Our frenemy and resident gadfly, Max, suggested we read Alan Harrington's The Revelations of Dr. Modesto, so I tracked it down. It sounded pretty interesting: first published in 1955, it's about a loser salesman who writes away for the secrets of success from the back of a magazine, follows the advice to the letter, and becomes wildly if unhappily successful. He then goes on a bizarre trek to find the mysterious Dr. Modesto. It reminded me a lot of The Phantom Tollbooth, actually: they're both picaresques peopled with irrational characters.
This isn't a book about people so much as it is about ideas -- and one gets the impression, reading it, of ideas slamming into each other and bouncing off walls like bumpercars. The main idea is Dr. Modesto's "Centralism," which claims one can achieve success by being as close to "average" as possible -- dressing, acting, and speaking as much like the norm as one can, including living in the middle of town and mirroring people's needs and desires back to them. Of course this kind of success is shown to be meaningless and a charade, and Dr. Modesto a lunatic. It must have seemed terribly subversive at the time, and indeed it predicts the popular overthrow of "square" culture pretty accurately.
The best thing about this novel is the writing, which is often stunning. It makes me wish the story itself weren't so jangled and pressured and trying to make a point. Novels are all conversations with their culture, aren't they? But some novels address larger and more universal questions (war, say, and peace), others take on smaller, individual questions, and still others are about the passing mood of a society. The latter books don't always wear as well over time. We're much more cynical and knowing about conformity now, and the topic even seems a bit tired in YA novels.
Harrington, who hung out with the Beat crowd, apparently later became obsessed with the idea that our society was being taken over by psychopaths. True enough, as it turns out. I wonder if his anger and consternation at the culture of the time overwhelmed his more literary tendencies. Well, I certainly empathize.