Monday, August 20, 2012

Another End of Childhood: Wyndham's THE CHRYSALIDS

Much as in Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End (and in John Wyndham's own The Midwich Cuckoos), The Chrysalids posits a future transformed by children putting their minds together in ways adults can't.

Following a Tribulation (given the evidence, a nuclear war) that took place possibly thousands of years in the past, life has become simpler and narrower, at least for people living in Labrador. There's government and civil society, and a steam engine appears to be this culture's technological leap. People are aware that there was a former world of great marvels, but these Old People brought ruin upon themselves; the predominant view seems to be that the destruction wrought was ordained by God, and given that the most notable surviving texts from the former time are the Bible and some much later religious text, what has emerged in a culture like that of the Puritans, focused on family, fearful of what might be in violation of the Creator's will.

"The mutant" is the greatest evil: any deviant plant or other lifeform should be destroyed. As even one of the heterodox characters points out, such a position is reasonable given that, in the wilder regions south of our setting, nature has sprouted forms at odds with existing species, and, if you're going to be cultivating plants and practicing animal husbandry, you ought to exercise control over biological developments. But is every new form evil? A breed of giant horses is accepted by the government, and the local leader—and father or David, our protagonist—thinks this represents a moral failing by pragmatic politicians.

The real problem is for humans who don't follow "the true form," a form preached about and sung about, the human form that the Old People and the people of the Bible possessed (though, as is pointed out, the Bible is unclear about how exactly its humans look). David's first best friend, Sophie, has an extra toe, leading to his first rift with his father and his people. But that's just a hint of the larger rift to come, as David, and others, discover telepathic abilities. To say more is to give away too much of the plot, but Wyndham manages to set in motion a host of plot threads that all converge pretty well at the end. It's a satisfying story.

How Wyndham tells the story, however, is a mixed bag. There's nothing special about the voice: it's pretty standard, calm, clear storytelling in the English style, with some dramatic beats tossed in. It reads smoothly. Much of the story is conveyed through summary, as David describes the passage of years or the long development of a relationship. The most important relationship in the novel, David's with his lover, takes place almost entirely in passing, vague references, then in summary, until we finally see the two of them together, which doesn't help us see the relationship in the profound terms David does. There are several good scenes in the novel (though one takes place for which David clearly isn't present), but much more exposition and—because of the central premise of telepathy—dialogue between and among people who can't see each other. Even when people are together, they tend toward lengthy pronouncements and explanations, again undercutting the drama.

A few times, Wyndham seems aware of this problem, as David, stuck "listening" to someone's "thought-shapes," tunes the person out or comments on their problematic tone (since people projecting their thoughts can't read the doubtful reactions of their listeners). Even so, the dialogue is interesting, not as stiff as such a structure might lead you to expect.

An enjoyable book all around. It has elements of the other two Wyndham books I've read (Day of the Triffids contains things that don't grow as they ought), but the story is better. Triffids felt aimless and odd; The Midwich Cuckoos had a narrator watching things at arms-length. David isn't a memorable character, but he has relatable conflicts such as how to take what adults are telling him, and whether to conceal things from his parents. The book also takes a strange philosophical path at the end which may not actually be the writer's point of view, and David questions whether he's going from one autocratic perspective to another, though, by the final scene, he seems to have dropped that question.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


I've often referred to Stewart O'Nan's novel A Prayer for the Dying, telling my students it's the one "serious" book I know that uses second-person narration, the "you" being the novel's major character while also, by implication, the reader. ("Choose Your Own Adventure" stories present us with the "non-serious" example, the "you" there being expressly the reader-as-protagonist.) Students think it would be strange to read such narration for the duration of a novel, but my experience was that, after the initial surprise, you pretty quickly slip into seeing the novel as simply possessing a third-person limited narrator, the "you" being a grammatical hiccup that is actually the equivalent of he/him. I suppose that book's plot twist (the character is lying to himself about something) seems more disturbing because there's the implication that you, not only the protagonist, have failed to perceive something you should have perceived, but I don't know that the surprise would have been less effective in the usual narrative style, and in fact I wouldn't say there's anything thematic or insightful achieved by O'Nan's ploy. Still, I enjoyed the novel and remembered it.

