One, page 1
with a new introduction by
Dedication: For my son, Ethan Ross Karp
One by David Karp
First published by Vanguard Press in 1953
First Valancourt Books edition 2017
Copyright © 1953 by David Karp, renewed 1981 by David Karp
Introduction copyright © 2017 by Philip Boakes
All rights reserved. In accordance with the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, the copying, scanning, uploading, and/or electronic sharing of any part of this book without the permission of the publisher constitutes unlawful piracy and theft of the author’s intellectual property. If you would like to use material from the book (other than for review purposes), prior written permission must be obtained by contacting the publisher.
Published by Valancourt Books, Richmond, Virginia
Cover by Henry Petrides
“The publishers have bracketed this novel with Darkness at Noon, Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World, which I at first thought presumptuous; but now, after reading it, I am inclined to agree.” – Cyril Connolly, The Sunday Times.
Of all the forgotten authors of 20th-century America, few deserve their obscurity less than David Karp. In his lifetime, Karp enjoyed a career that would be the envy of many writers, becoming a successful, critically acclaimed novelist in his 30s and an Emmy Award-winning screenwriter in his 40s. Anyone who has regularly watched American television dramas, from The Untouchables in the 1960s, to Quincy in the early ’80s, will have probably seen an episode written by David Karp. However, in spite of his impressive résumé, Karp’s novels went out of print many years ago and his Wikipedia entry is depressingly brief.
On the scant evidence available, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that perhaps David Karp abandoned his early literary pretensions after realizing that his talents were more suited to the small screen. But if Karp did reach that conclusion, he was wrong. Six decades on, his thoughtful, intelligent fiction still has something to say to the modern reader and, if anything, One is more relevant than ever.
David Karp wrote seven ‘serious’ novels under his own name and, although they vary considerably in plot and subject matter, there is a recurring theme in each book: the pressure on the individual to conform. In The Brotherhood of Velvet (later filmed as a TV movie starring Glenn Ford), an academic rebels against his sinister college fraternity after being asked to blackmail a friend, while in the excellent Leave Me Alone, the main character struggles to choose between personal integrity and social acceptance.
However, it is in One that this theme is most memorably explored. Karp acknowledged Koestler’s attack on Stalinism, Darkness at Noon, as an influence, but this book also reads like a response to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, arguing that a superficially benign, affluent state can be just as sinister as the pantomime horrors of Big Brother.
One is set in a future society that bears more than a passing resemblance to 1950s America, culturally and technically, but it is ruled by a benevolent, all-powerful state. Crime and punishment have been largely rendered obsolete and the people enjoy full employment and material comfort. However, the price for this security is total compliance and even the most subtle signs of dissent are noted by a network of spies and informers. Those who incur the wrath of the State are either re-educated or, as a last resort, eliminated.
The main character in One, a college professor named Burden, has been asked to monitor his colleagues and write daily reports about their activities. An enthusiastic supporter of the State, Burden willingly complies and prides himself on the quality of his information, helped in part by an ability to lip read conversations that are out of earshot.
After years of dutifully filing his reports, Professor Burden is summoned for a meeting with his superiors at the Department of Internal Examination. No reason is given and Burden, unaware that his name has been chosen at random, idly speculates that perhaps he has been nominated for some form of recognition; perhaps an award of some kind. It is this naïve mistake that proves to be his undoing.
As a historical document, One gives the reader an insight into the anxieties of Americans at the beginning of the Cold War. In the five years following David Karp’s wartime service in the U.S. Army, the Iron Curtain had divided Europe in two, while in the Far East, China and the Soviet Union were openly supporting North Korean aggression. The brainwashing featured in One reflects the American public’s growing paranoia about communist mind-control techniques. Indeed, brainwashing as a concept was created as a response to the apparently inexplicable compliance of U.S. military prisoners with their Chinese captors in the Korean War.
However, there was another aspect of the Cold War that was closer to home, and by setting his novel in a thinly disguised version of 1950s America, it is likely that Karp is alluding to Senator McCarthy, whose anti-communist witch hunts began to mirror the purges under Stalin, albeit with less lethal consequences. During the late 1940s and early ’50s, the House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) was responsible for imprisoning hundreds, while it is estimated that up to 12,000 were unable to find work as a result of being blacklisted.
Even famous public figures like Charlie Chaplin, Arthur Miller, Danny Kaye, Orson Welles and Lucille Ball were attacked. Few of the condemned were communists, but their refusal to betray others was enough (Arthur Miller’s response to the hysteria of McCarthyism was his 1953 play The Crucible, which earned him another black mark). For those who had fled persecution in Europe, it was a bitter irony that the ‘land of the free’ was beginning to imitate its enemies.
