Friday, November 16, 2007

Nature versus nurture

As followers of this blog might have noticed, I read – and probably write – a lot of trashy, melodramatic hokum. Adventures where the barest bones of character are slapped about by unlikely coincidence and bludgeoned by unsubtle shocks, all in the name of contriving cheap thrills. I like the fiendish plot twists and wily revelations, and that glorious epiphany that comes when an author gets it right; a book crammed full of the most outrageous zigzags, yet at the end you look back down a single, entirely straight, entirely inevitable corridor. This truly is the good stuff.

So it’s might seem puzzling that my notebook struggles to find anything positive to say about Tarzan of the Apes. Published in 1912, this is the first of a massive 26 volumes of Tarzan stories by Edgar Rice Burroughs. The tonnage of that canon, let alone the countless movies and TV shows that followed, automatically suggests a quality of concept to transcend the pulpy, throwaway genre from which it sprang. There must be something special about Tarzan for him to join the elite of heroes who outlive their age, heroes like Holmes and Bond and, er, Summerfield.


But Tarzan is really a bit cock.

The first 100 pages are swiped from Kipling. A white baby is adopted by the nicer, more middle-class animals in the jungle, and grows up bald and vulnerable and picked on, but also wily and better with tools. Mowgli learns to use his brains and weapons against monkeys and a tiger, Tarzan against apes and a lion. Both stories get to remark on the human creature by showing how it fares in the wild.

Mowgli does all this in three short chapters. Tarzan pads it out to 100 pages. There’s an ape who everyone else lives in terror of, and Tarzan fights and kills it. There’s a lion who everyone else lives in terror of, and Tarzan fights and kills it. There’s a polar bear in a false beard and sunglasses who everyone lives in terror of, and… No, wait, that’s Lost, isn’t it?

As well as learning how to plunge a knife into rivals, and so taking charge of his small ape tribe, Tarzan is also a bit of an intellectual. He teaches himself to read English from a collection of books – though it becomes a plot point later that he doesn’t learn to speak it, and nor does he learn French. His reading teaches him that showing his bits is naughty, and he’s wearing a loincloth in time for the arrival of the love of his life.

Now, a certain amount of wild coincidence is to be expected in this kind of stuff, but Tarzan really takes the piss. Tarzan himself comes to be in this bit of Africa because of a mutiny on his parents’ ship. Twenty years later, once Tarzan’s bored of the apes he grew up with, an almost identical mutiny brings to exactly the same spot another small party of white folks – and one of them happens to be family. John Clayton has taken the title Lord Greystoke what with Tarzan having been out of the picture.

Yes, Tarzan is, deep down, an English lord of the highest order. He’s spent his whole life running about naked, mucking about with apes and having only a tangential understanding of civilisation and morality. So he’s probably from the Tory front bench. Ho ho.

Clayton’s part of a dangerous adventure involving treasure, and in his party are two doddery old professors who provide comic relief by bickering and wandering off lost. Archimedes Q Porter is a Professor Calculus type, and it turns out he’s rather been blackmailed into this adventure by a rich scoundrel back home in the States.

Obviously, what with the great risks involved in their adventure, Porter has brought along his young and beautiful daughter Jane – who has a thing for John Clayton. And obviously, the moment Tarzan sees her his loincloth is astir.

There then follows 100 pages of pretty silly stuff. The professors get lost and fail to notice when they’ve been rescued. Jane’s maidservant Esmeralda is not very much better an offensive Black stereotype than the cannibal savages who kidnap potential lunches. And there’s no end of hilarious mix-up because the sophisticated Westerners can’t believe that the nice man of mystery who leaves them polite notes can be the same tanned and handsome mute who carries them out of danger.

Jane finds herself falling for both the Tarzan who leaves her letters and the fit fella who picks her up. And it’s all the more complicated because she loves John Clayton, but is also promised to the villainous dude blackmailing her old man. There’s the potential for some good romantic quandaries but it comes out a muddled jumble.

I’m afraid I kept feeling that Burroughs was just making it up as he went along, and not making it up with much effort. It’s all a rather nonsensical runaround, not made any more palatable by the constant bloody harping on about the supremacy of Tarzan’s class and race.
“It was a stately and gallant little compliment performed with the grace and dignity of utter unconsciousness of self. It was the hall-mark of his aristocratic birth, the natural out-cropping of many generations of fine breeding, an hereditary instinct of graciousness which a lifetime of uncouth and savage training and environment could not eradicate […] Contact with this girl for half a day had left a very different Tarzan from the one on whom the morning’s sun had risen.

Now, in every fibre of his being, heredity spoke louder than training.”
Edgar Rice Burroughs, Tarzan of the Apes, p. 154.

I think what ultimately left me cold is that Tarzan is too boring a Superman (yes, in the DC Comics sense). He’s all muscles and handsomeness, and possessed of an innate moral sense, but since he so repetitively defeats his foes in but a single bound you never get any sense of real jeopardy.

But whereas Superman at least has the antics of Clark Kent to add some level of depth, Tarzan’s alter ego is even more boring. Newly taught French and rich from some manly tough gambling, Tarzan turns up in a suit and car – in the convenient nick of time to rescue Jane from a fire in Wisconsin. He fells the blackmailer and then nobly surrenders Jane to John Clayton, before heading back to his savage home in Africa. What a guy!

Yes, that he surrenders the girl is a great conclusion – just like it is at the end of Casablanca. But it doesn’t take much imagination to conclude that Jane will soon follow him back to the jungle, where he’ll be all tough and muscular and keep villains away, and they’ll read books in all different languages.

This effortless brilliance that comes from having blue blood is all too wearisome. Tellingly so, in fact; the successful versions of Tarzan on screen have played up his ignorance of the civilised world – think of Johnny Weissmuller enjoying a shower with his suit on. As it is, the Tarzan of the book reads like puerile wish-fulfilment, and I found myself wishing he’d screw something up – giving in to his animal instincts with Jane, or just falling out of a tree.

Perhaps though it’s not the book’s fault at all, and I am just seething with envy.


Anonymous said...

"his loincloth is astir"

Arg, that image will stay with me a long, long time. time to poke my minds eye out.

"He’s all muscles and handsomeness, and possessed of an innate moral sense..."

Just like me...

"...but since he so repetitively defeats his foes in but a single bound you never get any sense of real jeopardy"

Err, not this bit though. I've got jeopardy up to here. Points to just above head. Dam by foes and jeopardy.


Anonymous said...

Would you believe there's a Phantom of the Opera meets Tarzan comic? (There's also a Sherlock Holmes meets Phantom of the Opera novel. And Doctor Who meets Phantom of the Opera is called Caves of Androzani.)

I apparently made my mother read "The Jungle Book" to me over and over when very small and I would pretend to be Mowgli as he's found by the wolves. I was a strange child.

It's an interesting point about the supposed richness of a work if it's lasted this long vs. what you see as vapid and not very good. It's interesting to me to see what Disney has done with the story in the animated movie (which had quite nice animation actually).