I came to The Night Country because, in the wake of Ray Bradbury's death, it was mentioned as an homage to Bradbury (to whom it's dedicated). For most of the novel, I couldn't see that, but at the end, I suppose one is meant to recognize how the plot is a long-playing variation on Bradbury's classic short story "The Crowd." (A man realizes through newspaper photograph—and later first-hand observation—that accident victims are surrounded by the same people forming an instant crowd; the crowd, it turns out, consists of people who died in previous accidents. Obviously, the protagonist can't be allowed to live with this information.)

The plot of the novel is this: One year ago, on Halloween, five high school kids drove into a tree; three died—Chris called Toe, Danielle, and Marco, who narrates—and two lived—Kyle, whose head injuries have turned him into an infantile version of himself, and Tim. It's clear from early on that Tim means to reenact the events of that day, including the crash, finishing off himself and Kyle. The other major character (Kyle's mother has a minor but important role, but is a bystander to the key events) is Brooks, a police officer who carries around a load of guilt about the events of that day. It's also made clear early on that Brooks's guilt, which has led to the breakup of his marriage and his general uselessness as a police officer, is justified; we're not, at first, told explicitly what he did that makes him culpable, but enough hints are dropped that the type of thing he did—pursuing the kids' vehicle in such a way to cause the accident—is obvious, making the exact details, when they arrive, underwhelming.

Much like A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving, The Night Country intentionally telegraphs its ending and then, largely, doesn't veer from its foreordained outcome. Irving's novel frustrated me for many reasons, but I found the plot structure especially frustrating, as I kept expecting Irving to twist the story in some way that would render the outcome simultaneously inevitable yet surprising, true to what had been predicted while playfully out-of-alignment. Instead, it all occurred just as had been foretold. The Night Country suffers from the same problem, though O'Nan tries to make the journey more suspenseful by withholding the precise details. Less than halfway through the book, I realized it wasn't compounding events and observations in a meaningful way, but I plowed ahead, hopeful for the conclusion.

Irving's novel, though, does give us some engaging characters, even if some of them aren't terribly credible. O'Nan's characters are as jammed into their trajectory as the plot; in fact, saying they have a "trajectory" beyond the plot is misleading. Every character is stuck, the dead as well as the living. No one has any interest or design outside the accident; it has consumed everyone. I suppose that's a point O'Nan wants to make, but reading about characters who can't develop and who seem either planless or locked into plans that rise out of despair is not interesting or moving. This could work for a short story, and in fact the whole plot could have been dispensed with much more quickly, since nothing much happens—which is one of the book's ideas. In The Plague, Camus painted characters who are stuck in repetitious lives, but they don't see themselves that way, and the plot and prose pull us through that novel; O'Nan's novel simply fails to thrive. It's hard to even see what aspect of it was satisfying for the novelist, since, once he's established his characters and their situations, the story is essentially done. After the opening, it's an exercise.

The novel seems to be embarking into interesting storytelling territory by giving us a dead narrator who tends to speak collectively, including his friends in an authorial "we." But that conceit falls away pretty fast once the dead characters differentiate themselves; unfortunately, we learn little about any of these ghosts beyond the first and final facts. The narrator is the least well-defined character in the novel. That's a problem. Why was he chosen to tell this story? All of the ghosts are helpless, unable to truly alter what's going to happen, but they do have some minor talent at redirecting people's attentions or making animals run into their paths. (Mostly they're hauled around by whomever is thinking about them at the time.) There's some panic when they realize that Kyle, who isn't dead, nonetheless has a ghostly, "real" self who shows up but doesn't interact with them. This true Kyle, evidently the aspect of him that has died, evinces the ability to move objects, but this plot element, introduced as possibly altering events, has no payoff. The end, too, which should produce a few more ghosts, seems not to, so the climax doesn't result in much of a denouement. You're just done. Then there's a Slaughterhouse-Five ripoff in which history is made beautiful by being rewound, but it seems tacked on rather than integral.

