mind. By that I mean the type where you know all the right answers and lead all manner of opponents into logical fallacies and traps. This might be a reason for Avis Everhard being the novel’s narrator. Additionally, London seems rather sloppy with his social classes in the story. Society falls into distinct categories: the oligarchy, revolutionaries, mercenaries, labor, the middle class, farmers, the people of the abyss to name a few. There’s certainly crossover and ties between the groups, but in each chapter things are nailed down momentarily to move the story forward. In the next chapter the groups may have shifted a bit, but they are again nailed down by the narration to move things along. London doesn’t seem to expand or complicate these categories as revolution looms. Sometimes the mercenaries turn against the oligarchy, but the idea of class-consciousness or class traitors is never really explored. The proletariat put down by the army, but no real exploration of the folks who make up that army ever happens. This also raises the question of how revolution comes about. Ernest is in an odd place. He needs a patron early in the novel and later he raises up of his own accord. Yet the revolutionary class is depicted specifically as educated. They are further separated from the working class by London’s depiction of the people of the abyss who are best compared to zombies. (I’d recommend this book for the chapters dealing with the people of the abyss in the Chicago uprising chapters at the end of the book because they are just compellingly bizarre.) What exact class or standing the socialist revolutionaries have is never clearly expounded upon in the novel, which seems to undermine the power of the story.
To close up, the arguments of the novel about the metaphysical and facts lead to an interesting question in light of Ernest’s proclivities and his philosophy on life. Facts are what we trust our life to according to Ernest. But the novel itself is certainly a metaphysical exploration of reality (particularly if you take into account how young the field of sociology is and that much of the facts of the novel are based solely on rather vague assertions about it.) So, is the novel a fact? Would we trust our lives to it? Perhaps not, but it’s a hell of a read nonetheless.