Thursday, July 03, 2014

A Month of Short Stories and Their Authors continues
July 3rd: Ray Bradbury

now reading: still lots of books
in the home stretch of Traitor to His Class: The Privileged Life and Radical Presidency of Franklin Delano Roosevelt by H.W. Brands, though

After Atwood and Kafka, a little Bradbury? That seems about right. And once again, I will say that unless I read some short story at some point in some lit class that has gone completely out of mind, the first time I read Ray Bradbury was his mega-famous work, Fahrenheit 451.

Today's Story: "The Last Night of the World"
Author: Ray Bradbury
My Rating: B -

Ahhh, sorry Ray. Is B-minus a little harsh? This story just didn't really do it for me. But it's not bad -- maybe I should elevate it to a B. Maybe if Ray comes to office hours to whine about his grade like law students do, I will change it.

So, "The Last Night of the World" is a tiny little thought experiment about arguably the biggest thought you could have, and he develops it into a conversation, a glimpse of a setting, two characters' words, a quiet meditation. What's not to like, right? Well, for one thing, how do they know tonight's the night? Why did he have the dream four days ago but she (and all the other women on the block, apparently) have it last night, and yet we know it's tonight the world will end? Why isn't it, say, four nights from now? And don't even get me started on the fact that all the men at the office had the dream first, then the ladies in the neighborhood later, in those neatly divided 1951 social groups. I know I shouldn't fault Mr. Bradbury for that horrible gender division of labor of his time, but does he have to divide his end-of-the-world revelation along the exact same lines?

On the plus side, the story is so short I don't see why you'd even need to read it at lunch, or on a break. You could probably just read it at your desk while you're waiting for something to download.

Yes, I like the lesson of the story: that in contemplating the utterly normal actions of people facing the end of the world, you realize that you are going to face the end of your world one day by dying, and you should live your best life in each moment which means the quiet moments watching your daughters play with blocks ARE the pinnacle of living, etc. I see echoes of this in the sneaks-up-on-you make-something-of-your-life theme in Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go. At any given moment, you should be doing something you want to be remembered for, and you shouldn't put off doing the Things You Want to Be Remembered For.

Let me say about Bradbury in general that he is nothing if not an inspiration to not put things off. Like I mentioned, I first read him when I read Fahrenheit 451, and of course I liked it; it's meant for people like me, I think. (We like books and raise our eyebrows at society.) I wouldn't say, though, that it sucks you in or envelops you in a War and Peace or Lonesome Dove-y way. Bradbury has a style that I can best describe as methodical. His writing isn't, in my opinion, particularly pulse-pounding or whimsical or propelling; it just goes along with the story, with bigger themes quietly asserting themselves. And in this he is amazingly talented, and dedicated. I mention the latter because I read his book Zen in the Art of Writing and found it quite inspiring; his writing habits are pretty much perfect. He is the master of "Instructions for Writing: Apply ass to seat. Write." In Zen in the Art of Writing, he offers lots of tips and inspirational turns of phrase, but he also tells how he basically just sat down every Monday to start a new story, then revised it on Thursday, sent it out on Friday or whatever, every week, for decades. I mean - hello. We procrastinating writers suck. Ray Bradbury most assuredly did not suck.

However! I also think that that kind of persistence, while it could have been AWESOME for launching your writing career, especially in the early 20th century, and getting your work out there in a billion periodicals, pulp magazines, and the like, can lead to some less-than-meaty stories. Isn't that just a fact? If you write a story every week, you'll have your best story of the year and your 52nd best story of that year.

So, maybe the prolific Bradbury is bound to have some of his lasting, famous stories not resonate as much with some of us as other (of his) lasting, famous stories do. I loved reading what he had to say in Zen in the Art of Writing, but most of his fiction that I've read is less thrilling. (So far -- I'm holding out hope and am nowhere close to wanting to write him off or anything.) It's just like (and oh my god, I know I'm opening this can of worms again, oh boy, here they come slithering out) with most science fiction or, as I like to think of it, sigh-fi, in that I like the ideas and the what-if?s and the symbolism and the social commentary so much more than I tend to like the actual process of reading the fiction material I'm given to read about those things. Which, you might say, brings us back to Atwood and Kafka, both of whom have definitely been categorized as Literary rather than as Science Fiction, although both have grappled with a bizarre what-if? scenario or two. Why the difference? Atwood herself has talked about how "science fiction" shouldn't be a negative label, but then again, you don't see her rushing out to bookstores to insist they move her books into that genre. In the end, Ray Bradbury for me might be sort of like a few other authors with whom I find myself so, so simpatico -- but it's more about them and their take on the world and their have-a-beer-with-me talk than their actual work: Michael Cunningham. Jack Kerouac. Jodi Picoult.

What's the best Ray Bradbury story you've ever read?

1 comment:

Gene B. said...

[Also posted on Facebook.]
Bradbury is an addiction. He's never as sharp as Mathison, but I remember him longer. The first of his books I read was The Golden Apples of the Sun, and I was hooked. There are several stories written over his early years, beginning I think with "The Emissary," about a family of, well, undead I suppose comes closest to it, including Cecy and Uncle Einar, that each deliver a quiet wallop.

Bradbury himself didn't call most of what he wrote science fiction. He preferred fantasy, in the sense that Fantasy and Science Fiction (F&SF) Magazine used the word, not as heroic fiction or magical realms like Middle Earth but as those odd what-if's you mentioned for Kafka and Atwood. Some of the early stories are little more than mood or emotion pieces or even prose poems.

Favorite stories? Several from Dark Carnival, the best of which RB harvested into The October Country. Titles that come to mind are The October Game (oddly enough not in The October Country), Zero Hour, the aforementioned The Emissary, April Witch, The Dwarf, Skeleton. For me his best novel is Something Wicked This Way Comes. I think the latter half of his oeuvre is not as strong as the early stuff, but he never lost his ability to dream up new ideas. The more I read of his stories the more I wanted to read.