“IT WAS A PLEASURE TO BURN.” In the spring of 1950 Ray Bradbury sat in the basement of the Lawrence Powell library at UCLA, took a dime out of his pocket and slotted it into the small timer. Clunk. He struck the keys of the typewriter; each letter of the alphabet sprang forward printed, its likeness on paper, then snapped back into place. Students sat at the other eleven pay-by-the-hour typewriters in the basement of the library and pounded the keys. Bradbury added his own fingertips to the stampede. He was following a character along the white sheet of the page. Guy Montag left the fire station after a day of burning books and took the tube to the suburbs. Montag emerged on a blank street and turned a corner. The wind picked up. Autumn leaves scattered. The sentence came to a full stop.
Bradbury stretched in his chair and rubbed his forehead, his eyes felt heavy. His back ached and his right leg had gone to sleep. His wife and baby daughter were waiting at home. Outside, the sun was setting over LA but he couldn’t see it. The basement had no windows. Bradbury glanced at the student sitting in front of him. Her blonde ponytail had flared on the edge of his vision all day. She typed in a neat even rhythm as though she knew exactly where she was going and what she wanted to say. The blonde unwound the last page from her typewriter and gathered together a thick ream of paper. Bradbury watched as she stood up and walked out of the basement of the library. Her pony tail swayed from side to side. She didn’t look back.
Bradbury had to keep going. He wrote in half hour instalments. His fingers raced over the keys. The typewriter outran his thoughts. The story barely paused for Bradbury to stop and add another dime. He finished the first draft of Fahrenheit 451 in nine days: a 25,000 word story called The Fireman. It cost him $9.80.
The timer went off.
In December 2009 I stood behind the till at Borders Kingston-Upon-Thames and held the scanner over the binc sticker on the back of a book. The scanner flashed red as it registered the title, beeped and added the price to the total. A fleet of Borders stores had opened throughout the UK. Born in the USA, the typical Borders two-storey stores were large, friendly supermarkets where browsers could freely roam the aisles. Borders presence on the local high street had once seemed as assured as a Starbucks Grande Cappuccino. Now size and range had become its downfall. “Is the discount on there?” The customer glanced at the total on the cash register. During the sale I noticed customers had developed a heightened distrust of technology. “Yes,” I said. “The books are all half price.” I pressed Enter on the till. The receipt began to print. I handed the customer the Eftpos machine. “You can swipe your card now.” He swiped. We waited for the transaction to complete. “Does this mean you’re all out of jobs?” he asked. “No,” I said. “Borders is in voluntary administration.” I explained the difference between voluntary administration and liquidation. It was a difference that sounded tenuous even to me. The customer checked his itemised receipt as I stuffed the last book in his bag, noticing with distaste that it was a Dan Brown novel. Satisfied, the customer looked up. “Thank you.” He grabbed his bag of books. “Good luck,” he said. I didn’t bother to reply. I didn’t charge him 5p for the plastic bag either. I was sick of putting out fires.
At Borders all the staff wore lanyards that said ‘Happy to help.’ I was not happy to help. I worked at Borders because I wanted to be a writer. I stood behind the till dressed in a red Borders sweatshirt and a pair of jeans. My fingertips were sore from entering reduced prices into the tills. My wrists ached from bagging. My shoulders were tense. I watched customers strip books from the shelves. Pages curled at their corners and crumpled. My face felt scorched. My smile had long since melted away. A conga line of crazed shoppers wound around the ground floor. I turned towards the front of the queue. “Next.”
I picked up the scanner. Beep. Beep. I had been with Borders UK for seven years by the time it was placed into voluntary administration. I was originally hired as a part-time Christmas temp at Borders Islington in 2002, but the job had stuck. I transferred to Borders Norwich in 2005 and was part of the team that opened Borders Dundee in 2006. I’d started thinking about Fahrenheit 451 during those last critical months when I was the Sales Manager at Borders Kingston-Upon Thames. In the wake of Amazon’s Kindle it seemed unlikely that books would ever be banned: instead books are commodified, turned into movies and TV series, rated and recommended in Goodreads, their individual sales histories quantified on Nielsen Bookdata and in the fathomless depths of the Amazon Sales Ranking system. Even the Kindle was named by a branding consultant who suggested the word to Amazon because it means to light a fire. The branding consultant thought that ‘kindle’ was an apt metaphor for reading and intellectual excitement.
