Cross-posted from Goodreads:
Vivisection, cutting to the quick, invasive colonoscopy, some sort of discomfiting bodily inspection metaphor feels appropriate to the experience of reading this book, as its intimacy with, and its revealing the truth of, one’s insides is painful but healthy and eventually relieving. As a novel the near-Nietzschean self-excoriation is displaced to the field of characters in the story, but the incisive analysis, floating around the room in third-person omniscient to uncover various discrepancies between honest motivation and external performance, scathes the previously self-satisfied reader all the same.
The book has its apparent weaknesses, but these are either explicable or forgivable. One character escapes Huxley’s scalpel, the relatively flat guru figure toward whom the main character eventually gravitates at the pinnacle of his bildungsroman in pursuit of a better and truer way of living. In a sense this weakens the power of the story’s conclusion, but as a rough sketch it leaves a simple outline for the reader surrogate to continue striving toward rather than a sharply dogmatic creed that a full-blooded hero would encourage. The structure, jumping between strands of the main character’s life at different time periods, may also appear a shortcoming, as it disrupts the smooth progress of each narrative, but partially explains the conceit of the guru concept in that it is impossible to keep one’s ideals firmly in view – as in the opening pages, involving the sifting through of old photographs, one is constantly reflecting, regressing (or at least appearing to do so by reliving embarrassing prior stages), slipping into stories from another life. One will likely be forced to stop and skip back to the last chapter with a close-enough time-period title to replant oneself into each thread, but this physical engagement with the text (approaching the finger contortionism required of the Choose Your Own Adventure fanatic) does surprisingly little if anything to dull the impact of its content.
The power of this book is that even when Huxley’s notions falter or incite disagreement – he has a puritanical disdain for sexuality and an elitism about cinema as a merely diversionary art form – he expresses them with articulate fluidity and as part of a convincing approach toward obtaining greater self-knowledge through greater self-examination. With just the one exception his characters are complex, hideously flawed yet beautiful, talented and sensitive; their interactions are the deceptions and performances that ours and our friends’ and acquaintances’ are, which hurts to see in print as elsewhere, but only in that they often mask an inner desire for love and truth and meaningful connection that few of us are sufficiently bold to speak to openly.