Thursday, June 28, 2012

Rereading Ray Bradbury (Pt. 1)

It had been too long. Once a year, at most, I read a Bradbury story aloud to a class of students. Aside  from that, I rarely read him, the later story collections being comprised of uncollected tales left uncollected for good reason and thin sketches that didn't pass muster as full stories. Setting aside Bradbury was one of the steps that moved me from childhood to adulthood: partly because I moved on to the "serious" writers Bradbury himself admired, partly because I gained that adult sense that the things we loved in our youth no longer sustain us. I could look back fondly on the stories that had made me buy everything the man wrote (as some early Marvel comics led me to collect nearly everything Marvel published), and what he did well had a lasting effect on me—but I could no longer pick up a new book by him in the sure and certain hope of recapturing that excitement. (The last solid collection was 1976's Long After Midnight, though it's a mix of good and bad, and contains some stories that were decades old at the time.)

When Bradbury died, my unacted-on dream of someday contacting him dying too, I wanted to return to his stories to identify just what was so fine about the best of them.

In reading Bradbury's obituary, I came across mention of "Homecoming," which I hadn't read for more than 30 years. The story is notable for being Bradbury's first sale to a "mainstream" magazine; before this, everything had run in the various genre mags, and, in fact, "Homecoming" had been rejected by a pulp mag that wanted something more horrific than what he'd produced. The story additionally appeared in the O. Henry Prize Stories collection of that year. I had the story in two collections, the large Stories of Ray Bradbury that came out in 1980 and the collection October Country, which contained revised versions of some very early work from his first and eeriest collection, Dark Carnival, along with some newer stories from the early 1950s.

Drawing heavily on the work of Charles Addams (who provided the story's illustration for Mademoiselle), "Homecoming" involves a family of vampires and ghouls who would reappear in a handful of other Bradbury stories. (All of the stories would be collected years later into a fix-up novel entitled From the Dust Returned.) In this tale, the extended family is gathering for Hallowe'en, a favored Bradbury holiday; waiting anxiously throughout the tale is our point of view character, Timothy, who is decidedly unvampiric, a normal human boy in a family of supernaturally powerful people. Timothy is an outsider, unable to fly or transform himself; he's aware of his limitations, and the story ends with him unchanged, reminded of his differences. The one bright moment for Timothy comes with the arrival of his favorite relative, Uncle Einar (the title figure in another story in the collection), who loves the boy—as do all the relatives—despite his  . . . disability. (Even as Bradbury draws on Addams, the normal child who is viewed as a freak is the model for another ghoulish family, the Munsters, with their one disturbingly blond-haired daughter.)

Bradbury's work here is masterful. The story is full of images freshly described, and the whole tale, in which rather little happens, is propelled forward by metaphor and a restrained power in the writing. It's Bradbury at his peak.

"The Lake" is the first story in my collected Bradbury tales; it's also in The October Country. This is one of Bradbury's pared-down stories that uses simple language and a few haunting scenes to achieve its aims. A boy loses the female companion of his youth to the lake where they both played. He revisits the scene as an adult, and we're given an inexplicable yet beautiful repetition of that loss. Bradbury could easily have ended the story with a ghostly conclusion, but he adds a physical element that makes the story more disturbing, then adds depth to the story by allowing how the power of this childhood attachment diminishes his current (married) relationship. Bradbury's using different effects here than in "Homecoming," but suffusing both stories is a sense of nostalgia and loss and how childhood necessarily involves suffering from which we never recover, another Bradbury theme that would surface throughout his work.

I'm not sure I previously read "The Wonderful Death of Dudley Stone," the final story in October Country. A vanished author is located, and our protagonist seeks him out to learn why he stopped writing. It's a story you can see someone imagining after the events surrounding J.D. Salinger's depature from the public eye, but Bradbury wrote this story in the '50s. It's something of a mystery, but has the tone of a tall tale, as our raconteur author regales the protagonist with the story of his non-demise, and as such, it feels less credible than the supernatural stories. The piece is further hurt by what had by then become Bradbury's standard character voice: over-excited, wordy, full of itself. It's Bradbury's own voice, and it grates, as it does when Bradbury gives it to several characters in Fahrenheit 451. That permanent-exclamation-point tone is something that drove me away from Bradbury eventually, that and the way the intelligent prose was replaced by rococo writing and a rushed approach to storytelling. I've long said, and this story reinforced, that Bradbury took the wrong lessons from his own work, that he misidentified some of its strengths, undercutting exactly what led to his best early work earning such strong accolades.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

"Old Man" stories now for B&N's Nook as well!

Yeah, I used an exclamation point.

"Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" and "Clockworks," now formatted for the Nook (I hope), are available via the link below; any buyers (or samplers), let me know if the text looks right, because there were some funky things in the process:

And both stories are still available at Amazon for Kindle and the Kindle app:

Such a deal!

