As one might suspect about a novel having so antic a plot, Bradbury’s characters appear as comic caricatures, at least at first, but slowly they begin to take on, if not the substantive weight of the figures in realistic fiction, then a nevertheless surprising depth, a certain elusiveness that gives the novel much of its emotional power. Petworth, for example, possesses so minimal a self that Bradbury does not bother to divulge his surname for some five thousand words and his Christian name not for another fifty thousand. Lecturing on “the uvular R” and the difference between “I don’t have” and “I haven’t got,” Petworth has so tenuous a hold both on reality and on himself as to be an easy target for the Slakans, who linguistically transform Petworth into Petwurt, Petwit, Pervert, and the like. Yet even Petworth has his humanities, as Herman Melville once said of a far more dynamic character, Captain Ahab. Like the hero of Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King (1959), Petworth has his inarticulate desires, even if his “I want I want” is far less clamorous and insistent than Henderson’s cri de ciur. He is so unsure of how to proceed, or whether he should proceed at all, that he falls prey not only to his own indecisiveness and internal contradictions but also to his several guides, Bradbury’s versions of Bellow’s “reality instructors.”
What complicates Petworth’s situation, and the reader’s as well, is his difficulty in deciding which of his guides to trust and how far this trust should go, for with the possible exception of the buffoonish Steadiman, all the major characters are rendered in deliberately ambiguous terms, their own desires and allegiances as divided as Petworth’s. For all of her Party-minion gruffness and social realist style, Marisja, for example, eventually speaks in a quite different voice, one having more to do with desire than necessity. For all of her magic realism and dissident politics, Katya Princip can sound, or at least seem, dismayingly down to earth when it comes to the facts of her own life in Slaka and the compromises which that life requires of her.