I bet Ray Bradbury would have agreed. The book people at the end of Fahrenheit 451 wouldn’t need to memorise volumes of literature anymore. Now they could store their libraries on their Kindles or iPads. Project Gutenberg has been in the business of archiving classics since 1971. There are currently over 42,000 e-books available in the free domain. Fahrenheit 451 is not of them. Not because it has been banned. Quite the contrary. Ray Bradbury’s sci-fi classic has not been out of print since it was first published by Ballantine Books in 1953. The novel is still protected by copyright. If I’d thought about that more at the time I started writing it might have scared me.
I remembered the mechanical hound from Fahrenheit 451, the watchdog of the firemen, who hunted down the literate like prey. I wondered if the mechanical hound was as shonky as the Elonex e-reader we’d been selling at Borders for the past couple of months. Our slow-witted display device was fixed to the main information desk on a long plastic lead. All I needed to memorise was its unique selling points. It had five adjustable font sizes and a built-in dictionary. The Elonex e-reader also came pre-loaded with 100 classics. As a selling point this was not unique. The books cost nothing because the authors were dead and the works had fallen out of copyright.
“Does it have a reading light?” Customers came pre-loaded with their own set of great expectations that the Elonex e-reader could not always fulfill.
The future arrived and it was not science fiction. On Christmas Eve Borders UK was liquidated, 45 stores were closed and over one thousand employees were made redundant.
It was not a pleasure to burn. In the spring of 2013, I sat at the desk in the spare room of my rented apartment in Wellington. I’d just joined National Novel Writing Month: an online community for anyone who has ever wanted to write a novel. On November 1st participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000 word novel by 11:59pm on November 30th. Entry is free. I signed up and chose my online alias. I’d decided to write a homage to Fahrenheit 451 but I didn’t enter a synposis of my novel on the site. What if it sounded a bit… weird? 50,000 divided by 30 = 1,666.66667 words per day. How hard could it be?
The NaNoWrimo site has a word count graph. I could track my individual progress against the pack. I had 30 days and one major weakness. Structure. That was okay. I could borrow Ray’s. I picked up the copy of Fahrenheit 451 on my desk. An illustration of flames licked the right-hand corner of the cover. I hadn’t read Fahrenheit 451 since I was in high school, but I remembered the gist: in the future firemen burn books. Wars are fought in 45 minutes. People are written into TV programmes broadcast through walls as big as screens. Besides there was no time for stalling. I’d had less than 45 minutes before work. I set the timer on my iPhone and typed the first sentence of Fahrenheit 451 into Word. Sunlight warmed my face through the window. I squinted at the white glare on the screen. I couldn’t see. It was time for a coffee.
In the kitchen I flicked on the kettle and scooped three spoonfuls into the plunger. Fahrenheit 451 is divided into ‘The Hearth and the Salamander’, ‘The Sieve and The Sand’ and ‘Burning Bright'. The kettle boiled. I plunged.
I returned to my desk and took a sip of coffee. I wasn’t a fireman like Bradbury’s character, Guy Montag. I’d never burned a book, but I’d been burned by them. I hadn’t been able to sell my first semi-autobiographical novel. And my career as a bookseller had also been extinguished. All I needed to do was start at the beginning. I took another sip of coffee.
The timer went off.
The next morning I sat down at my desk with a fresh cup of coffee and new resolve. Day two. 3,333.33333 words to go. I needed to catch up on the word count from yesterday. I’d decided to tackle my homage from the perspective of Clarisse McClellan. I typed Fahrenheit 451 into Google and found a website called SparkNotes that contained abbreviated analysis of classic novels for students and other time-poor readers. Brilliant. SparkNotes had been organized into three main sections: general info; summary and analysis; and study tools. I scrolled through the character summaries to refresh my memory. SparkNotes described Clarisse as a beautiful teenager who introduced Montag to the world’s potential for beauty and meaning with her “gentle innocence and curiosity". I tried to imagine what Clarisse was thinking. Did she drink coffee? I didn’t drink coffee when I was 17. I pictured Clarisse in her bedroom with a pencil and a piece of paper. The words were coming hot and fast from her own mind, she was writing without thinking, she was living the life I wanted to live.
It was a pleasure to write, I typed. 3,333.33333 - 6 words = 3,327.33333.
I was starting with a lie.
Maybe Clarisse liked to write quickly, not stopping to think too hard. If she wrote fast enough her words were completely fresh, as though they had not come from her own mind. It was mad how writing could be like that. A rush of sentences down the highway of the page, paragraphs careening around corners.
Mad, it seemed like such a Bradbury word, exuberant and full of zeal!
I stopped writing and look at the timer on my iPhone. Three minutes. I took another sip of coffee and stared at the words on the screen. Maybe in the future it was also illegal to write. Finally I’d had an idea with some traction. If Clarisse wasn’t allowed to read books, then she shouldn’t be permitted to write them either.