"Unearthed," the next chapter, will appear in September's Asimov's, which comes out in about a month.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

I see you . . .

Whoever you are, trying to find a free copy of "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" . . . you can stop searching my website. Just buy the story (along with "Clockworks"!) at Amazon.

Sheesh. Like a buck-fifty for each story is just soooo much money.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

My stories on Amazon

If you're looking for "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" or "Clockworks," you can now get them bundled together for one low low price ($2.99) at Amazon:

I made a few (inevitable) minor changes—a word here and there—as I went through the formatting process, but with those exceptions, the stories are identical to how they appeared when they ran in Asimov's. If you've already read the stories and opt to not purchase them, please say a few words of review at the link.

I don't have a Kindle, but I do have the Kindle app for Mac, which I recommend. On a fully keyboarded computer, the Kindle app allows for great ease in annotation (the kind of thing an English teacher appreciates).

Saturday, June 9, 2012

"Clockworks" gets an honorable mention

"Clockworks" (Asimov's, April/May 2011) earned an honorable mention in Gardner Dozois's The Year's Best Science Fiction: Twenty-Ninth Annual Collection. Yeah, a few hundred other stories also received honorable mentions. Still, it's nice.

As the new story, "Unearthed," is about to come out (Asimov's, September 2012), I probably should prepare to make the other stories available as a package through Amazon. That'd be good, right? I welcome suggestions.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

All Bad Things Must Come to An End: Alan Garner's RED SHIFT

Alan Garner's oeuvre, according to various sources, is young adult literature (though he doesn't especially target such readers, he says), and Red Shift seems to be lumped, by these sources, with his other works of fantasy for younger readers. This is baffling. Given the sexual themes, which are quite adult, even if dealt with elliptically most of the time, the book seems more for mature readers. Additionally, there isn't a clear fantastic element in this novel. One set of murders is unexplained, but I'm not sure Garner wants us to provide a supernatural explanation; also, the faint connection between the novel's three timelines is arguably a fantastic or science fictional element, but it plays, rather, as a tying together of motifs rather than some actual connection.

The book seems to earn the appellation tour de force; like anything that gets called a tour de force, it is single-minded, single-toned, sustained . . . and, if it's like the author's other novels, not really a tour de force but just "the way this writer does things." Since I haven't read Garner's other works, I can't judge whether he's achieved something unique here or whether I'm just seeing a slice of his much larger pie. I have ordered another book of his from the library, so I'll have a better sense of where this fits in Garner's corpus later. For now, I'm also ignorant of the novel's historical placement; there's probably something online about the novel's timelines, but I'm going to review it while still steeped in ignorance.

We follow a modern couple, separated by distance for weeks at a time and, when not, given some hassles by his caravan-dwelling parents; in the distant past, maybe the fifth or sixth century, in the same English location, we come upon Roman soldiers trying to survive in the hostile country; a third narrative takes place somewhen in between—Irish invaders are approaching the church where our protagonists wait in fear. Aside from location—and geography is central to the book's structure, as well as an ancient ax-head binding the three timelines—what holds the three tales together is a focus on male-female couples. In the ancient past, the former soldiers slaughter a village but keep a woman who is some sort of goddess-conduit. Or something. In the, um, middle past, one of our hapless English folk is deeply in love with a woman who previously had a relationship with one of the invading Irish rogues. I think. Each relationship (the goddess-woman ends up connecting with the soldier who tends to flip out into a psychotic rage) takes an unexpected turn. And a graffito reminds us that this too shall pass and most of our protagonists are long dead. Despite one (and-a-half?) not-completely-tragic tale-endings, the book is pretty grim, making one feel as positive about human love  as if one had instead read Chesil Beach.

However, some of the book's effectiveness is undercut by the very style that makes it compelling. There's little description, and the writer collapses the space between events, as if, until someone speaks again, nothing has happened. Dialogue drives the narrative, but it's often unattributed dialogue. This is fine on occasion, but quite often the same person speaks twice in a row in two disconnected paragraphs, and you haven't been warned; more often, more than two people are speaking, and it's impossible to tell who is who (especially, I felt, in that confounding middle time period, when a scene gets repeated and there's even less context than in the other times). The style gives the novel a propulsive quality, but it also means you miss a fair amount of what you likely aren't supposed to miss.

I enjoyed much of the novel. It largely achieved that aim that Poe pushed for, the "single effect"; additionally, while I couldn't follow events as well as I'd have liked, the emotional turn of each story was effective. I can't quite recommend the book, since I'm not sure who would enjoy it, but the novel certainly possesses power and, since it's fairly short, might be worth a look by someone who appreciates a challenging text.

