Sixty Stories by Donald Barthelme

sixtystoriesI’m not sure what the hell POSTMODERNISM actually means, but I do know that some of my favorite authors or novels are classified as such. David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, Don Delillo. I’ve occasionally heard another name bandied about, less well-known but highly influential. That would be Donald Barthelme.

I want to say that Barthelme’s relation to those other guys is quite shallow, and he does feel entirely unique, but in places it hews very closely to what will become Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. He also deals with themes of alienation and changing cultural epochs like some of those other guys do, but it always feels secondary to what he’s truly after: some silly literary alchemy based on clever use of language, humor, and an understanding of how dialogue ought to work. It results in a very specific feel. Barthelme seems far more interested in what language can do, what one word placed next to another can make, rather than communicating any theme or point. 

There’s a mention somewhere on the exterior of the book that Barthelme once wrote a popular children’s novel. This is hardly a surprise when half the stories read like some kind of warped, adult Dr. Seuss novel (with a similar amount of words). If the Seuss comparison isn’t convincing or compelling, take instead one of the best stories in the whole collection, The Emerald, wherein a witch is seduced by the moon and seven years later gives birth to a talking emerald, much sought after by various ne’erdowells including one evil wizard seeking to extend his life. Tell me that’s not a Roald Dahl pitch.

In addition to The Emerald, I’d include my other favorites as City Life, where two women move to a city as roommates and engage in all sorts of social hyjinx/satire while involving themselves in virgin births and magical bards. And A Manual for Sons, which, among other things, is a bizarre list of various kinds of fathers. Take for instance, the ‘leaping father’:

The leaping father is not encountered often, but exists. Two leaping fathers together in a room can cause accidents. The best idea is to chain heavy-duty truck tires to them, one in front, one in back, so that their leaps become pathetic small hops.

If the collection has a weakness, it’s that some of the stories are repetitive. Barthelme has an iconic style and it’s pretty sweet, but it’s all he does. It’s not quite the same story, but a few variants of 3 or 4 types: nonsense conversation between two people, written account of confidante of famous person (say, Robert Kennedy or Montezuma or the phantom of the opera),  or quirky explanation of something (fatherhood, songwriting)  reproduced over and over.

He even re-uses character names so it feels vaguely like an improv troupe switching clothes and plotlines but performing basically the same show. It’s worse when the topics for these are really obvious/banal (There’s two stories based on ‘The Conservatory’ that just repeat the same tale about fabricated elite class clubs). But once you start to feel a little bored or fed up, you end up bumping into a brilliant story two pages later.

Good stuff.

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Girl with Curious Hair by David Foster Wallace

girlwithcurioushairThis is… *sniff*… the final published work by David Foster Wallace that I had not yet read.*

Published in 1989, many years before Infinite Jest, Consider the Lobster, or Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, this collection features a younger DFW writing about younger people in a voice he hasn’t totally solidified or claimed yet. As a result, it’s more diverse, less experimental with some of the clearest and only examples of stories he wrote that were pure narrative fiction, free of literary affectation (mostly) or authorial asides. A complete absence of footnotes, even.

A list, not comprehensive:

John Billy

Should be a movie. I can see it. Plan the camera angles. Especially the buzzards. Plenty of buzzards in this one.

John Billy starts off with the first person narrator, John Billy, telling a story to an addled tornado-watcher in an Oklahoma bar about the larger-than-life characters of town. At first I thought DFW wrote this simply to make fun of southern stereotypes. But this attitude quickly fell away, so completely engrossed as I was in the small-town politics slash olympian feats of the herculean Chuck Nunn Jr., the blackly villainous T. Rex Minogue, and the cast surrounding them. The southern backdrop is there as a stage for American myth, not just humor.

It’s a weird story to come from DFW. All about myth, our worship of the land and its composite dust. See the cosmos through the plotted field. Not his usual topics of interest. Some might complain when the ending dives into metaphysical silliness and doesn’t entirely wrap up, when what is real and what is not are tossed into a blender, but I found it a perfectly apt conclusion to what the story set up.

 

Girl with Curious Hair

This story is hilarious. It gets across the point of American Psycho (and precedes it) in a fraction of the words. A wealthy member of the Young Republicans Group hangs out / is fellated by his nihilistic punk rock buddies, and he’s just so happy. Black humor at its finest.

 

Lyndon

Lyndon. Like LBJ, 36th president of the United States. One of the many unlikely subjects found in these stories. We see Lyndon through the eyes of his fictional mail boy, and later close confidante, David Boyd.