We can only speculate about the degree to which One is a response to McCarthyism. Although David Karp made his view about HUAC abundantly clear in his 1956 novel, All Honorable Men, the dystopian future of One is equally applicable to the sinister developments that were taking place in communist Eastern Europe. Ultimately, the novel must stand or fall on its own terms and while One may occasionally overreach itself, it is nevertheless an important and compelling work of dystopian fiction.
One has been republished several times and each time the public response has been underwhelming. This is surprising, given the largely favorable reviews it received on publication (with the added boost of two television adaptations during the 1950s). Perhaps the novel would have fared better with a more memorable title.
Hopefully, this new edition will see One reach a new generation of readers, who may find surprising resonances with today’s political climate. In the age of ‘post-truth’, ‘safe spaces’ and ‘no platform’, Karp’s belief in the sanctity of individual integrity needs to be reasserted.
Philip Boakes has worked as a bookseller for 25 years, specializing in forgotten classics. He lives in Sussex, England.
The faculty dining hall was built in the ancient collegiate tradition, with high, oak-paneled walls and thin, clerestoried windows providing the major source of light. In the renovating period of the last president of the college fluorescent lamps had been built into the high ceilings to make the room brighter, but time and dust and the death of a thousand insects whose bodies were trapped between the lamps and the diffusing glass had brought the dining hall back to its original gloom and dimness. Because of that, Burden had to look twice before he could be sure who had made the remark.
The remark had been made by someone at the art table. Of that much he was certain. He had not been listening and because he hadn’t, he felt a sense of guilt. His mind had been taken up with other matters—softer, quieter, more important matters. And yet it was important
It was an odd talent for a professor of English. If his colleagues had been told about it some might have smiled, others would have frowned, and some would have been frightened. None, however, would ever forget that Burden could read lips and all would act accordingly.
Burden was a slight man in his early forties. He stooped slightly so that people generally mistook him for a short man, which he was not. In his youth his nickname had been “Red” and even now there were some who still called him that. But the years had thinned and faded the reddish-blond hair, faded the freckles on his face, bleached the fine blond hair on his hands and in his beard. He wore rimless glasses for reading, but reading so much and so often led him into the habit of leaving his glasses on all the time. They gave him a mild, detached look. Added to his gentle, deliberate, and calm manner of speaking you were led, almost inevitably, to guess correctly his occupation. He had been a teacher almost all of his adult life and was considered a success by both his colleagues and his students. There were a few who thought he was more than a success, that he was both gifted and brilliant. While he had never done any original work in his field, he had published three books of criticism on contemporary letters which were considered definitive. His life, his work, his home in faculty row, his vividly dark wife and two sturdy sons were all familiar and known. There were some who were tempted to say there was no more to be known of Professor Burden. There were others who were uncertain; still others kept their own counsel. None, however, knew that Professor Burden read lips.
While he daintily drank his soup, his calm blue eyes regarded the plate of crackers in front of him and his ears remained sharply alert to all that was said in the room. The remark, he decided again, came from the art table. It had been spoken by a woman. The voice, too, had been unfamiliar. By the simplest elimination it meant that the girl with the rich chestnut hair and heavy, sensuous lips had made the remark. Burden reached for a cracker and in the process took a careful look at the girl. She wore a clean smock but even under its obliterative lines Burden could tell that she had a full, rich, young body. Her skin was clear and glowing even in the poor light of the hall, and when she spoke she showed large, white, faintly irregular teeth. They gave her long, square face a rather interesting cast. The light in the room placed shadows on her cheeks so that her face seemed to have a slightly caved-in look of hunger or mystery or sensuality. The rest of the art staff seated with her at the table was composed of rather delicate young men who sat up with self-conscious straightness and ate their food with gestures and deliberation that suggested the well-bred public manners of young women. By contrast to the men of her own age around the table the girl seemed earthy, perhaps even coarse.
“I’m sick to death of literal transcription . . .” Burden read the girl’s lips as saying to the rest of the table. “For once in my life I want to do something that isn’t photographic. You know, art wasn’t always a line-for-line representation of things as they seem to be. There used to be—” Burden missed the word, “—men like Picasso and Mondrian and . . .” Burden recognized none of the names except that of Picasso. Early-and middle-twentieth century painter, Burden decided. But he knew little about him. Someone crossed between Burden and the diners at the art table and he missed more of what the girl said. When again he could see her she was not speaking. Burden turned to Doctor Middleton, a colleague in the English department, and asked, “Who’s that striking girl over there with the art people?”