I reset the timer and typed: She glanced at the curtains drawn across her bedroom window as though she was being watched. The fabric shimmered, struck with sunlight from the other side of the glass. Her right hand ached from holding the pencil. She soothed her writing wrist, cupping her fingers around it, like a bracelet.
I felt Clarisse’s pain. No one writes by hand anymore. It hurts.
From the city the distant roar of cars, speeding beyond billboards. I flicked back to Google, opened a new search, deleted the word roar.
Someone knocked on my door.
I was 14 when I first read Fahrenheit 451. I wore a blue tartan uniform and sat at my wooden school desk at Western Heights High School in Rotorua. The mechanical hound bounded through the desecrated city. The hound ran on eight legs like a spider as helicopters flew overhead, blades spinning. The hound was at the service of the firemen. Wars were fought in 45 minutes. The parlour walls were lit by giant TV screens. In Fahrenheit 451 Montag’s wife Mildred starred in a soap opera filmed live from her living room. She called the people on TV her family. Mildred and Montag slept in single beds like my grandparents. At night, she wore a pair of “seashells” in her ears that helped her sleep.
Mildred. It’s such an antiquated name. I don’t know anyone called Mildred. The word ‘parlour’ still seems quaint to me and Fahrenheit is not a contemporary currency. In the sixties and seventies the Celsius scale replaced Fahrenheit in almost all countries except America. I suspect this is why Bradbury’s novel has never entered the mainstream vernacular in the same way as Orwell’s 1984. I’ve watched Big Brother. He doesn’t watch me. Like Orwell’s telescreens the parlour walls in Fahrenheit 451 also predate Reality TV.
Mildred’s favourite TV programme is called The White Clown.
“What do you think the white clown means?” our English teacher asked us in fourth form.
“That TV is stupid, eh, Miss?” a boy said.
“And why do you think that?” she asked.
“Because clowns are funny.”
“But clowns can be scary too, can’t they?”
She was right. I had recently read Stephen King’s IT. On the cover was an image of a clown in a red fright wig. IT was much more frightening than Fahrenheit 451. I couldn’t get to sleep after reading IT; I worried that the clown in the red fright wig was hiding underneath my single bed.
The bell rang and a chorus of chairs scraped backwards. I shut the lid of my desk for the day. I enjoyed studying Fahrenheit 451 in class but I wasn’t afraid the mechanical hound was going to chase me into the future. I walked home from school. Jet streams flared across the sky. My drink bottle sloshed up and down in my bag. Sweat trickled down my back. I stopped at the rusted red train tracks half way along the road. I looked both ways; only the heat rising in the distance. There weren’t any book people walking along the tracks and there weren’t any trains either. At home I lay on the couch in my school uniform, legs slung over the coffee table.
“What’s a hearth?” I asked Mum.
“The hearth is the area at the front of an old fireplace,” Mum said. “People used to sit around the hearth in the evenings back before there was TV.”
Mum had just got home too and was dressed in her nurse’s smock and red cardigan. The ironing-board creaked to life as Mum set it up in the lounge in front of the TV. The fireplace in our rented flat was covered with a piece of white gib-board. Mum poured water from a little plastic jug into the iron. The iron emitted a hiss and a faint burst of steam.
“Shit,” Mum said. Something bad had happened on the news again.
In 1989 my dystopia was nuclear, a mushroom cloud, the day after tomorrow. In 1990 I watched the Gulf War in night vision. Missiles sparked across the screen. Mint green.
Arachnid, the mechanical hound tracked his prey at night. He ran on eight legs. His proboscis dispensed a lethal injection of procaine.
The timer went off.
It was not a pleasure to write. Day three. I woke up at 6.30, opened my MacBook Air and login-ed to NaNoWrimo. Some participants had already clocked up 10,000+ words. What kind of novels were they writing? Don’t they eat? Have lives? Standards? I set the timer on my iPhone for 30 minutes. Each sentence felt like a squeeze. The rain began to download on the domed roof of the school, 24 words. The rain was always programmed to fall at this time, 10 words. Why was I having trouble getting into character? I was once a teenage girl, admittedly not a beautiful blonde one. I cast my mind back. What mattered in high school?
Enter Montag, slightly unshaven, a fireman in a black and orange suit. On his chest the company insignia: a phoenix rising.
I bet Clarisse has a crush on Montag. Crush. A short rush mounted by that high C.
The rain fell systematically on the domed roof of the school, like data collating, reacting, endlessly responding.
“This used to be my high school. But it’s changed. When I was here the building was wooden. Of course we would never use the world’s natural resources so carelessly now. When I was your age I didn’t know what I wanted to be. So if some of you feel the same way, I sympathise.”
