Sunday, September 2, 2012

Rereading Ray Bradbury (Pt. 3): Melancholy's medicine

The collection A Medicine for Melancholy, first published in 1959, contains a broad range of stories published over the previous ten years in venues from Playboy to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction to the Saturday Evening Post. The collection contains some of Bradbury's most-remembered (not just by me) science fiction tales: "The Dragon," "Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed," and "All Summer in a Day." In addition, "The Wonderful Ice-Cream Suit" became a play.

Because the stories were written over the course of more than a decade, you can spot the shifts in Bradbury's style. It's hard to trace precisely, because some of the publication dates are missing, but that tendency to have voluble characters who, like Bradbury himself, go on and on about their big ideas, increases with the years. Earlier, it's the narrative voice that allows itself all that energy, and that works pretty well, and is typically balanced by Bradbury's sense that he should keep the narrative compact. By the end, the narrative voice has largely been shoved out of the way to allow the characters to go on at length, much as Bradbury allowed Faber and Beatty to prattle away in Fahrenheit 451 (an initially shorter piece he'd somewhat awkwardly inflated to novel length).

I reread the collection's first four stories—"In a Season of Calm Weather" (a man longing to meet Picasso comes upon him making elaborate drawings in beach sand), "The Dragon" (two men from the Middle Ages await a beast that rides through the mist; we learn it's a train crossing the time-twisted moors), "A Medicine for Melancholy" (an 18th-century English lass finds that it's sexual longing that ails her, though Bradbury is marvelously discreet), and "The End of the Beginning" (a man mowing his lawn waits with his wife for the launch of their son's rocket)—as well as "Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed," from later in the book. Each story has its pleasures. Though very little happens in "In a Season of Calm Weather," and I don't think Bradbury does a great job of conjuring the images Picasso etches on the beach, there's a nice sense to it of the fragility of art. "The Dragon," short and to the point, does exactly what it ought to do. "A Medicine for Melancholy" hurries itself along with characters shouting and speaking ridiculously, but it's a good tale with clever turns to it. "The End of the Beginning," like "The Machineries of Joy," is dominated by "philosophical" talk and introspection; brevity of speech and conciseness of prose would have helped enormously.

The best of the bunch, and one of Bradbury's best stories ever, is "Dark They Were, and Golden-Eyed," one of his Martian tales. It runs too counter to the predominant narrative of most of his other Martian stories, so it couldn't have fit into The Martian Chronicles. Rather, it's an alternate history of the colonization of Mars, in which everything we take with us to that planet is changed—our plants, our ideas, our bodies. There's a creeping sense from the outset that something terrible is going to happen, and Bradbury both follows that sense to its conclusion while subverting it beautifully. Then he adds one more narrative twist to send us in another direction and comment on what's gone before, planting, too, one more tiny turn at the end. It's a masterful story that avoids the verbal windiness of many of the other pieces. The writing is, like the best of the work in The Martian Chronicles, tight and evocative. He moves the story forward quickly, but pauses to give us haunting moments and disturbing exchanges. The writer of this story is the one to learn from.

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