Classics Club #4: “The Lathe of Heaven” by Ursula K. Le Guin

When reading The Lathe of Heaven, Ursula K. Le Guin’s 1971 novel about dreaming and altered realities, it can be difficult to find one’s footing. The novel is often described as an homage to fellow science fiction author Philip K. Dick, and while Le Guin’s prose style remains largely unchanged, in terms of subject the work has more in common with Dick’s 1969 novel Ubik than it does with, say, Le Guin’s 1969 novel The Left Hand of Darkness—which is to say, it’s far more surreal than her usual, quasi-anthropological stories tend to be. At some point, and by design, the novel’s story becomes impossible to track.

Still, while following the plot of The Lathe of Heaven may be a daunting task, it is possible, and not that challenging, to follow the novel’s thematic content. This is especially true if the reader pays close attention to a particular symbol which crops up time and again throughout the novel. Seeing how the novel approaches this symbol will doubtless make for a more coherent and fulfilling reading experience. So with that in mind, let’s talk about Mount Hood.

Mount Hood first appears as a concept, if not as an object, in the first paragraph of Chapter 2, when the narrator describes the office of psychiatrist Dr. William Haber. Hanging prominently “on one of the windowless walls was a big photographic mural of Mount Hood” (p. 6). On its own, the mural would be a solid detail for the setting, adding a degree of verisimilitude to ground what will become an otherwise disorienting story. (Think of how many waiting rooms across the country feature framed photographs by Ansel Adams.) But in the context of the scene, it serves as much more than mere set dressing.

The narrator mentions how Haber looks at the mural while speaking with his receptionist, who informs him that his next patient, George Orr, has arrived. The mountain is an object of desire for Haber, largely because, as the first sentence of the chapter tells us, his “office did not have a view of Mount Hood” (p. 6). It’s somewhat unusual for narration to begin a scene by noting what is not present in the setting, which draws the reader’s attention, paradoxically, to the act of perception. Haber cannot experience Mount Hood directly, so instead he must content himself with a simulation. To drive the point home, Haber spends kills time while waiting for his patient to enter by contemplating the nature of that simulation:

Now Penny was going through the first-visit routine with the patient, and while waiting Dr. Haber gazed again at the mural and wondered when such a photograph had been taken. Blue sky, snow from foothills to peak. Years ago, in the sixties or seventies, no doubt. The Greenhouse Effect had been quite gradual, and Haber, born in 1962, could clearly remember the blue skies of his childhood. Nowadays the eternal snows were gone from all the world’s mountains, even Everest, even Erebus, fiery-throated on the waste Antarctic shore. But of course they might have colored a modern photograph, faked the blue sky and white peak; no telling.

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven, p. 7

This paragraph accomplishes a number of things for the novel. First, it serves as world-building for the near-future society depicted in The Lathe of Heaven. Climate change has ravaged the planet such that in just forty years the “eternal snows” of mountains the world over have melted. Second, the paragraph encourages the reader to be skeptical of what is presented in the novel, not to take things at face value. Haber cannot be certain that the photograph is an accurate depiction of its subject, that is, of Mount Hood at the time that the photograph was taken. An artist or technician would have the tools to alter the causal process that produces a photograph; they could impose their own vision onto the image.

These two implications of the photograph—that society has declined and that one can impose a vision onto reality—combine to lay the groundwork for the entire plot of The Lathe of Heaven. Once Orr enters Haber’s office and reveals his dilemma, the story can begin in earnest. Orr has been taking drugs that suppress dreaming because he occasionally has what he calls “effective dreams”: dreams that alter the past, and everyone else’s memory of it, to radically reshape the present. Haber is naturally skeptical that such events are possible, but decides to test this hypothesis by intentionally making Orr have an effective dream.

He hooks Orr up to a device called the Augmentator, which allows a patient to rapidly enter the dreaming stage of sleep, and gives him the hypnotic suggestion to have an effective dream about a horse. Once Orr awakes, he asks Orr to recount his dream, and it’s here that the reality of Orr’s powers becomes hauntingly clear:

“A horse,” Orr said huskily, still bewildered by sleep. He sat up. “It was about a horse. That one,” and he waved his hand toward the picture-window-size mural that decorated Haber’s office, a photograph of the great racing stallion Tammany Hall at play in a grassy paddock.”

