An introduction to tragedy
Yesterday, I caught the end of The Moody Blues' Nights in White Satin, and it made me think -- as it always does -- of a summer in the early 1970s, the livingroom of my first house, a slow morning, our old console hi-fi, Derek & the Dominoes' Layla (the original version, of course, not that acoustic horror Clapton later perpetrated), Nights in White Satin, and the end of John Christopher's The City of Gold and Lead. The City of Gold and Lead is the second of Christopher's Tripods trilogy, which was H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds written down for kids. (A reviewer over at Amazon made that observation, not me. But it irks me to have this pointed out to me thirty-some years later. Damn it, I should have noticed.) The story itself is unimportant. Earth has been subjugated by aliens who roam the planet in giant mechanical tripods. They live in domed cities and enslave human children. A group of friends, all young boys, enter one of the cities as part of a plot to defeat the Tripods . . . Spoiler alert. (But Christopher wrote the trilogy in the late 60s/early 70s. If you haven't read it yet, I doubt you will now.) . . . and some of the kids don't make it out. I'm finding it difficult to put into words the magic of that ending. You know how middle books in a trilogy are supposed to be the weakest of the three? Not this one, not for me. The first and third books combined didn't have one-tenth the impact of this book, all because I had never before read a book with such a sad ending. I'd read disturbing books before. Julia Cunningham's Dorp Dead creeped me out, but had (as best I can recall) an uplifting ending. I'd read Golding's Lord of the Flies, but I don't think I understood the ending until I reread it as an older teenager. The only comparable experience I'd had was not with a book, but with Nicolas Roeg's film Walkabout, which I saw at its Los Angeles premiere in 1971 (hey, I got around. And, might I add, Jenny Agutter's naked body made quite the impression on 9-year-old me). If you've never seen Walkabout, I won't spoil it for you. Find it, rent it. It disturbed me for days. It still disturbs me. The ending of The City of Gold and Lead didn't pack the same emotional punch as Walkabout, but I have never forgotten my reaction: Sadness, of course. Surprise, that a book could end this way. More surprise, that a book could make me feel this way. It changed the way I looked at books. I began to realize how much I enjoyed the emotional reaction evoked in me by a good book, and how pleasurable it could be to feel such powerfully unpleasant emotions. I'd like to say this was the first of many such experiences, but sadly, for me such books have been few and far between. Yet the ones which have stuck with me are all tragedies. Your turn. D.