Remembering Reading Ray Bradbury

June 6, 2012 § Leave a comment

I’d begun to convince myself that Ray Bradbury was going to live forever, I guess.  Why else would I feel so gut-punched this morning?  I can remember thinking that he would probably be gone soon back in the 199os; he continued to live and write until he was 91.

The New Yorker‘s current (first-ever) Science Fiction issue contains a remembrance by him, entitled “Take Me Home.” And now he’s gone.

Ray Bradbury’s books mean as much to me as anything I’ve read.  This is something you can hear from many thousands of readers: he was a gateway drug, and he was a molder of minds and lives and space programs.  I came to him at the perfect time, when I was twelve or so.  If you were a certain type of kid who was getting tired of kid stuff like the Oz books and Choose-Your-Own-Adventures, but were finding the literature you really wanted to comprehend a little over your head, Bradbury showed you the way, led you into the world of adult reading for serious pleasure, made it obvious that you would want to read all of those classics, as well as all of the great fantastic stories out there.  (I can remember checking out the Inferno, and The Waste Land, and even The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and returning them all unread, in the couple of years before I found Bradbury.  After him, anything seemed possible.)

It was the giant Stories of Ray Bradbury collection, checked out from my small town’s public library.  It was summer.

That book is the Proustian madeleine of my reading life: no other book, to this day, so conjures up a total sense memory of my reading it, where and when and how the reading happened.  Most of the others that are close are Bradbury, too: Dandelion Wine, The October Country, and The Martian Chronicles especially.  And, oh God, Something Wicked This Way Comes.  This is ironic, considering that he’s one of the writers most closely associated with fantasy and imagination, not sensory detail.  But it’s also fitting, for our laureate of nostalgia.  (The very best kind of nostalgia, by the way: the kind that redeems the word itself.  Ray Bradbury loves the best parts of the past like he loves the best parts of the future.  He was one of our most loving writers, wasn’t he?)

I read “The Small Assassin” on a boat on a small lake on the Nebraska-South Dakota border.  And “A Sound of Thunder” on our couch at home, with an afternoon thunderstorm outside. And “I Sing the Body Electric!” (the titular Whitman allusion of which I did not get) in the backseat of our station wagon. And “The Veldt” on a barstool, the book open before me on the bar, with that yellow summer light coming in through the windows.  And, oh, “Mars Is Heaven” in bed, late at night, crickets outside…

Dandelion Wine remains, for me, the best book ever about what childhood should be like — which is the book’s subject — and one of the most beautiful works of lyricism in 20th-century America.  The Elliott family stories like “Homecoming,” “Uncle Einar,” and the late novel From the Dust Returned remain some of my favorite weird fiction.  Something Wicked remains the perfect horror folktale, and, along with The October Country, one of the best books to read in the week before Halloween.

It’s impossible now to imagine Fahrenheit 451 not having been written — it was a thing that just had to happen — but it’s Bradbury that did it.  And it’s impossible now to imagine who I would have become without Bradbury, without him opening up the world to me and showing me all this amazing stuff. Here we all are, without him now.  He should outlive us all, but damned if we don’t need to make sure it happens.  Give a 12-year-old you know a Bradbury book. They’ll thank you later.

Yes, Things Do Get Better

July 28, 2011 § Leave a comment

Here’s a little story to restore your faith in humanity.

I just accidentally left a book — a signed first edition, no less — in a busy public space in a major metropolitan area for over an hour, and when I came back, it was still there, apparently untouched.

I’m in Boston for work right now, and went down to the North End for dinner and (mostly) dessert.  So I took my chicken parm sub and tiramisu in a cup from Bova’s Bakery to this really nice park on the edge of the neighborhood.  As I ate, and called Jaime to gloat,  I set my book down on the edge of my chair.  And then I packed up the uneaten half of my sub and walked back to catch the shuttle from North Station.  (I think I forgot the book because I hadn’t been carrying anything else before getting food, and then I had this bag, and I didn’t notice any weight missing.)

