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.


Calvin said...

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.

I often think this is true of many, if not most authors, who inevitably, it seems, become parodies of themselves.

William Preston said...

Hopefully, I'll never think so highly of my work that I'll make that mistake . . .

Calvin said...

Sometimes I think the "solution" is to write one really good book and then become a recluse, a la J. D. Salinger and Harper Lee.

Okay, not completely serious, but at least in SF this has a long history. H.G. Wells' best books were his first half dozen. Jules Verne's best books were in his early part of his career. And I'd say the same holds for giants such as Asimov and Heinlein too.

You know, I wonder how much this holds over into the literary realm. I know I stopped reading Updike after a while because he became a parody of himself (The Witches of Eastwick is what did me in--not the story, but just the prose, which was overcooked). I wonder, what about late Dickens? Dumas? Balzac?

It's not universally true, of course. My favorite Shakespeare is The Tempest, one of his last.

Still, it's a thought...

William Preston said...

The one-and-done model makes sense for some writers. Lee put everything of her childhood into Mockingbird. There was nothing left, I think. Salinger's short fiction is a better place to locate Salinger, so I don't think looking at the one novel fits him so well. He took off for other reasons.

Updike . . . You know, Updike always fluctuated wildly. Read Of the Farm and then A Month of Sundays. Read Rabbit, Run and then Rabbit Redux . . . but then Rabbit is Rich is amazing. Witches of Eastwick is dreadful; so is The Coup. Some things are simply unreadable. But he often snapped back.

Plenty of writers, maybe those less infatuated by their own voices, don't slide downward. John Gardner's final novel may be his best, but that was someone for whom craft was the most important thing.