Severely disappointing.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

In which I'm interviewed

The sound is punky a few times, but stick with it, as it improves. This is my third time being interviewed by Ric and Art at the Book Cave, who talked to me about each of my previous "Old Man" stories.

That fourth participant is Art's bird, Billy, who clearly wants to contribute to the discussion.

The Book Cave Interview

Right-click on the MP3 (two-finger tap for MacBook users) to download the podcast.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Rereading Ray Bradbury (Pt. 2): "Machineries of Joy"

My earliest exposure to Ray Bradbury was the short story "The Man," a Jesus-in-space tale (to which I'm subtly nodding in my next "Old Man" story) which appeared in an anthology of science fiction stories collected by Boy's Life. After that came "The Chrysalis," which I ran across in R is for Rocket. The first full collection I read was The Illustrated Man, and by then I was going full-bore for Bradbury, buying the Bantam collections with the bust of Bradbury on the covers. (Covers that broke from that imprint style included the all-horror-story October Country and I Sing the Body Electric.) Aside from Bradbury's face, the covers promised science fiction and fantasy scenarios, with odd images and the cover blurbs "A Masterwork of Fantasy" and "The World's Greatest Living Science Fiction Writer."

So what was a Bradbury reader like me to make of the collection Machineries of Joy, of which fewer than half of the stories could be seen as "speculative fiction"? And, as a young reader groomed to have certain expectations of the writer's tendencies (though I'd certainly encountered the occasional non-fantastic piece in the other collections), how was I to understand the subtle, almost plotless first short story in the collection, "The Machineries of Joy"?

Here again were the familiar Bradburian priests (who'd led me to assume for years that Bradbury was Catholic or at least raised Catholic; little did I know that he was using Catholics (in a bizarre turn of events for a once-suspect faith in the U.S.) as a kind of safe, all-American religious default the way Capra and other filmmakers would in the middle of the century). Erudite and theologically relaxed, as always, the characters engaged in discussions that, for me at the time, were elliptical and obscure, with some ill-defined Italian/Irish conflict among this community of men (were they all at the same parish? Not knowing what a rectory was, I thought they were all wandering around some giant house together for unknown purposes), and the occasional mention of outer space and the pope. At the end of the story, the faux conflict resolved, the men sit to watch a space launch, but, since I assumed I'd been reading a work of fantasy and I hadn't been able to grasp the nature of the priests' conflicts, I thought they were in a rocket ship and all being launched into space. This made the story rather more strange and haunting than Bradbury intended.

Rereading the story last night, I found it to be pretty successful. The characters don't all sound like Bradbury, or even entirely like each other (similar-sounding speakers is a problem that would severely harm Bradbury's later work); even the priest who gets to make speeches keeps the ranting reined in. The prose is sharp and clear and economical, and the ending is beautiful. The story first appeared in Playboy, as did a half dozen of the stories in this collection; many of the rest appeared in the Saturday Evening Post. Looking back now on Bradbury's career, a collection like this is evidence that you couldn't pigeonhole Bradbury, who wrote more non–science fiction than otherwise; it's odd to think that, at the time, he was still being marketed as a science fiction writer (and those SF and F stories remain the most resonant for readers), though he was selling diverse, smart middlebrow work on the strength of a reputation as a "genre" writer. Could such a thing ever happen again?

Sunday, August 5, 2012

We All Dunnit: Maxwell's So Long, See You Tomorrow

This one's another from the category of Books It Seems I Should Have Heard of by Authors I've Never Read. I saw mention of this book a week or so ago, ordered it from the library, and read it as soon as I'd finished Birch's new novel. Fiction editor at the New Yorker for 40 years, author of short fiction and novel's, William Maxwell has, till now, evidently slipped below or around my notice. So Long, See You Tomorrow is a short novel (Bless you, Mr. Maxwell!) that reminds me, in its setting, of both Updike's Of the Farm and Capote's In Cold Blood, though the plot takes us more in the direction of Capote. (Did Of the Farm even have a plot? There's a lot of lawn-mowing, I recall.)

