Sunday, July 12, 2020

"My Petition For More Space"

I just reread My Petition For More Space by John Hersey, a novel I first read maybe 30 years ago. I guess it would be labeled dystopian sci-fi; it's the story of a man, David Poynter, who lives in a New Haven, Connecticut that is absolutely chock full of people. Like, people walking in the street shoulder-to-shoulder, front-to-back. They live in large, open warehouses, each assigned a space marked by white lines on the floor. Being single, Poynter's space is 7 ft by 11 ft, with no walls; crossing the line, or letting one's possessions cross the line, is severely punished.

Poynter wants to ask the faceless, nameless bureaucracy to give him more space -- an increase to 8 ft by 12 ft. To do this he must enter a petition at an official station, explaining why his petition should be granted. This requires getting in and standing in a long, jam-packed line for several hours with all the other people submitting their own petitions, to change jobs, asking for Havana cigars, asking for permission to have a child. Those in line are also stand shoulder-to-shoulder, chest-to-back, so tightly packed that when one women faints she must be lifted up vertically out of the crowd. There's no reason given why their world is this way, but it seems to be a relatively new state, as Poynter and others can remember when the world was less crowded and more bucolic.

The book twists and turns on the social interactions of those in the multiple lines, whom they can only see by turning their heads or listening to those around them. And the book focuses on Poynter's thoughts, about what he wants and why, how he feels about this world, and how he feels assaulted and demoralized by it, yet still he hopes for change. After several hours of back-and-forth social dynamics even in such a crowd, Poynter finally reaches one of the unseen bureaucrats behind an opaque window and begins to make his case....

It's a quirky book, and not very long (my paperback version is only 160 pages), published in 1974. I definitely recommend it; I appreciated it as much this time as the first time, although of course the shock of it wasn't there. Long ago I also read Hersey's book Hiroshima, which is excellent. Hersey was one of the first western journalists allowed into Hiroshima after the US's nuclear bomb was dropped, and he tells the story of six witnesses to the bombing, in, for then, a new style, applying some techniques of fiction to nonfiction reporting. The New Yorker gave an entire issue to this reporting, and his book then sold three million copies.

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