The book, by the way, is David Eagleman’s Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives.  It means a lot to me because I got it on a trip to see our friend Spiff in Seattle.  (I brought it with me because it’s small, and short, and seemed appropriate after The Pale King.)  And yet I didn’t notice until I was at my stop that I’d forgotten it. After a brief internal debate (why bother? it’s surely gone already) I decided I had to go back and at least see if it might be there.  So I turned right back around to go back to the North End.

And there it was, exactly where I left it.  I know at least some people saw it, because I’d been sitting next to an empty chair, and now that chair had been moved elsewhere.

This brings a few thoughts to mind:

1) This may mean that Bova’s tiramisu-in-a-cup really is magic.  As in nothing bad can happen to you for two hours after eating it.

2) Or is this another indication that people don’t care about books anymore?  In the morning I saw one of the sidewalk booksellers in Harvard Square and wondered how many $2 books he could possibly hope to sell that day; in the evening I left a legitimately collectible book in perfect condition in view of hundreds (if not thousands) of people in broad daylight, and not one picked it up.

3) I love public transportation.  The luckiest stroke here was that the Green Line’s under construction from Lechmere to North Station, so they’re running shuttle buses (for free).  Since it was free, and I didn’t have to wait at all, just walk onto the next shuttle going back to the North End, it was easy to go back after the book.

4) Boston has proved itself, once again, my good luck charm.   Beautiful day, 80 degrees, no humidity, a perfect sunset as I walked back to the bus with my miracle book in hand.

So thank you, people of Boston, for protecting and returning my book to me.  It’ll always remind me of you, now, as well as Seattle.  And it’s proof that everyone’s luck has to turn around eventually.

Hypochondria and the Gothic Imagination

January 31, 2009 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Villette.

There was a reading and reception for Poe’s 200th birthday yesterday at the Duke library — a fine event, with some exceptionally good readings of six Poe works (three prose, three poetry).  Ariel Dorfman, who read “The Cask of Amontillado,” made a great point about how appropriate it was that Poe lived and died in Baltimore, the dividing point between the cold, rational North and the Gothic South, just as his works feature both some of the first detective stories and some of the most overheated Gothic prose ever.

Plus I’ve been reading Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy very slowly, as bedtime reading, for the last few months.  It is really quite a fantastic read — a page or two at a time is perfect, since the whole book’s basically one big digression after another anyway.  And it has me thinking about all the things we’ve meant by “melancholy,” down through the centuries, and why and how the word and concept persist.

So: let’s talk about mental illness.  Specifically, hypochondria.  Ishmael’s famous “hypos.”  (And the comparison is illuminating: when Ishmael felt suicidal, he was able to run off to sea.  Lucy had no such option; her short trip across the Channel was harrowing enough, and then, if she wanted to keep a measure of independence,  she had to find some place to do respectable work — viz. the passage on p. 329-331 in which Lucy reveals to the de Bassompierres that she is a teacher.)

We now use “hypochondria” to refer to the condition of constant fear of illness; the meaning in the nineteenth century was similar, but referred more to low spirits, melancholy, a depression-like state, with no apparent cause.  I am not a psychiatrist, so I use the following terms as a layman, but what we now call bipolarity and depression seem to have been considered symptomatic of hypochondria.  Oh, and hallucinations could also be a symptom, in some cases.

Of course, you can find Gothic and/or Victorian attitudes toward psychology and mental illness discussed ad nauseam; and you can even find studies of Brontë’s writing and the psychology of the time in books like this.  It can all seem fairly played out.  But personally, I never seem to get tired of the subject: the time was the crossroads between so much superstition and speculation and so much new science, thought, and experimentation.  That pre-Freudian century contains so much potential energy in the enthusiasms for phrenology, spiritualism, evolution, utopian thinking and living.  Plus, no matter how much Brontë is contextualized and demythologized, Charlotte really does seem a special case, and Lucy Snowe — well, Lucy Snowe’s something else entirely.

