I wrote at the conclusion of last week’s my previous review that Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence was going to be an incredibly tough act to follow.
I was right.
by Aldous Huxley
Published in 1921
Sitting on my desk next to my keyboard, my copy of Crome Yellow cuts a very svelte figure. At only one hundred and seventy pages, Crome Yellow is skinny. Supermodel skinny. The kind of book you could sit down and read on a sunny Sunday afternoon if you were so inclined.
Appearances, however, can be very deceptive. Never before has such a slim book felt so very, very long.
I’ve read many good books so far in my life. I know what the experience of reading a genuinely good book feels like.
A good book, for instance, shouldn’t make you force yourself to actually sit down and read it. When you’re reading a good book, you shouldn’t find yourself constantly flipping to the last page to find out how many pages you have left to read. And a good book shouldn’t make you wonder if anyone would notice if you skipped a chapter or two…
(For the record, I didn’t. I never do*.)
I had all these thoughts – and more – while reading Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow, his first novel, published in 1921.
Crome Yellow is a book with many, many problems. Even just describing it is fraught with difficulties. The thing with Crome Yellow is that it’s barely even a novel – it’s more like a series of loosely connected scenes. The plot, if you could call it that, centres around Denis Smith. He’s a spectacularly emo young poet, who comes to stay (for no discernable reason) at Crome, a large estate somewhere in the English countryside. During his stay, he’s introduced to a cast of absurd characters, also staying at Crome, and falls hopelessly in love with Anne, the niece of his eccentric hosts, Henry and Priscilla Wimbrush.
And…err…that’s about it. What follows reads like a collection of pointless short stories. In one chapter, the residents of Crome discuss a book they can’t find. In another, the local minister recounts his favourite sermon – in full. Anne and Mary, another young, female resident of Crome, discuss their dreams. We witness Denis’ repeated, almost pathetic attempts to woo Anne. But Anne falls in love with a grumpy painter. There’s a fair, Denis contemplates throwing himself from one of Crome’s towers, then, finally, leaves Crome in disgust. The end. Yes, I don’t usually reveal the plots of books I review, but really, Crome Yellow has no plot to reveal.
But it’s not the lack of a plot that worries me the most about Crome Yellow. The real problem with this book is that there’s nothing else to fill the gaping chasm left by the lack of a coherent plot.
In my experience, in the absence of a plot, the author really needs to pull out something super-special. The characters need to be absolutely captivating, or the writing needs to be absolutely spectacular. However, I found Huxley’s writing unremarkable, and his characters half-baked and utterly, utterly forgettable. Take Denis, for example. He’s the closest Huxley gets to a main character, but never find out why he visits Crome, where he’s from…or much about him at all, really. Other than that he loves Anne and writes poetry.
As I mentioned earlier, Crome Yellow is divided into short chapters; each of which portrays a different scene. Many of these are devoted to characters discussing different ideas and theories. Crome Yellow is a book of ideas, really – it’s just a pity that, for the most part, they’re not interesting or entertaining ideas.
Ultimately, of course, Crome Yellow is intended as a work of humour. Huxley is parodying the very people and ideas he’s portraying. Chances are, they’re based on real people. But for me, the humour of Crome Yellow has lost much of its charm. It falls flat.
Well, most of it, at least. The two chapters devoted to tales from Crome’s eccentric, often scandalous past were quite amusing. In the first story, for instance, Crome was run by a dwarf named Sir Hercules, who filled Crome with a population of dwarves. And I enjoyed the eccentrically-named Mr. Barbeque-Smith, a new-age guru who appeared towards the beginning of the novel…and then, unfortunately, disappeared.
I found Huxley’s writing was more appealing when it was dealing with people, not ideas. I can understand and sympathise with unrequited love. That’s what I want to read about. But I am not interested in one character’s ramblings about population control. I realise that Huxley is parodying these ideas, these characters, but knowing this doesn’t make Crome Yellow any more interesting.
What is interesting about Crome Yellow, however, is that Huxley parodies the very same ideas he was to use later in his career, as the basis for his most famous work, Brave New World, published in 1932. It’s also interesting that Huxley portrays his female characters as independent, intelligent and sexually liberated. These are not chaste, timid lay-deees. The two main female characters of Crome Yellow discuss which of the men of Crome they will pursue – and they go after their prey without hesitation. Look out, boys.
The thing with books is that, like anything else, some books age better than others. While some books have the amazing ability to hold their appeal for decades, to keep readers intrigued for centuries after they were written, other books…just don’t. They’re a product of their time; bound firmly in the here-and-now. And that’s fine; these works serve a definite purpose.
In my opinion, Aldous Huxley’s Crome Yellow offers the modern reader very little. There’s no plot, no memorable characters, no satisfaction – and only a few, fleeting moments of wit. I realise that Crome Yellow is meant to be a work of comedy, a satire…however, it’s a joke that, unfortunately, is totally lost on me.
Official Book to the Future Rating:
Superawesome! – Awesome – Okay – Blah – Superblah!
Should I read it?
No. Trust me, you’re not missing a thing.
In a word: