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!

The Perils of Point-of-View in Writing Biographies

On this blog, I’ve dedicated a lot of energy to dissecting bits of what I consider to be solid writing, in posts where I’ve highlighted the literary techniques contained within a passage or a poem and argued that they are what make the piece a success. But there’s an important caveat to that sort of discussion that I don’t think I’ve addressed before: there are no intrinsically good techniques, only techniques that are good in some context. If this blog is to be at all useful in exploring writing, I believe it needs to acknowledge that, sometimes, writing can be sterling in the abstract but flawed in a given situation.

To that end, I’d like to look at a passage from the first volume of Blanche Wiesen Cook’s biography of Eleanor Roosevelt, a book which in general is written in a perfectly fine if utilitarian manner, but at one dramatic moment adopts a far more lyrical prose style. The moment in question comes after Eleanor confronts her husband Franklin about his affair with her former secretary, Lucy Mercer, and offers him a divorce. It’s one the emotional low points in Eleanor’s life, so it’s perhaps no surprise that Cook would choose this part of her subject’s narrative to indulge in some rhetorical flair:

He made promises, provided explanations. This “golden boy,” this vibrant “apollo” who charmed everyone he met, now directed all his influence and charm toward his wife. He would never see Lucy Mercer again. Did he apologize? Did he explain? Had he been engaged in a long-overdue emotional rebellion—against being a mama’s boy who always did the right and proper thing; who condemned all departures from the proprieties of his class and culture; who had mocked his half-brother’s son’s love for a socially unacceptable woman and blamed Taddie for his father’s death; who at the young age of twenty-three had taken on the responsibilities of a wife and home? Well, he had erred. Washington was so full of temptations; he had been trying out his new power, his new independence, for the first time in his life. It was a flamboyant, fatuous time. And it was over. He cared about his wife; he loved her. He was sorry he had hurt her. There was so much at stake—so much to do, and to do together. (p. 231)

If you put this passage in a bottle, if you consider it in isolation, it’s rather impressive. In fact, you could probably give this paragraph to an AP Language and Composition class and have the students tear it apart as an exercise. The aim of the passage is to place the reader in FDR’s mind as realizes that his affair has been exposed, and every device that Cook uses serves that goal. There’s the mixture of short paratactic questions (“Did he apologize? Did he explain?”) with looping hypotactic ones (“Had he been engaged…”), both of which highlight Franklin’s excited mental state. The use of anaphora (“who had always…who condemned…who had mocked…who…had taken…”) calls to mind the great persuasive speeches of history, only here it’s directed inward, as though FDR wishes to convince himself of his good nature. Even the insertion of a discourse marker (“Well, he had erred”) is indicative of a mind at work. These devices are not especially advanced or obscure, but there are undeniably effective at achieving Cook’s end here.

But that only raises the question: is that an end worth achieving?

Let’s talk about point-of-view for a bit. We’re perhaps more accustomed to thinking about point-of-view in fiction. Fiction writers, after all, have a great deal of freedom in choosing a POV for their stories. They can use an omniscient narrator, moving from one character’s perspective to another’s, or even describing events outside of anyone’s perspective. They can adopt a quasi-objective, reportorial stance, as in Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.” Or they can restrict themselves to a single character’s POV, whether in first person or a limited third person. As long as the writer is consistent with regards to POV, they have almost limitless options.

The reason that fiction writers have such freedom is that fictional worlds are entirely of their own creation. In George Eliot’s Middlemarch, for example, the narrator can spend one chapter in Dorothea’s mind, then one in Lydgate’s, then one in Mr. Casaubon’s, and so on, without fear of being inaccurate to the facts of the narrative, because there are no narrative facts as such. The whole story exists as it does solely because George Eliot wrote it that way. But imagine if Middlemarch were literally, as the subtitle has it, a study of provincial life? Suddenly the narrator’s movement from one person’s mind to the next would seem a bit more suspect. The reader would be compelled to ask, “How does she know any of this?”

In Steering the Craft: A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula K. Le Guin notes that improper shifts in point-of-view are the problem that she encounters most often in unpublished (and even published) writing. That fact on its own did not surprise me when I first read Steering the Craft a few years ago, as it lined up with my own experience in writing workshops. What did surprise me was that Le Guin had found that the problem extended beyond novels and short stories:

It’s a problem even in nonfiction, when the author starts telling the reader what Aunt Jane was thinking and why Uncle Fred swallowed the grommet. A memoirist doesn’t have the right to do this without clearly indicating that Aunt Jane’s thoughts and Uncle Fred’s motives aren’t known facts but the author’s guesswork, opinion, or interpretation. Memoirists can’t be omniscient, even for a moment. (p. 70)

Le Guin frames this defective handling of POV in essentially moral terms: “A memoirist doesn’t have the right to do this.” If a fiction writer mishandles POV, the result is simply a weaker, more confusing story. If a nonfiction writer mishandles POV, the result may be straight-up dishonesty. “To use limited third person in factual narrative,” Le Guin goes on to say, “is to trespass, pretending you know what a real person thought and felt” (p. 71).

Cook isn’t writing a memoir, of course, but I think it’s fair to say that she has the same responsibilities that Le Guin assigns to memoirists. In fact, in her case those responsibilities may be even more pressing. When we read a memoir, we know that we’re getting a personal, edited account of real-life events, that we’re getting only one perspective on the complications of life. But when we read a biography, we expect the author to maintain objectivity, to follow where the facts lead and not to step beyond them.

Reread that passage from the Eleanor Roosevelt biography in this light, and you’ll start to see places where Cook strains against the limits of what can be known about FDR’s mental state after Eleanor’s offer of divorce. The rhetorical questions, which before sounded like an attempt to imagine FDR’s thought process, now sound like a way of sneaking in unfounded speculations without fully committing to them. They suggest that FDR may “have been engaged in a long-overdue emotional rebellion” without providing concrete evidence to support that claim; indeed, Cook follows it up with just further suppositions. In this brief digression into FDR’s mind, Cook has breached the biographer’s contract with the reader.

Yet, in all honesty, I can’t condemn Cook wholeheartedly for this trespass. See, FDR’s affair with Lucy Mercer is a momentous event in Eleanor Roosevelt’s life, as any discovery of infidelity would be, but it’s an event lacking much in the way of documentation. Cook says that Eleanor “wrote of that time only obliquely, and in code” (p. 232). References to the affair in her correspondence are scant to say the least, and her memoir devotes just a passing thought to the moment of discovery described above. (Even memoirs with consistent POVs, it is worth remembering, are not 100% factual accounts, either.)

This leaves Cook in a quandary regarding the Lucy Mercer affair. She can either stick to what the documentary record and interviews with Eleanor’s surviving acquaintances reveal, and say less than what the affair would appear to deserve; or she can speculate beyond what those limited sources have to say, sacrificing strict accuracy in the hopes of obtaining a perhaps unobtainable truth. This is not a choice that I find enviable, but is the choice that a writer in Cook’s position must make. I think either decision could be justified, but one must accept the consequences in either case.

But what do you think? Are there any cases you can think of where a biography has benefited from the sort of POV shift we talked about here? Is it ethical for a biographer to make such a shift in the first place? Let me know in the comments!

If you’re in the mood for something more thought on biography, here’s a piece I wrote last month about Frank Brady’s biography of Bobby Fischer, which looks into the duties we owe to abjectly awful people. Or, if you’re looking for more on point-of-view, here’s a post on Luisa Valenzuela’s “The Sin of the Apple,” a story that can teach us how to write from the POV of inanimate objects.

And, as always, thanks for reading!