Thank you, Ray Bradbury

His stories, the ones I first encountered in middle school, the ones that made me read more and then read everything of his over the next few years, more than any stories I read before or after, made me want to write. Later, I would find other writers who affected my sensibilities about fiction more and who stretched my ideas about what fiction could achieve, but the intensity, joyous and horrifying, with which Bradbury infused his best stories, formed the foundation for my understanding of how fiction could both capture the attention of a reader and express the personality of the writer.

It's those first writers we discover, those early encounters, that provide the primary sense of what fiction can and must do, just as our families provide the template for how we think human interactions function and what they can mean. For being a part of the family that formed me, thank you, Ray. You marked me.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

A Sex-Singer Chokes: John Hawkes's THE BLOOD ORANGES

Having abandoned books on which I was getting no traction, I turned to John Hawkes's The Blood Oranges—which may seem like a perverse choice, given Hawkes's famous insistence that plot, character, setting, and theme are elements he'd like to eradicate. Setting, in fact, is central for every Hawkes novel I've read, as is character, as is theme; plots tend to be pointillistically constructed, but they're still plots. (So much for relying on the writer to describe his own work, a problem I point out in my AP Literature class.)

In the mythical (Mediterranean?) town of Ilyria, Cyril, our "sex-singer" narrator, and wife Fiona construct an erotic eight-hander with another couple (who, somewhat inconveniently, have three daughters). The novel begins after everything has collapsed: the other man, Hugh, is dead, Fiona has run off with the other couple's daughters, and Cyril lives platonically with a native woman while trying to win back the affections of the traumatized Catherine, Hugh's wife. Though little happens—and, a problem for the climax, when things do happen, Hawkes has a way of writing around them, a kind of Stealth Bomber form of writing that bends light around the very object on which you're trying to focus—the prose does have a propulsive energy, partly because that's how Hawkes always writes, but partly because Cyril is so fully of positive (and broadly directed) sexual energy. Over the course of the book, we see how the couples navigate the complicated relationship, and, towards the end, we're shown, the one scene hard upon the other, the crucial moment when Hugh finally commits himself to a relationship with Fiona and the moment when Hugh's body is discovered.

Hawkes causes problems for himself, though I wasn't aware fully of the interpretive problems until I read "Who Put the Blood in the Oranges," an essay by Bertrand Gervais and Anick Bergeron. First, my own thinking prior to reading that essay: Hawkes's description of how Hugh dies is awkwardly done, though that's in large measure to, again, the standard Hawkes approach to anything you'd like to see more clearly. However, I felt clear about what Hawkes meant to say about the character's death. However, Hawkes undercuts the elements of the plot that seem pretty clear because of how he's structured the novel and because the narrator is Cyril. Though Cyril disclaims responsibility for Hugh's death, Hawkes's placement of the scene in which Cyril convinces Hugh to commit sexually to Cyril's wife makes that a hard argument to swallow. Also, given Cyril's evident narcissism and his need to see everything as part of some "tapestry" of sexual joy forces the reader to question Cyril's insistence that Hugh's death is an accident, the result of Hugh's masturbatory practices.

Still, I'm okay with that tension. The novel's seeming ambiguity as to how the events should be interpreted is no more surprising or problematic than the ambiguity we often run into when having to push past the insistences of a first-person narrator. I think that Hawkes wants us to trust Cyril and, too, wants us to find Cyril's moral code meaningful and coherent, even if it runs utterly counter to our own. But it's also easy to see that Cyril is imposing his code on others, and that the novel's disastrous setting and dark imagery indicate that, in fact, Cyril's way of life is ultimately destructive and self-serving.

The essay by Gervais and Bergeron takes the view that Hawkes has contaminated readers' and reviewers' understanding of the novel; evidently (if their facts are right), reviewers and readers missed the accidental nature of Hugh's death and thought it was a suicide, a suicide in response to Hugh's having to live like Cyril—missed, that is, until Hawkes, in interviews, explained the death scene, after which everyone saw the novel differently. Whether everyone really misread the novel initially, I don't know; I certainly can't be the first person who understood what Hawkes was getting at. However, Hawkes's approach to the death is vague as well as flawed in its details, and given that the method of death would be, for many readers, obscure, it's easy to see how people would end up concluding that Hugh's death is intentional. The essay's argument regarding how the author's "non-death" and actual interference in the reading of his text has led people to rethink the novel is, I think, not the crucial problem; rather, it's that the novel is flawed, and the writer's mistakes make it difficult for any reader to get even the literal events right.

I enjoyed the novel, but Cyril does wear out his welcome, and Hawkes's refusal to let the character slip into doubt gives us a guy with whom it's hard to sympathize. The novel could certainly be tighter, and many scenes feel redundant, especially since the back-and-forth chronology resists narrative momentum.