(A crabby aside: the academic party line now seems to be contextualizing and historicizing the Brontës, products of their time and environment and all that.  I hear this from profs, I see it in books and articles.  Now, I know the Brontës have been considered these utter anomalies, writing their wild imaginings in the hinterlands, but must we really insist that no one is special, that there’s nothing strange or amazing about these sisters’ writings, that they’re just products of their historical moment((s), I’m sure the lit profs would add) like all the others?  Can we keep the humanities at least a little non-scientific, please, and savor something that smacks of miracle?  I know, I know: no one’s getting tenure savoring a miracle.  End crabby aside.)

Hypochondria pops up over and over again in Villette, and there are times when Lucy certainly does seem clinically depressed or manic.  The writing at the times of depression can be quite heart-wrenchingly sad and beautiful.  Chapter 15, “The Long Vacation,” when Lucy becomes desperately lonely and resorts to a Catholic priest’s confessional, and the beginning of chapter 24, as she suffers a seven-week silence from Dr. John, are especially memorable.  But the two episodes most directly touched by hypochondria (so far, at least) are the appearances of the ghost-nun and the king of Labassecour.

The nun, a legend of Madame Beck’s school, appears to Lucy in chapter 22, and the circumstances are quite intriguing.  Lucy has received her first letter from Dr. John, and read it in the garret, and been made very happy by its warmth and “good-nature.”  (Lucy, that tricksy narrator, is coy on this throughout, but I do think she is in a fairly conventional kind of love with Dr. John, even if she doesn’t admit it to herself.)  “The present moment had no pain, no blot, no want; full, pure, perfect, it deeply blessed me.” Then we get a remarkable run of paragraphs — I love how the textures and rhythms of this passage telegraph their Gothic-ness but nevertheless powerfully build suspense:

Are there wicked things, not human, which envy human bliss?  Are there evil influences haunting the air, and poisoning it for man?  What was near me?…

Something in that vast solitary garret sounded strangely.  Most surely and certainly I heard, as it seemed, a solitary foot on that floor: a sort of gliding out from the direction of the black recess haunted by the malefactor cloaks.  I turned: my light was dim; the room was long — but, as I live! I saw in the middle of that ghostly chamber a figure all black or white; the skirts straight, narrow, black; the head bandaged, veiled, white.

Say what you will, reader — tell me I was nervous or mad; affirm that I was unsettled by the excitement of that letter; declare that I dreamed: this I vow — I saw there — in that room — on that night — an image like — A NUN.

Dr. John soon diagnoses this as an effect of hypochondria, and I, at least at first blush, am inclined to agree.  The image of a silent, celibate woman — one of the dreaded Catholics, no less — appearing to Lucy after a glimmer of romantic hope is simply too powerful to resist as a figure out of her own mind.  The nun reappears to Lucy thereafter, and there remains some degree of Gothic mystery about whether the nun actually is a ghost.

But turn it around: what if it’s not a phantasm of sexual fear and frustration or some long-lost relative of Lucy’s, but a bloody ghost?  What if it’s an affront to Reason?  There is, after all, the remarkable dialogue between Lucy and her Reason on p. 265-6 (beginning at no. 19 in the e-text), and the ensuing castigation of the “hag” Reason to the glorification of Imagination and Hope. What if the nun is exactly what Lucy Snowe needs to acknowledge as the reason behind her impulse to flee to the continent — the missing (or repressed) part of herself?

The other remarkable passage on hypochondria is Lucy’s observation of the king, sitting in the royal box at a concert Lucy attends with Dr. John, and her recognition in him of a kindred spirit:

There sat a silent sufferer — a nervous, melancholy man.  Those eyes had looked on the visits of a certain ghost — had long waited the comings and goings of that strangest spectre, Hypochondria.  Perhaps he saw her now on that stage, over against him, amidst all that brilliant throng.  Hypochondria has that wont, to rise in the midst of thousands — dark as Doom, pale as Malady, and well-nigh strong as Death.

