Aldous Huxley is of course best known for his heart-chilling vision of a hellish dystopian future in Brave New World. I can’t say I really loved that novel, though I recognise its societal importance “so much the more as we see the day approaching,” so to speak. However, this selection of novellas by Huxley are slightly less terrifying in that they don’t deal with grand themes of morally questionable governmental oversight as much as they deal with the more small-scale tyranny of ordinary human relationships. Huxley has a gift for depth of character and the volatility of human psychology in any given situation that makes these stories compelling and entertaining.
The first novella contributes its title to this collection, After the Fireworks. In it, a philandering writer meets with an impressionable young fan and they proceed on an intense and long-lasting affair that leaves them both physically wrecked and disillusioned. The beginning is rom-com-esque in its lightness and charm, with its mismatch of world-weary experience and fresh innocence colliding to spark the affair, complete with a knowing friend predicting outcomes and passing judgement on the whole thing. The characters are very vivid and engaging, with smart dialogue and keen insights providing a window to their minds. Unfortunately, Huxley appears to have a somewhat pessimistic view on the tendency of human nature toward bitterness and degradation, and that is exactly what happens in this story; everything bright and light fizzles out, after the fireworks.
The second novella is perhaps my favourite, Two or Three Graces, with its hilariously quirky insight into certain types of people, and the fascinating anomaly that is someone who is unreadable and appears to have no individual personality. The story is told from the perspective of a looker-on, who observes the seemingly amorphous character of a woman named Grace who takes on separate personalities depending upon her situation. When she is introduced to a friend of his, who is also of a changeable nature but in a completely different way, heartbreak and transformation are the only possible outcomes of their short-lived affair. Although not a particularly happy story, this one tends to be more optimistic, acknowledging the incredible human capacity to adapt and change even in adverse circumstances.
Uncle Spencer is a very different beast altogether. It begins in a prison… or with someone telling a story of being in a prison… or something. Honestly, I was a little confused about the structure and point of this tale generally. However, I can appreciate parts of it independently without being enthralled with the story overall. The characters accompanying Uncle Spencer in the prison, his trials and education about those he was forced into close company with, are little vignettes told with Huxley’s attention to the bizarre and unique, yet somehow universal and constant, in human nature. And if that seeming incongruity doesn’t turn you off, perhaps you’ll be able to find something compelling in this somewhat disjointed and meandering story.