The narrator tells us of his boyhood town and a friend (of sorts; Maxwell captures well the uncertainty of a circumstantial male friendship), Cletus, whose father murders another man; this other man had fallen in love with Cletus's mother, and both families had, before the murder, fragmented. Maxwell presents us with the murder immediately, then backs up to give us, for most of the rest of the novel, the context. Our narrator's problem (since a first-person narrator without a problem has no purpose) is that, after his own family moves to Chicago, he passes Cletus in the hall, and struggles to understand whether some gesture was required in recollection of their friendship. It's a subtle issue, but one has to see, I think, the parallels with the other male relationships in the novel: how so much goes unspoken; how men can feel close in a way that's more profound than a man's relationship with his wife; how friendships themselves are built of dependencies we barely understand and are only obviously fragile once they've ended.

Of course, the narrator has no idea what actually went on within the families involved, and he presents several strategies for interpolation and imagination, straining to take in every possible perspective. Late in the novel, Maxwell allows the murderer's dog to become a point of view character. He oversteps the dog's perceptions of things, but, really, the narrator has been overstepping all along. Additionally, the dog becomes an emblem of the once-thriving relationships as well as the children of both families; abused and neglected, she can only wonder at why, for instance, the furniture is on the lawn or the owner is angry again. She moves naturally from the role of witness to the role of victim.

My one complaint about the novel is that, though there aren't a tremendous number of characters, I had a hard time keeping their stories straight. Maxwell provides background on tangential characters (I'm sure he has thematic and mirroring reasons, but they clutter the primary story) and shifts among characters rather frequently late in the novel, weakening the narrative's arc.

Otherwise, it's a carefully rendered portrait of a time and place and how one may feel intimately bound to a time and place despite one's essential incomprehension.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Don't call him Ishmael: Carol Birch's JAMRACH'S MENAGERIE

Call him . . . Jaffy. Like the hero of Moby Dick, he lives to tell his tale. It's a tale that nods toward Melville's great, frustrating work: there's a whaling vessel, a quest for a beast, a disaster at sea, and a shattering sense of human smallness in the face of infinities of distance and time. There's even mention of the whaleship Essex, whose tale informed Melville's work. However, British author Birch is up to more than than tackling themes from a preceding novel.

Jamrach's Menagerie takes its start in history, not fiction, and the true story of a small English boy snatched up by a tiger he aimed to pet; the boy was rescued by Charles Jamrach, a 19th-c. purveyor of rare animals. This much is so, though Birch takes that boy, whom she names Jaffy, and puts him to work for Jamrach, which leads to a mission to locate and bring back a (Komodo) dragon. Birch gives Jaffy a voice that's a long way from Ishmael—who simply sounds like Melville. Jaffy sounds like a working-class lad, rough-edged and full of slang, but he also provides vivid descriptions of his adventures, all with a lyrical, evocative tone that lets us see the lad's developing, wondering soul.

For me, the book is about how we take memories and use them to construct some coherent sense of who we are. Jaffy never truly leaves the mouth of the tiger, and all of us, it seems, live in the tiger's mouth. Jaffy's immersion in that key experience sets the stage for every other experience, as his early encounters with animals, with whom he feels a strange sympathy, mirror his encounters with people, whose images and actions he labors diligently to maintain and honor. Why does he survive the tiger's embrace? Why do any of us survive anything, and why do others not? Though it may all be down to randomness, still, as Dr. Rieux pronounces in Camus's The Plague, all we have in our memories of those we've encountered. For Jaffy, this recollection and reconstruction of the past is a sacred task that allows one to endure and even love the present moment and all those to come.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

"Old Man" update

I've had some early, positive responses to "Unearthed." Having moved on to other projects, I'd forgotten everything that went into that story, so it's gratifying to hear from readers who appreciate the tale. Such reactions provide me with both a sense of a readership (beyond myself) and encouragement to do even better on the next component of the "Old Man" stories.

That next story, "Absolute Zero," follows the events of "Helping Them Take the Old Man Down" by several years. I'm hoping to have a complete, if tentative, draft by summer's end.

Here's a wildly glowing review of "Unearthed" by Canadian author (and television extra!) Andrew Salmon: