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.
February 19, 2012 § 5 Comments
R.E.M. broke up last year, and I’ve been wanting to write something about them ever since, but I’m just now getting around to it. This may be ridiculous to say at our particular, continually overhyped and hyperventilating historical/cultural moment, but I do feel like the breakup was a bigger deal, in fact, than it was made out to be. R.E.M. was one of the world’s greatest bands. For certain people — mostly (but not all!) white, mostly (but not all!) well educated, mostly (but not all!) creatively inclined — they were paragons. They made art, not product. They cared about beauty and integrity. They cared about not selling out. They were from Athens, not New York, not L.A.
I’m old enough to have cared deeply about R.E.M. when they were at their peak, but not old enough to have caught onto them when they were still under the radar. But if you were listening to music when Out of Time, Green, and Automatic for the People came out, you went back and found the earlier stuff, too. I mean, I went to a small Lutheran boarding high school in Nebraska, and our dorm supervisor had a t-shirt from the Automatic for the People tour. Everyone loved this band. They are now retired as a band (although of course there’s always the possibility of a reunion). They would probably get my vote as the greatest American band, period.
Of course, there was that long trough between New Adventures and Accelerate — those three boring albums after Bill Berry quit the band. But I feel like their last two albums made up for that: these were really great records, overlooked mostly, I think, because R.E.M. had just been around for so long, and they were always going to sell a certain number of albums. R.E.M. embraced their status as elder statesmen on these albums; their songs weren’t preachy, but they often contained a message. The sound seemed to epitomize what people think of when they think of R.E.M.
My favorite song from these two albums is probably “Supernatural Superserious” off of Accelerate, though there are a number of great tracks on Collapse Into Now as well.
This is, to start, just a great song, with that R.E.M mix of chime and jangle with power and hook. I love basically any R.E.M. song that features Mike Mills chiming in on vocals, and this has some lovely harmony/background vocals by him. It also features an especially inspired performance by Michael Stipe: he sounds like he cares on this track. (My least favorite part of the song is probably the somewhat cutesy title. I learn that the Coldplay dude renamed it from its superior working title, “Disguised.” That would explain it.)
There’s a lot going on in these lyrics. It starts with a terrific, epigrammatic first line: “Everybody here comes from somewhere that they would just as soon forget and disguise.” And then we get this knockout verse:
At the summer camp where you volunteered
No one saw your face, no one saw your fear
If that apparition had just appeared,
Took you up and away from this base and sheer humiliation
Of your teenage station
No one remembers and nobody cares
So we have a song about adolescence. A summer camp; a hypothetical, perhaps hopeful “apparition”; teenage humiliation. And this astonishing bit of advice: Nobody cares. No one remembers, and nobody cares. This is like the flip side of “Everybody Hurts”: everyone is disguising something they feel humiliated about. Everyone is too wrapped up in their own dilemmas to care about yours. That summer-camp humiliation? Forgotten. Not worth all the angst. The chorus (“Yeah you cried and you cried/He’s alive, he’s alive/Yeah you cried and you cried and you cried and you cried”) doesn’t sound uplifting based on the lyrics — at all — but it is, especially with those sweet Mike Mills vocals. We have another implication of the supernatural in that repeated “he’s alive”: is “he” Christ? The teenager’s “apparition”?
This first verse and chorus remind me of a story by Reynolds Price entitled “Michael Egerton.” It was written when Price was still a teenager, but Mr. Price seems to have been born something of an elder statesman. It’s a summer-camp tale in which the title character is bullied for missing a championship baseball game, metaphorically “crucified” for his sensitivity. (It also references the folk song “Green Grow the Rushes,” which is of course also an R.E.M. song. Not that I think there was any influence by Price on R.E.M., just a funny coincidence.)
Stipe then builds in references to sexuality, theatricality, and S&M (safe words, chafing “ropes,” “fantasies” dressed up as “travesties”) to complicate these themes of disguise and “humiliation,” leading to a straightforward message: “Enjoy yourself with no regrets.” And that’s as good an encapsulation of R.E.M.’s message as you’re likely to find.
There follows another great verse:
Now there’s nothing dark and there’s nothing weird
Don’t be afraid I will hold you near
From the seance where you first betrayed
An open heart on a darkened stage
A celebration of your teenage station
A seance that’s also a celebration, which was formerly a humiliation: that’s memory, folks. That’s R.E.M.’s past, that’s the past for all of us. You will end up celebrating, reminiscing about, calling up from the dead those events that were once so embarrassing. Enjoy yourself, with no regrets.
In that spirit of celebration, here’s my R.E.M. favorites playlist (not in order of preference, but an order in which I enjoy listening to them — and apologies for whatever annoying ads you may encounter):
- Finest Worksong
- It Happened Today (this has a great video with extended version of the song, by the way)
- Swan Swan H
- You Are the Everything (sadly, no “official” version; this is a near-contemporary live version, and it’s beautiful, but I do miss Mike Mills’s background vocals from the album track)
- Don’t Go Back to Rockville
- Try Not to Breathe
- Man On the Moon
- Cuyahoga (fairly faithful live version, but no substitute for the original. There’s also a very nice cover by the Decemberists here)
- Near Wild Heaven
- Sweetness Follows
- Driver 8
- What’s the Frequency, Kenneth?
