Saturday, July 11, 2015

Signal Watch Reads: Tarzan of the Apes (1912) - audiobook

I have no idea if kids today even know the name Tarzan, and I suspect that if they do, its as one of the lesser Disney animated features.  As a product of the 70's and 80's, I was exposed to televised reruns of Johnny Weismuller films, comics, cartoons, and a general presence of Tarzan as a still-kinda-relevant pop-culture figure.  Swinging from a rope meant you had to give the Weismuller yell, climbing a tree might lead to visions of swinging from branch to branch, and being a bit rambunctious could lead to your mother calling you "Tarzan".

I also had this comic magazine, Marvel Super Special #29.

It turns out, this was a pretty much direct adaptation of the original novel, including captions from the book, but only the first 1/2- 1/3rd of the book, choosing a solid ending point when Tarzan asserts himself as King of the Apes.  Mark Evanier is listed as the writer, but he mostly reframed the original novel into a graphic novel form, and that cover seemed absolutely amazing to me when I was a kid.  It also meant that, as the book went along, I had more or less already read the first 1/3rd.

I haven't read much in the way of Edgar Rice Burroughs, just the first three John Carter-Barsoom novels, but I certainly grew up knowing Burroughs' name.  I just...  I dunno, I never read the book or books (there are about 20 of them, I think).  But, we're in a reading pattern right now that's about making up for old sins and checking in on some of these old-school favorites, and I'd put off reading Tarzan for long enough.

Before I get into the book, I want to go ahead and acknowledge that the book is a product of its time, the culture of its author, the state of science in 1912, and a deep romanticism of the unknown that we've largely abandoned in 2015.  In short, there's no reading of the book that isn't racist.  You can read the book and enjoy it all while working through the lens of a the author's time and place, which veers wildly between a seeming sympathy and appreciation for the locals in Africa, and then careening into cartoonish stereotypes the next, even while he's going out of his way to point out that the Belgians were first-class asshats in their African territories and deserved whatever happened to them.

Really, there's the same, odd level of misanthropy running through this book when it comes to anyone who isn't a named main character.  And no small amount of class consciousness and elitism inherent in the approach.

Tarzan of the Apes (1912) is the book you assumed it was in many ways.  A British Lord is sent to Africa to check in on the proceedings there circa 1888, and his ship undergoes a mutiny.  The Lord and his Lady are put ashore along the western coast.  John Clayton, Lord Greystoke, is an exemplar of the British gentleman, and handles his situation not with ease, but he overcomes the scenario, building a house for he and his wife and soon-to-arrive child.

After an ape attack, Greystoke's son is born prematurely and Alice never quite recovers.  The day of her death, a year later, Clayton is killed by the King of the Apes, who finally finds the door to the cabin unlocked.  Kala, a young mother ape who has lost her child, claims the helpless infant and raises the child as her own.

And that's kind of the point at which you're either going to go along with high-fantasy, the notion of "ape language", that Tarzan would survive a day in the jungle, let alone thrive, and all of the concepts upon which Tarzan is based.  It's a fantastic story in the purest sense, no more nor less a "high concept" sort of thing than John Carter hopping about on Mars, the loosest researched scientifiction possible.

The first half of the book, prior to the arrival of Jane Porter and Co., is surprisingly brutal, though told in a matter-of-fact, "here's how it works in the jungle, dummies", sort of narrative style.  It's kill-or-be-killed look at how a human might be formed in that jungle wilderness, what the environment might do to shape him, while his nature as a man, the instincts he carries as the child of nobility shines through in his intellectual curiosity, his innate ethics and his willpower.

Tarzan teaches himself to read with books intended for his education brought along by his parents (yeah, I know), as well as to write, but he cannot speak.

Meanwhile, he learns to use his father's knife to finally get the upper hand on lions, his fellow apes and other beasts.  When man finally comes to the jungle, it's a tribe that has abandoned their usual homeland after fleeing the Belgians, and because Tarzan sees little of himself in them, he does not join them even as he has reason to split off from the Apes and understand what he is.

The arrival of Jane Porter and their party (also being abandoned on the same stretch of beach) creates a great tonal shift in the book as Tarzan identifies with these people who look like the people in his books, falls for the first anglo woman he's ever seen, and we get a pretty good swing at comedy in Jane's absent-minded-professor father and his sidekick.  To a less fun degree, Jane's companion is a "mammy" stereotype with dialog written in a way you're more or less going to just find depressing, but which I am sure played great in 1912.

But it's here that the wonder falls away, and Tarzan is less the POV character and now we see him through the eyes of Jane and Clayton - a British noble who happens to be a close relative of Tarzan that is currently carrying his title.  The intellectual exercise and alien world of the jungle, Tarzan as a noble savage, etc... falls away and while it does drive the story forward, some of the magic of the first half just evaporates.

The Barsoom novels never quite abandon that world-building feel as Carter continually explores and learns new things about his adopted planet.  He's the exotic thing to the people of Mars, but through his eyes, including the romance with Dejah Thoris, it remains fresh (to me, anyway).  Jane Porter, however likeable, is still a fairly standard issue upper-middle-class character of the period who is fine, but it's an injection of the predictable into the fantasy.  There's a reason modern versions seem to start with the arrival of Jane and let her uncover the world and backstory.

The romance of Tarzan and Jane works, even if - let's be honest - there's the direct implication that Jane was about to get whisked off to be raped by a gorilla (it's phrased as "taken as the ape's wife", but you know what they mean.  And, look, I just report the facts here).  Further, it's pretty clear, it's only Tarzan's latent humanity that convinces him he should probably woo Jane instead of, uh...  yeah.  And that's really the weird friction of the book.  There are details that make sense within the context of the book - of the ways of the jungle and animals and Tarzan standing out because he is not an animal.  There's a dark savagery to it all that makes it a curious read, knowing this was an all-ages book for a long, long time.

From movies like Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, which I think I've never actually seen except in bits and pieces, I wasn't entirely surprised when he picked up and left the jungle, and it did feel like a natural curve to the character arc, but there's an odd collision when the character does hit the outposts of civilization and some pure fiction as to Tarzan's rapid assimilation - something virtually every form of the character after this book kind of throws out the window.  A gentrified Tarzan is both necessary for the reader's need to believe in Tarzan and Jane, but also feels a bit of a let down.  Which, I guess, the other 20 books in the series address.

Like Frankenstein and many other movie adaptations, you can appreciate that the book and movie are wildly different, but still enjoy both, I think.  There's nothing wrong with Johnny Weissmuller and his perfect haircut howling in the trees, and "me Tarzan, you Jane" dialog.  It's out there in the zeitgeist, it's good at what it is, and there's no sense in complaining about the difference, especially when you actually like all that crazy Jungle Lord With Poor Grammar stuff.

I can't say I'm not curious to read the next volume.  This one ends on a bit of a cliffhanger.  In Wisconsin, of all places (no, really).  But I also feel remiss in my John Carter reading, and as I enjoyed John Carter a bit more than this book, I don't really know.

The reader was James Slattery and recorded about 20 years ago.  No complaints.  He's British, which serves the story well as only Jane, Esmerelda (her companion) and Jane's father are Americans.  The reading is a bit more dry than, perhaps, other books and reminds me of other books recorded during the 90's where the readers seemed to be trying not to do much more than provide character voices and not get in the way of the prose.  But it does leave a fairly visceral book feeling a bit dry.

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