In the opening chapter of Frederick Exley’s Pages from a Cold Island, we find “fictional memoirist” Exley drinking his breakfast in a Florida bar and penning lascivious come-ons to the earnest co-eds who have written him adoring fan mail regarding A Fan’s Notes, his acclaimed meditation on failure in America. Exley spends much of the rest of the book chasing the ghost of his literary hero, Edmund Wilson, through their nearly neighboring upstate New York hometowns. Exley sets off in search of the “stone house” Wilson famously used to clear out distractions, isolate his mind and do his best writing. Tracking down the physical center of Wilson’s inspiration—or at least his self-discipline—doesn’t provide Exley with much of either. The sad thing about achieving a measure of immortality through A Fan’s Notes was that Exley had to spend another 20 years running out the clock just to get there.
George Orwell found his stone house in the Scottish Hebrides in 1946. Flush with the success of Animal Farm but devastated by the death of his wife, Orwell fled post-war London for the sparsely populated island of Jura. There, in an isolated farmhouse called Barnhill, he wrote his final novel and dystopian masterpiece, Nineteen Eighty-Four. Barnhill proved more felicitous for Orwell’s writing than the damp air of Jura did for his health. Diagnosed with fibroid tuberculosis, Orwell spent most of his time in British hospitals after Nineteen Eighty-Four’s publication in 1949, and he died less than a year later.
In Andrew Ervin’s wry and engaging first novel, Burning Down George Orwell’s House, Orwell-obsessed advertising executive Ray Welter flees the wreckage of his marriage and the fallout from his latest ad campaign for a six-month stay on Jura as Barnhill’s sole tenant. There he encounters a host of off-kilter characters who, for the most part, want nothing to do with an outsider who invades their insular world with little ostensible purpose. The irony of the book’s title (besides the “Burning Down” part—sorry, Brock Clarke fans) is that, despite its famous associations, Barnhill is only marginally George Orwell’s. Predominantly inhabited by lifelong residents who can trace their lineage on Jura back for eons, Jura appears, in Ervin’s telling, to have never warmed to its famous temporary resident, or to the literary tourism Orwell’s connection to the island has inspired.
Ray’s reasons for taking up residence at Barnhill are muddled at best, although like Exley in his search for Edmund Wilson, he does arrive with high hopes for the transformative possibilities of an isolated mind. His pre-occupation with Nineteen Eighty-Four has shaped his life in several ways. He’s less concerned with Orwell’s vision of political totalitarianism than the subtler ways in which 21st-Century first-world denizens have become “enslaved to the system,” mistaking compulsive mass consumerism for an orgiastic triumph of will:
Orwell had predicted everything. It was uncanny. His invention of Big Brother had come to fruition in the form of a vast network of conjoined consumers and Ray now understood that he was one of them. How many times had he caught himself wandering through the mall and spending money as a form of entertainment? He surfed the web and purchased things he didn’t need in order to distract himself for a few moments from all the bad shit on the evening news. He had been marketed to so constantly and so effectively that he stopped noticing it—until he read Nineteen Eighty-Four.
Recognizing that the power of the existing system rests in providing consumers with the “illusion of choice,” Ray secures an internship at Logos, a leading Chicago advertising agency, years before his stay on Jura. After paying his dues in menial work, Ray sells his doublespeak-savvy boss on an ingeniously Orwellian strategy for revitalizing the sagging SUV market, beginning with conspicuously vandalizing their client’s own trucks and then seeding both sides of the media uproar that follows. When the campaign elicits the expected reaction from indignant SUV lovers, Ray inspires a free-spending, anti-environmentalist counter-insurgency—and helps his clients sell an astonishing number of SUVs.
Ray’s triumph proves short-lived. Following the death of his father in a factory explosion, the collapse of his marriage and the general loss of his mental stability and nerve, Ray spends what’s left of his savings on a six-month lease at Barnhill and escapes to Jura.
Ervin’s Jura is unexpectedly bleak—Ray’s first insight into Nineteen Eighty-Four after he reaches the island concerns the physical parallels between Jura and the “cold and murky world” of Orwellian protagonist Winston Smith’s Oceania. But the harshness of the island never mirrors Oceania in the all-encompassing dystopian sense. No novel with a scene as magical as the one in which the owner of the island’s whiskey distillery explains to Ray how a properly aged bottle of single-malt whiskey absorbs and encapsulates “a record of the natural life of Jura” (even as it signals incipient decline) could ever qualify as dystopian.
The inspired black comedy that ensues on Jura provides the book’s most irresistible moments, as Ray encounters Molly, a brilliant, wisecracking, no-quarter-giving 17-year-old; Pitcairn, her “raging arsehole” father, who beats his daughter, seems instantly predisposed toward murdering Ray and appears to own the only truck on the island able to withstand the rocky drive to Barnhill; Mrs. Campbell, a prudish and unabashedly hypocritical innkeeper; Farkas, the strikingly hirsute owner and operator of the island’s whiskey distillery, who may or may not be a werewolf; and a host of other characters who periodically take up flasks and arms on moonlit nights to hunt Farkas, or whatever mysterious wolf-like creature is terrorizing the island’s livestock.
Ray proves mostly inept at staying sober enough to read the Orwell books he brought along, mitigating the hostility of his island hosts or managing the primitive, off-grid conditions at Barnhill. But the peculiar relationships Ray strikes up on the island, particularly with Farkas and Molly, are the soul of the book. They save Burning Down George Orwell’s House from ever surrendering to the wearying, neo-Orwellian, post-everything satire of, say, James Othmer’s The Futurist. In fact, Burning Down George Orwell’s House’s greatest strength may be Ervin’s success at keeping the “Orwellian” elements of the book in check. Nineteen Eighty-Four casts a long shadow over countless books—but not this one.
In Burning Down George Orwell’s House, Ervin has achieved something uniquely refreshing: a book that shows the taste and restraint to pay knowing, affectionate and humorous tribute to George Orwell without trying to prove him right—or to create some redundant simulacrum of his work. That’s no knock on other writers and pundits perceptive enough to identify unsettling echoes of Nineteen Eighty-Four in our contemporary society. But if Burning Down George Orwell’s House demonstrates one thing, it’s that some Orwellians are more equal (to the task) than others.