- Orange Crush
- Turn You Inside-Out
- Supernatural Superserious
- Undertow (live version, but very close to the album track. Note: I love the New Adventures in Hi-Fi album. It was tough not to include “E-Bow the Letter,” “Electrolite,” “How the West Was Won and Where It Got Us,” and others.)
- Let Me In (there’s also a truly amazing live version from the Monster tour)
- Fall On Me
- Half a World Away
February 13, 2010 § Leave a comment
Finished a while ago: The Graveyard Book.
Now reading: The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers.
Reading next: GraceLand, by Chris Abani.
One of the worst years of my life so far was when I was twelve. I was just a mess of self-imposed fears, ridiculous longings, critical examinations of my own clueless dorkiness. Seventh grade: irrationally terrified of two eighth graders who I thought were out to humiliate me (and kind of were, but no more than other kids), pining away for an older girl with whom I had zero chance, dreaming of impressing and being befriended/adopted by my teacher and basketball coach, throwing myself into religion as a bulwark against all this confusion (yeah, between that and reading all that Tolkien, the kids’ll totally realize you’re not a dork). It all seems more or less standard issue, now; at the time there were many days like a feverish nightmare.
As it happens, The Graveyard Book and The Member of the Wedding have both gotten me thinking about that crappy year that I mostly prefer to forget. “Nobody Owens’ School Days” in Gaiman’s book tells of the ill-conceived attempt to sneak eleven-year-old Nobody into school, to assimilate him into society in a gentle, subtle way. In a brilliant metaphor for the experience of many kids at this time, Nobody uses his ability to “Fade” to avoid drawing attention or even being remembered by his classmates and teachers. But Nobody can’t stand to see the school bullies shaking smaller kids down for lunch money; he ends up confronting the two bullies, first in a straightforward way, then using his ability to “Dreamwalk” into their dreams to warn them to stop if they don’t want him to keep giving them nightmares and terrifying them in other ways, as well.
It’s an interesting chapter. Gaiman walks a fine line here, in that the chapter is a bit of a revenge fantasy, but he does not wrap things up with a PSA about the bullies learning to change their ways and Nobody learning to get by at school, or with a straightforward well-deserved humiliation of the bullies in front of their classmates. Instead, Nobody really goes too far, overcompensating for the bullying (which is really pretty minor stuff) by giving the bullies truly terrifying nightmares and scaring the bejesus out of them when they’re alone and vulnerable. He underestimates what terrified people will do, and gets himself in trouble with the law, leading to Silas having to get run over by a police car to bail him out. Then he scares one of the bullies even worse, a rather cruel act that will surely haunt her for a long, long time. (This is what surprised me: it’s really quite out of line for Nobody to suggest to a twelve-year-old girl that he’s going to haunt her forever, when her bullying will probably pass in a couple of years. And it’s somewhat daring, even dangerous, for Gaiman to suggest that bullies deserve this sort of payback, in a book geared towards kids of precisely this age. But then, it’s absolutely true to what an eleven year old with that sort of power might do.) And then he simply leaves. He quits school. All of this is much more true to the experience of life at this time than typical representations of pre-teens, literary or otherwise. You have no sense of scale — everything in your life seems huge — and you have weird new attributes and you want to punish, love, and be elsewhere all at once.
It’s still not as true to my twelve-year-old experience as the first part of The Member of the Wedding, though. This is the best rendering of a (or at least, my) twelve-year-old’s consciousness I’ve come across. It has a perfect first paragraph — an unusually long first paragraph, which establishes both the themes and McCullers’ unique rhythm and language beautifully. Here are the famous first four sentences:
It happened that green and crazy summer when Frankie was twelve years old. This was the summer when for a long time she had not been a member. She belonged to no club and was a member of nothing in the world. Frankie had become an unjoined person who hung around in doorways, and she was afraid.
Frankie’s in the throes of early adolescence, and she has that twelve-year-old longing to have it over with already: not “to be left somehow unfinished,” as she sees everything around her, but completed, in the wholeness of childhood or full maturity, not to be the “Freak” she feels herself. But more than anything else that I’ve read, what McCullers captures perfectly is the twelve year old’s desire for a new family, the tendency for outsized attachment to those just on the other side of the transformation you’re just beginning. With Frankie, it’s her brother and fiancee, about to be married. She conceives a plan to leave with them after the wedding, and live with them in the exotic-sounding Winter Hill, a town that sounds as far away as possible from the Southern August she’s living through. These crackpot schemes, these crazy devotions to people you’ve just met or haven’t seen for years: it’s twelve-year-old syndrome all over, and it’s not likely to end well.