The problem with writing a sequel to a legendary literary property is that it’s almost impossible to do it right, and if you beat the odds and manage it, you won’t get any of the credit. For the original creator, the situation is already bad enough: if your work is a success, fans will clamor for more of the same and curse you for not producing sequels at a fast enough pace, while critics will excoriate you for returning to the same well instead of branching out in new directions. For the imitator or inheritor, though, it’s even worse: in addition to exposing yourself to lawsuits from coin-hungry estates, you deliberately open yourself up to charges of riding a greater artist’s coattails. If your work is inferior, you’re just a trashy literary hanger-on, trying to gain fame by hitching your wagon to a much brighter star; if your work can somehow stand on its own merits, people will wonder why you felt the need to rework an existing classic in the first place instead of just putting out your own original material.
If there’s anything especially noteworthy about John Reed’s Snowball’s Chance, a highly unofficial and hastily assembled sequel to George Orwell’s legendary anti-authoritarian allegory Animal Farm, it’s that it somehow manages to fall victim to pretty much every one of these pitfalls. The Orwell estate got all up in arms about it, threatening to drag him through the courts; devotees of the original (most particularly Christopher Hitchens, an Orwellian blowhard on a number of levels) were infuriated with him for squatting on the reputation of his betters; critics attacked for being simultaneously unoriginal and uninteresting; the modest literary talents possessed by its author were drowned in his unsuccessful attempt to simultaneously evoke and satirize his inspiration; and the attention the book received was almost entirely due to its controversial nature, rather than any actual positive qualities it possessed. It derailed Reed’s minimal career as an author, losing him a publisher and relegating him to the world of parody and mash-up, and it largely exists today as a testament to the twin follies of dangerous hubris and bad timing.
The work itself is easily digested; one of the curious things about it is how many missteps it manages to make in such a small amount of space. Only 130 pages long — slightly lengthier than Animal Farm, but still easily digestible — Snowball’s Chance revisits the famed revolutionary socialist barnyard of Orwell’s Manor Farm many years down the road. Assisted by a number of new characters, Snowball, the banished Trotskyite trotter and enemy of the state, returns to transform the now-corrupt commune into a free-market paradise, complete with electric lights, amusements for tourists, and an underclass of middlemen and money-makers. Things go awry when, tired of their exploitation from afar, the animals of the forest (portrayed here as a sort of mish-mash of Native Americans and Middle Easterners) contrive, under the leadership of a fanatical religious prophet, to bring down the towering Twin Mills, triggering a war of aggression and the rise of interspecies prejudice.
It’s not that this is a bad idea, necessarily. You could make the argument that, in the go-go era of Market Über Alles, when 19 hijackers managed to put up a detour sign on the road to the End of History, an Orwellian attack on capitalism might be necessary. Unfortunately, time worked against Snowball’s Chance in a number of ways. Its debut right after the September 11th attacks put it in full view of a public that had zero interest in clever tweaks of their rage and culpability, and even if that’s the time satire is needed the most, it fell on deaf ears until its revival a decade later — and now, with right-wing authoritarians coming back into power all over the globe, Orwell’s original works seem a lot more relevant than Reed’s book ever could. It had a moment, and it missed it. Besides, Orwell already wrote an attack on capitalism, and it was called Animal Farm; the point of the parable wasn’t that the revolution was doomed by bad ideas, but that it was sold out by the presence of corruption. The final scene of the original is not merely an indictment of Stalinism, but of the way it betrayed the promises of socialism.
That question also haunts the way a lot of people reacted to Snowball’s Chance. Orwell has always been a divisive figure, whose reputation, ironically, is used as a cudgel by various ideological factions depending on what kind of point they’re trying to prove. Was he too much of a socialist, or not socialist enough? Was he a liberal who sold out to conservatism, or a young radical who learned the error of his ways? The introduction to the book, by firebrand columnist Alexander Cockburn, concerns itself entirely with recent revelations that Orwell may have snitched on his red comrades; the importance of this claim is a discussion worth having, but tellingly, Cockburn has nothing whatsoever to say about Reed’s actual book, preferring to use his foreword as a springboard to hack Orwell’s reputation.
It might be just as well, though. Whatever you think about Orwell — either as a thinker or a writer — he was a lot better than Reed is. The brilliance of Animal Farm was its simplicity, its schoolbook rhythms and fairy-tale manner that made it such a perennial presence on Required Reading lists. Reed tries for an awkward imitation/evocation of Orwell’s style in Snowball’s Chance, but he never quite gets it: he introduces too many characters that are too hard to keep track of, a fatal flaw in an allegory. His punning references are either groaningly obvious or impenetrable, and the story takes what ought to be readily graspable traits and behaviors and makes them too complicated. Subtlety and complexity are desperately needed in actual political analysis in the post-9/11 era, but they’re death to the kind of book that Snowball’s Chance is trying to be. It shambles along, stringing together its metaphors in the same slapdash way its characters assemble Animal Fair; by the time it comes to its abrupt conclusion — ending at the exact point where the interesting parts of its narrative really ought to begin — it seems like a wasted opportunity. At the end of Animal Farm, it was impossible to tell the pigs from the men they worked so hard to overthrow, but there is no chance of mistaking Snowball’s Chance for the work that inspired it.