106 words. A school visit. Yes! What could be more fitting. In our last year of high school we were always being pestered with work experience opportunities. Wasn’t it entirely possible that Montag might have been sent to Clarisse’s high school to lecture the students on the joys of becoming a fireman? And wasn’t it even more possible that she thought he was hot? I imagined what kind of lecture Montag might give if he was recruiting teenagers for the fire department.
“Paper burns at Fahrenheit 451,” he told the class. “Flames curdle and blacken the pages till each book crumbles to ash. A library takes time to burn. The other firemen and I stand back and watch it together. We always know that we’ve done the right thing. We harvest the ash and use it as compost. In the fire brigade we value the future of this planet. Our creed is: we burn, so that you don’t have to.”
Another 185 words. My updated creed was a nice flourish. Bradbury was prescient but not quite so prescient as to predict global warming, recycling and the imminent extinction of the bumble bee.
A fireman sympathising, I decided Clarisse wants to write this down, to capture it in her diary. Even his name sounded exotic like a character in a story that she might write and she didn’t know how it would end.
I looked at the timer. 1 minute left: the fireman took his helmet off and held it on his knee. The teenager watched. Her legs crossed and uncrossed. She wondered what it might feel like to run her hands over the 451 emblazoned on his helmet, to feel the fireman’s number embossed beneath her touch.
She glanced at the wedding ring that cordoned him off. His voice was even, almost plain. She sensed that he was not a man who often had an audience. Perhaps he was someone who slipped through life unnoticed, despite his status, his uniform, his touch. Did his wife know he was sad? Did she even know him at all? Every time his eyes flickered over her face, she could feel the heat rising, as though she was burning and he held the match. 594 words. Phew.
The timer went off.
I’m beginning to think Clarisse is a little naïve. After work in the evening I needed to write another 1072 words to make my daily count. Instead, I lay on the couch drinking red wine and trying to read Fahrenheit 451, while my boyfriend played Grand Theft Auto on the PlayStation. His car swerved round corners as I turned pages.
Clarisse meets Montag one evening when they are both out walking. Walking is unusual in Fahrenheit 451. Let’s not forget Bradbury wrote the first draft in the basement of the Los Angeles library. I’ve never been to LA but I’m told everyone drives there. Fahrenheit 451 was inspired by an earlier short story of Bradbury’s called 'The Pedestrian'. The story was about a writer who lives in a television-centred society. The writer is arrested by the police one night when he is out walking and taken to the Psychiatric Centre for Research on Regressive Tendencies. Bradbury never learnt to drive. I’ve never learnt to drive either.
My boyfriend sped around the city in Grand Theft Auto with the car radio on. Eighties pop songs drifted in and out of my consciousness. I took another sip of wine, turned the page. The fireman’s truck in Fahrenheit 451 is called a salamander. Montag the fireman and his big black hose. A teenage girl can find a phallus in just about anything. So can a middle aged woman. Bradbury described Clarisse’s face as milk crystal. What the heck was milk crystal? In the book he said Clarisse’s dress is white and it whispered. I bet it did. I know the relationship between Clarisse and Montag isn’t meant to be sexual, but she’s a teenager and he’s a married man.
And she twirls a dandelion under his chin and asks him if he’s happy.. Then she tells him to taste the rain. I snorted. It was pretty forward stuff for the 1950s. I wouldn’t twirl a dandelion under a fireman’s chin now. Let alone ask a married man to open his mouth and let the rain in.
I flicked back to Bradbury’s introduction for more explanation.
He was living in an apartment in Venice, California with his wife and baby daughter when he wrote the first draft of F451. He needed more quiet to do his work. He had no money to rent an office but one day when he was at UCLA he’d overheard typing from the basement and went down to see what the story was.
Bradbury sounded like a nice enough guy. I placed the book on the arm of the sofa and cruised Wikipedia. He was married for 56 years to Marguerite McClure. She was the only woman he ever dated. They had four daughters. What did his wife and daughters think of Clarisse? Bradbury also wrote a semi-autobiographical novel called Dandelion Wine. I’ve drunk a lot of wine, but never dandelion. In 1971, the Apollo 15 astronauts named a crater on the moon the "Dandelion Crater" in honour of the book. I imagined an astronaut reading Dandelion Wine at zero gravity, turning the pages suspended in mid-air.
“Hey baby, what’ll it be?” My boyfriend picked up a prostitute on Grand Theft Auto. The prostitute gave my boyfriend’s alter ego a blowjob in the front seat of the car. Afterwards she got out, slammed the door and said: “You wore my pussy out. You men are all the same. You think you want one thing but really you want everything.”
I picked up my glass of wine. It was empty.
The timer went off.