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven, p. 23

Anecdotally, I can say that this passage caused me to doubt my own memory of what I’d just read. “Was that picture always there?” I asked myself. “Wasn’t that a picture of Mount Hood before, or is this just another mural that hadn’t been mentioned yet?” The fact that Haber doesn’t immediately react to the change only intensified my confusion. It’s not until Orr broaches the subject that the reader can regain confidence in their own senses:

“Was it there an hour ago? I mean, wasn’t that a view of Mount Hood, when I came in—before I dreamed about the horse?”

Oh Christ it had been Mount Hood the man was right.

It had not been Mount Hood it could not have been Mount Hood it was a horse it was a horse

It had been a mountain

A horse it was a horse it was—

Ursula K. Le Guin, The Lathe of Heaven, p. 24 (emphasis original)

We can see in Le Guin’s abandonment of punctuation Haber’s efforts to reconcile his two memories: one of the world before the effective dream, one of the world the effective dream has caused. Orr’s powers have shaken him profoundly, and though he tries to play it off in the immediate aftermath (a psychiatrist must maintain composure in front of his patient), it’s clear that he has some deep thinking to.

The picture of Mount Hood is the perfect object on which to have Orr demonstrate his powers. First off, changing the photograph’s subject from a mountain—something traditionally thought of as eternal (cf. “eternal snows”)—into something as dramatically different as racehorse without Haber noticing unprompted proves that Orr’s powers have staggering implications. Second, it calls back to Haber’s doubts about the authenticity of the photograph in the first place. If Orr’s dreaming has changed the photograph and Haber’s memory of it right now, who is to say that a previous dream had not done the exact same thing before?

But it’s the third reason for the image’s power that really gets Haber thinking. If Orr’s dreams are capable of changing a photograph of Mount Hood, why can’t they change Mount Hood itself? Haber realizes that Orr’s dreaming could be used to fix all of their present society’s problems: not just the loss of Mount Hood’s snows, but also overpopulation, racism, nuclear war, and so forth. Orr’s dreaming unlocks the potential that Haber subconsciously was hinting at when contemplating the photograph: the potential for Haber to exercise god-like powers on reality.

Throughout The Lathe of Heaven, as Haber uses Orr’s effective dreams to impose his vision on the world, Mount Hood appears time and again as a reflection of how that project is going. Most notably, as the new society that Haber is guiding grows more unstable and dystopian, the volcanic activity of Mount Hood keeps increasing. It’s a striking manifestation of Orr’s concerns regarding his abilities. One cannot control the eruptive power of a volcano, and neither can one control the disruptive power of effective dreams. As Orr thinks of Haber’s office building in one of the new realities: “This building could stand up to anything left on Earth, except perhaps Mount Hood. Or a bad dream” (p. 136). Really, are the two not the same thing?

I don’t want to give the impression that understanding how Le Guin uses Mount Hood as a symbol will “solve” The Lathe of Heaven, like it’s a cipher in need of a key. Indeed, to come to a definite conclusion about this particular novel’s story and themes would be to read the novel in bad faith: everything is in constant flux. Instead, one can use Mount Hood as an anchor in the plot’s turbulent waters. One will never get a sure grasp on the story in its totality, but one can still can find a moment-by-moment calm within it.


What are your thoughts on The Lathe of Heaven? Do you think that latching onto a symbol like Mount Hood is a good way of understanding the novel, or are there some drawbacks that I haven’t accounted for? Let me know in the comments!

This post is part of my Classics Club project. If you’d like read my previous installment on Elfriede Jelinek’s novel Wonderful, Wonderful Times, click here; if you’d like to see my master list of books and get a sense of what the future holds, click here.

And as always, thanks for reading!

A Top 5 List: Modern Poetry Classics

Shanah McCready, known to the Internet as the Bionic Book Worm, organizes a series of book-related Top 5 lists every Tuesday. This week’s theme is “modern classics,” which is quite a broad topic, and an inherently speculative one. After all, who knows what future generations of writers and readers will latch onto? I doubt anyone thought Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, for example, would cast such a long shadow on American literature.