“I didn’t think you’d notice,” Middleton said with a smile.
“Very interesting face,” Burden said calmly. “Is she new?”
“Oh, yes. Came on staff at mid-term, I think. Damned good-looking wench, isn’t she? Too bad she won’t find much personal outlet with that crew.” Middleton smiled. Burden turned slightly away from his colleague with a faint sense of distaste.
“You don’t happen to know her name?”
“Drake.” Middleton regarded Burden with a mischievous smile. “Would you like an introduction?”
“No, no, no,” Burden said, ill at ease and somewhat hurriedly. Middleton laughed richly at having annoyed Burden.
“Wouldn’t you even care for one quick roll in the hay?” Middleton asked, his eyes aglint with an oblique look of pleasure. Burden shook his head impatiently and rose before Middleton could speak again. He didn’t quite understand the meaning of the expression, which he knew was archaic English, but Middleton’s tone and glance were unmistakably smutty.
Burden made his way through the dining hall, nodding here and there to colleagues, friends, and acquaintances. At the cashier’s desk he signed the charge book for his meal and went out into the long hall. A chill seized him the moment he left the dining room. The halls were never properly heated or ventilated and complaints to the administrative offices were always followed by severe notices posted in the common rooms that began, “The present heating plants of the college are sufficient to provide, during the months of September through March, an average mean indoor temperature of 68.5 degrees F . . .” Members of the physics department had taken over a thousand different temperature readings in all parts of the college at one time or another in order to prove that nowhere was the temperature an average mean of 68.5 degrees during school hours. But the school custodian chewed his toothpick, narrowed his eyes, and insisted that it was. What followed then was the notice in the common rooms. It was an exasperating and sometimes silly business that led one physics department lecturer to complain bitterly. Burden had occasion to remember the remark verbatim.
“In God’s name,” the instructor had said, “who are they going to believe about the temperature—a group of scientists or that ignorant, thick-witted Mallon? Don’t we qualify as authorities against that vegetable?” Burden had remembered the remark as a major heresy. For one thing, the custodian was called “a vegetable”—an unconscious revelation of that physics instructor’s thinking and social attitudes. If the custodian represented something less than human to the instructor then it meant that the instructor harbored a sizable resentment against members of the custodian’s class. It was the official attitude of the State that all labor was dignified and that there was no distinction between the work the custodian did and the work instructors of the physics department performed. To draw the distinction between “scientists” and that “ignorant, thick-witted . . . vegetable” was to assume that the scientists were superior. Heresy, Burden noted gravely. Heresy of the first rank, since it smelled of intellectual superiority, of pretensions beyond the right of any man. This information was made part of a daily report that Burden wrote and it was quite in keeping with his job. Not as professor of English in the college but as a State spy—a job that Burden had held for nearly ten years.
Burden’s progress across the campus was marked with salutes from the students dressed in the freshmen cloaks of gray with the distinguishing orange piping on their gowns. Burden nodded pleasantly and was careful to return the salute, since he knew an omission to do so would be noted. He knew that he was not the only police spy in the college. There were others, but he did not know who they were. It sometimes amused him to think that others were solemnly filling long daily reports on his remarks as he filled reports on theirs. Well, Burden decided cheerfully, all in a good cause.
He had few classes for the rest of the day and was glad of it because a smoky, chill fall rain was comin
Burden finished his classes and then went to his conference cubicle to await students. Nothing of importance was being said in class these days. Students seemed so unwilling to do any original thinking, Burden thought a little sadly. He got back in discussion precisely what he had given them. It recalled to his mind something Doctor Middleton had said, about college being the place where knowledge was uttered by the teacher and heard by the student without going through the minds of either. It was a typical Middleton remark and Burden felt that it was probably not originally Middleton’s at all. He felt annoyed with Middleton and for an instant wished that Middleton would utter a heretical remark so that he would have occasion to put him in the report. Burden suddenly caught himself up short and his blue eyes grew worried as he unconsciously glanced about the cubicle. It was a foolish thing to even think. The report was not intended to be a punitive weapon. Burden’s superiors had made their feelings particularly clear on that point. The report was precisely what it meant—a significant record of the attitudes, thoughts, and expressions of students and faculty of the college. It had nothing to do with the punishment of heresy. Punishment. Burden shook his head again at his own stupidity. There was no punishment. Punishment, punitive—odd the way the concept kept cropping up in his thinking. That was all done with. It no longer existed as a socially accepted concept. Odd, Burden thought, and felt a vague uneasiness that he did not understand.
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