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Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Tono-Bungay (1908) d. H.G. Wells

Book Review
Tono-Bungay (1908)
d. H.G. Wells

  It is commonly observed that Tono-Bungay is H.G. Wells most "artistic" novel.  Unfortunately, the statement is always made by someone who wouldn't call War of the Worlds "artistic," so I don't personally think that (Tono-Bunday is H.G. Wells most "artistic" novel.)  It is, however, NOT a science fiction book, rather a coming of age story adapted for "modern" times.  The main character is Well-sian if not Wells himself.  The protagonist is George Ponderevo, a young man on the hustle (but with consider scientific adeptness and a college level education) who is persuaded to help manufacture a patent medicine (Tono-Bungay) with his ne'er do-well Uncle Edward.

 The two achieve major success based on what we would today call "savvy marketing."  After success is achieved George Ponderevo retreats to the country to romance a fair lady and experiment with aircraft design in what can loosely be described as "in the style of the Wright brothers."  After his Uncle Edward suffers financial reversals, George takes a boat to the coast of Africa to find an expensive radioactive substance called "Quap" which he hopes to sell.  The expedition meets with disaster and Ponderevo ends the novel, in somewhat ominous fashion, building "destroyers" for a private company.

 I think probably the best analogy for Tono-Bungay is in terms of Ayn Rand.   Wells' "George Ponderevo" character is a kind of Nietzschian super man who questions god, society and the laws of nature themselves.  Tono-Bungay is also a kind of precursor to the pop-philosophical novels of the 60s, like those by Herman Hesse, for example.  At the same time, Tono-Bungay is impressive in terms of idea, not in terms of craft.  Wells was writing well into the post-Henry James period of literary modernism but he clearly either didn't get it, or didn't want to get it.

  The coming of age narrative model is a step back in time to the mid 19th century, but the modernity of the ideas expressed by Ponderevo compensates for the lack of formal innovation.

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