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For one thing, as any writer will tell you, people do tell a writer things that they don’t tell others. I don’t know why, unless it is that having read one or two of his books they feel on peculiarly intimate terms with him; or it may be that they dramatize themselves and, seeing themselves as it were as characters in a novel, are ready to be as open with him as they imagine the characters of his invention are.

Most people have had the good fortune to have at least one teacher during their time at school able to inspire and guide them. Mine was a geography teacher. He was a strong influence on my growing wanderlust, interest in movies (Easy Rider for one) and the books I read. One afternoon in class he mentioned W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, although he was quick to add, ‘it’s not that kind of book’. I chased down a copy and found it to be a book about failed ambition and our need to find a purpose in life. It was inspiring to read when I was a teenager and caused me to question many certainties I had.

Of Human Bondage was a semi-autobiographical work, but Maugham goes even further in The Razor’s Edge, inserting himself into the text as a character. The opening chapter has the author speak directly to us, insisting that the story he wishes to tell is based on actual events. He refuses to introduce fiction into the proceedings besides changing the names of his ‘characters’, to protect their reputation. Instead he only relates events in their lives as he witnessed them, or as they were told to him by those directly involved. The three principals are Elliott Templeton, a kind-hearted insufferable snob whom Maugham befriends in Paris; Templeton’s niece Isabel, who confides in the author; and the strangely aloof Larry Darrell.

For all intents and purposes this is Larry’s story. A childhood sweetheart of Isabel’s he returned from the First World War strangely apathetic, not wishing to find work, or enter business as his peers have done. Growing up a member of the American upper class, his decision to devote his life instead to study is bewildering to those who know him. Elliott is personally offended that Larry has rejected the kind of life he lives for, networking at parties and ensuring that one is always a friend to the right people. Isabel, while hopelessly in love with Larry, is troubled that he would prefer to lead a penniless life than settle down with her and enter business.

Eventually she breaks off her engagement to him and he vanishes from their lives. Maugham manages to reconstruct what happened next to Larry and tells his story to us in chronological order, although for the majority of his acquaintance with the intense young American his actions remain a mystery. Having abandoned America just as it takes its first strides to becoming a superpower, Larry travels the world, looking for enlightenment at the bottom of a mine, in a monk’s cell and under the guidance of a yogi. The events of the book take place during the roaring twenties, with the 1929 Stock Market Crash a rude awakening for Isabel’s dreams of a life of ease. When next she meets Larry she finds they are both very different people now, a discovery that is hard for her to accept.

Maugham writes with sincerity and conviction, as well as an obsessive degree of detail. Larry’s quest for happiness and a purpose in life with meaning is eked out in such a way that we are not overburdened with long philosophical rants. By balancing the story between Isabel, Elliott and Larry, he gives equal perspective to three very different accounts of what is important in life.

He also writes in a self-conscious manner, almost apologizing at both the beginning and end of the book for the way in which he has written his tale. He tartly criticizes Henry James for failing to capture the English voice, hence the pretence of being a witness to actual events. This book continues to enthrall readers, with its audacious insertion of philosophy into an entertaining narrative. Most surprisingly Bill Murray was obsessed with making a film of it early in his career.

I can see why.

Every time we killed a thousand Bugs at a cost of one M.I. it was a net victory for the Bugs. We were learning, expensively, just how efficient a total communism can be when used by a people actually adapted to it by evolution; the Bug commissars didn’t care anymore about expending soldiers than we cared about expending ammo. Perhaps we could have figured this out about the Bugs by noting the grief the Chinese Hegemony gave the Russo-Anglo-American Alliance; however the trouble with ‘lessons from history’, is that we usually read them best after falling flat on our chins.

Okay, a couple of notes. First off, yes, I snapped this book up because I’m a big fan of Paul Verhoeven’s film. If you haven’t seen it yet I would advise you to drop everything and check it out. It is one of the most darkly humorous sci-fi satires I have ever seen. Plus it has Neil Patrick Harris goose-stepping on screen in a mocked up SS uniform. Secondly, and maybe that last sentence gave you a hint, I’ve made myself a promise of not using the ‘f’ word in reviewing this book. Not that it isn’t…a word beginning with ‘f’ that rhymes with – ascist. Just that, in doing so, I immediately scupper the review.

I plan on doing that anyway, but I’m trying to establish ground rules here, c’mon! Be fair.

Anyway Heinlein’s novel begins with young Johnny Rico narrating to us a military ‘drop’ on an alien world inhabited by a race referred to as ‘Skinnies’. Equipped with large robotic suits of armour that allows soldiers to leapfrog over buildings, the humans bomb sites that will cause the mass amount of panic. At one point Rico throws an intelligent bomb into a crowded building that begins to audibly count itself down to destruction. He is one of Rasczak’s Roughnecks, a platoon that’s known for being mean and fast, dedicated fighters. Once their objective is achieved they pull out and we flashback to Rico’s first days in the army.

The majority of the book itself is occupied with the hero’s training and experiences in boot-camp. This was something of a surprise, but it eventually became clear to me what Heinlein is looking to achieve. Rico is inspired to join up by the example of his stern Moral Philosophy teacher Mr Dubois. Throughout the book Dubois is seen as more of a father-figure than Rico’s own businessman dad, who argues against his son joining up. Only enlisted men are offered the opportunity to become ‘citizens’, meaning only they can vote in elections, should they survive long enough to make it to the next ballot. When Rico signs up he becomes estranged from his father, who wanted him to go to Harvard and take over the family business. He only receives letters from his mother from then on, who tries to intercede between her husband and son. It is Dubois who actually reaches out to Rico, sending him a note to say how proud he is that a student of his volunteered to join the Mobile Infantry.

We are told that 2009 recruits signed up, including Rico. After relentless training, hard discipline, even naked survival treks through mountains – less than 200 grunts remain for graduation. Rico ships out and joins the fight against ‘the Bug’, an enemy race of giant arachnids that operate under a hive-mind and feel no mercy. By the time Rico graduates the human race is at war with the Bug, which has struck Earth and wiped out Buenos Aires. He soon learns that life is cheap and the Bug never quits. We follow his progress up the ranks during the conflict.

Verhoeven received many plaudits for his subversive take on Heinlein’s novel, but the author himself has written quite a work of subversion. In short this book is nothing less than an attack on contemporary liberal values, with the militarist state raised up as an utopia. The Bugs are equated to communists and Dubois dismisses Marxism with a pithy culinary analogy. Social workers and psychologists are blamed for teenage delinquency and ‘the Terror’ is cited as a pan-global 21st century epidemic of adolescent violence.

Basically this future society is a response to hoodies.

What’s more, we never really leave Dubois’ classroom. I expected action scenes, but most of the novel occurs in flashbacks. Rico continually reminisces about Dubois’ lessons on morality. And this is Heinlein’s philosophical outlook, in fictional form.

 

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