The doubt involved in making a list of “modern classics” is doubly present when it comes to poetry. Given how vanishingly rare it is for a contemporary poet to achieve broad recognition in the literary community, let alone the general reading public, picking any collection as a potential staple of future reading lists seems, shall we say, hopeful.

But I shall remain hopeful. As such, I’ve decided to put poetry front and center on this list. Here are five poetry collections released since 2000, listed in order of release, which at the very least ought to be considered modern classics.

Sleeping with the Dictionary

1) Harryette Mullen, Sleeping with the Dictionary
University of California Press, 2002
Links: publisher | Amazon

I’ve lost track of how often I’ve pressed this book under the weight of the photocopier, curious to see how students will react to Mullen’s plays on form. This is a collection that turns “Goldilocks and the Three Bears” into a police blotter (“European Folk Tale Variant”), a courting ritual into a litany of tongue-twisters (“Any Lit”), and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 into a paranoid rant about the Walt Disney Company (“Variation on a Theme Park”). Mullen takes the diction and rhetoric we take for granted everyday and puts it through the grinder, showing how meaningless (or meaningful!) it is at base. It’s a collection I’m not sure I will ever full-heartedly love, but it’s one I will always deeply respect.

 

Sea of Faith2) John Brehm, Sea of Faith
University of Wisconsin Press, 2004
Links: publisher | Amazon

Whereas Sleeping with the Dictionary is a book that always inspires me to think about writing, John Brehm’s Sea of Faith in one that inspires me to actually write. Nearly every poem in the collection is one I wish I could have written, because Brehm’s an expert at converting raw sensory inputs into polished works. Take “Coney Island,” which piles one overwhelming detail on top of another, to the point where I believe that “we’ll actually / get on a rollercoaster / just to calm ourselves down.” For another: “Sound Check, Lower Manhattan,” which finds the profundity beneath what sounds like  “[j]ust a jumble of songs and jackhammers and / roaring garbage trucks.” Sea of Faith is probably my most obscure pick, which is a great shame. It deserves a wider audience.

 

Blood Dazzler

3) Patricia Smith, Blood Dazzler
Coffee House, 2008
Links: publisher | Amazon

An unfortunately timely choice, Patricia Smith’s collection of poems about Hurricane Katrina is a poignant and inventive account of that storm’s particular devastation. Smith both employs a wide variety of forms (free verse, sestinas, abecedarians, etc) and inhabits a number of personas (politicians, residents, even the storm itself) to get the full scope of the tragedy across to the reader. If nothing else, you should listen to some of Smith’s readings on the Poetry Foundation website, which brutally highlight the sound-play at work, especially with regards to the poem “Katrina”: “I was bitch-monikered, hipped, I hefted / a whip rain, a swirling sheet of grit.”

 

Dear Corporation,4) Adam Fell, Dear Corporation,
H_NGM_N, 2014
Links: publisher | Amazon

Inspired by the United States Supreme Court ruling Citizens United v. FEC, Adam Fell’s prose poems addressed to the person Corporation burn with confused rage and raging confusion; as one of the letters begins, “I don’t know how to say how I feel politely, or poetically.” Despite, or perhaps because of, the collection’s political origins, each letter is also a deeply personal statement; the mere thought of the speaker reaching out to Corporation, of all persons, for solace is heart-rending. And as with Smith, Fell is an excellent reader of his own work. If you can find a recording or see him read in person, do so.

 

Citizen5) Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
Graywolf, 2014
Links: publisher | Amazon

If you follow poetry, then you knew this one was coming. A multimedia meditation on race in modern America, Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric proved relevant to the broader literary conversation in a way that so few poetry collections are able to today. That alone would almost guarantee it a spot on any list of classics; that these reflections are so sharp only puts it over the top. Seriously, the decision to cast John McEnroe as a Greek chorus in the essay on Serena Williams is absolutely brilliant (and given recent happenings, strangely prescient). To quote the book’s final line: “It was a lesson.” Indeed, indeed.

So there’s my list. What do you think? Are there any poetry collections released this century that you would have included? Let me know in the comments.