And but so here it is again, in another form: the great white shark of pain.

David Foster Wallace, 1962-2008

September 14, 2008 § 3 Comments

Too soon. Too soon. Too soon.

The news was horrifying in a lot of ways, not least of which the method. All of us who loved his work are torn between wanting to know why and not wanting to know anything at all, I think. I’m sure it wasn’t meant as a grand gesture, though. I think we can all agree on that. It’s sad and terrible and I can’t imagine what kind of pain he must have been in, to do this.

While I’m going to reread the last complete novel we’re ever going to get from DFW because it’s the only way I can think of to mourn and celebrate — and because I’ve put it off too long already — it’s two other pieces that my mind keeps going back to. One is “The Depressed Person.” It is so hard to admit that understanding, and empathizing, and expressing, are not the same as overcoming. It’s hard to admit that someone who has shown such a capacity for, and commitment to, all of these things, could commit the ultimate selfish act. Again: what agony he must have been in.

The other is “Up, Simba,” just because of the timing, I suppose. It has been such a shitty month, on a national level. And DFW must have been so disappointed in Senator McCain — in all of us. And I can’t believe I’m never going to hear another word from the one thinker on politics, governance, civic duty, that I actually trusted.

He was one of our great writers, one of our great thinkers. And now he’s dead, and I’m looking at the shelf and his section is far too small. Let’s read him, and remember.

Morrison, Ellison, and the Grotesque

February 3, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison.

Yesterday, Groundhog Day, was another case of literary serendipity, for me. In the morning I read the first chapter of Invisible Man–not expecting the famous “Battle Royal” chapter, awed references to which in various places finally spurred me to read this book (somehow it was never assigned to me in school). A couple of hours later, I heard Toni Morrison read, in Duke Chapel at the Reynolds Price Jubilee here, from her manuscript for a forthcoming novel set in 1690.

But first, IM. The first 50 pages have basically exhausted everything I knew about the book. The prologue–a tour de force itself–introduces the titular character, squatting in his famous light-bulb-filled, Dostoyevskian “hole.” He takes a reefer-fueled trip into the “cave” behind the “hot tempo” of the Louis Armstrong song “What Did I Do to Be so Black and Blue” and hears a rousing sermon there. (This sermon, with its Jonah references, is an homage to Moby-Dick; Melville and Dostoyevsky are both all over this prologue, and, while we’re playing the “Literary Influence Parlor Game,” the IM’s trip into the grooves of the Armstrong song reminded me strongly of a similarly hallucinogenic scene involving jazz in Gravity’s Rainbow.)

And after that, we get the battle royal. This raging, pseudo-allegorical, horribly violent, soul-bearing chapter must have felt like a kick in the head when it first appeared (modified, of course) as a short story in a magazine in the late ’40s. Grotesque is the exact word to describe it. How else would you sum up a fight among ten young, black, blindfolded men, staged for the amusement of a town’s respected leaders–followed by the same fighters being forced to grab for money on an electrified carpet?

Anyway, seeing Morrison (her reading was excellent) reminded me of Beloved, and the grotesque elements in that novel, as well. Ellison’s achievement in the battle royal chapter, I think, is to make his scene heavily symbolic while simultaneously deeply troubling, visceral, and realistic. Really, how often do you come across a piece of symbolism–say, Eliot’s Waste Land (another influence, it seems)–which also seems like it could have actually happened–or, what’s more, is happening? That’s how this chapter feels. It feels real. And I speculate that this effect has resonated throughout subsequent African-American literature; I speculate that Morrison’s depiction of the grotesqueries of slavery may have been abetted, if not consciously inspired, by just this chapter, and its deft balance of character, violence, allegory, and emotion.

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