This is a story about love. And duty. LBJ is a workaholic obsessed with doing the right thing by the country, while also being a kind irritable blowhard assured that he’s the only one that’s ever right. The love part is the relationship between Boyd and the president. Not sexual or romantic love, as LBJ is straight and loves his wife and Boyd is gay and maybe doesn’t love his partners, but tries. There’s a bond between them. Based on a shared sense of duty, work? LBJ as a slide in father-figure, the ultimate patriarchal/presidential role? 

Most striking of all is just how believable this all this. Following the story’s close, I immediately went to Google to check if David Boyd existed. He did not. Which is impressive. Also not the only fictional character in this collection with the same first name as the author…

 

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way

I started this story and instantly knew it would be the weakest one. It was borderline insufferable. DFW getting too cute.  Three disaffected and unlikeable graduate students embark on a plane and cab journey to reunite with several thousand people for the reunion of Every Single Person Who Has Appeared In a McDonalds Commercial, Ever. There’s lots of grandiose statements on what’s wrong with our generation, coupled with a whole bunch of other musings on what’s wrong with our writing programs and contemporary american literature in general. It’s smug and sort of clever; the oppressive flavor of clever that makes you want to vacate the room.

I flipped forward a few pages to see if it ended soon, a common practice of mine. I noted the title still on the top right of the page and frowned, but returned to my place. A dozen pages later I did the same thing. It didn’t seem to end. I rapidly flipped through fingerfulls of pages looking for the end, only to realize with a sinking feeling that it was the entire rest of the book. It’s like 200 pages, nearly a novel in its own right. Half the collection! I thought this book was an instant favorite and now I had to come to terms with the gross, abominable growth attached to its backside.

A funny thing happened about halfway through, though. My boredom and distaste with the story began to metastasize into something else entirely. When I realized the commute of the three students, plus Ronald McDonald and his dad/creator, was never going to end. That they would swirl in banal misfortune and their own solipsistic misery forever, I found myself somehow soothed. It still wasn’t very good, but its misery and repetition became comfortable

 

*Exception being that book he wrote about math. Skipping that one. I think.

Chekhov: seven short novels

chekhovI had never read any Chekhov. This was grave misstep, a gap in my western canon. I’ve read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky but was missing the Russian who has a smoking literary gun named after him. He’s supposed to be the master of the short story. He’s so ubiquitous, this book doesn’t even have a title or an author but just says CHEKHOV on the front. How do I even index this? Chekhov by Chekhov?

Anyway. I’ve read Chekhov now. I probably should have read his better known short stories, but I started with novellas. And let me tell you, I now know just how miserable it is to be a 19th century Russian peasant. I can feel the cockroaches crawling in my sleep, taste the stale black bread and porridge.

 

The Duel

The Duel is my favorite novella in this collection. It’s the first story and unlike all the others, it’s not about the class divide of declining Tsarist Russia nor the impact of the Industrial Revolution on village life.

A bunch of Russian immigrants — the deacon, the zoologist, the government official and his wife, and other archetypes — live their lazy lives in a hazy desert outpost in the Caucasus. It’s so hot outside, you can’t do much more than swim in the warm sea or sit in the shade. Laevsky, the official, came out here to start a new life with his married lover, but has had enough. The plot revolves around him trying to borrow enough money to skip town, while lying to himself and everyone else that he’ll pay for his woman to come along later.

Much of the story is these characters having conversations while completely misunderstanding each other. The blurb on this book declares Chekhov’s interest in mutual unintelligibility. This is an excellent term that encapsulates the human problem of The Duel. None of the characters are bad people, though some are quite weak, they’re just locked into their own narrow vision of the world and cannot see themselves in anyone else’s shoes. Sound familiar? This story feels it. You could meet these people in your modern day to day.

 

Ward No. 6, A Woman’s Kingdom, Three Years

I’m lumping these three together because they’re similar in theme and also the least interesting to me. Ward No. 6 is about a doctor at a mental asylum, A Woman’s Kingdom is about an unhappy woman who inherits a booming factory business. They’re both about the divide between the people on the inside (wealth, class, etc) and the people on the outside (the poor, the workers, the mentally ill) and the various philosophies and personalities involved. I found them sort of interesting but mostly tedious.

Three Years, while still somewhat tedious, earns its tedium. Because it’s a story about tedium. A man marries a woman who does not love him. They move to Moscow. Both of them are miserable. There’s not much to look forward to when even romantic love has failed. They try to convince themselves love doesn’t matter but little else stimulates them. Yeah. Even the version I know was objectively good I found difficult to actually like. 

 

My Life

This one is great. A twenty something good-for-nothing from a formerly aristocratic family decides to become a working man and is promptly disowned by his father. As the title says, this is the first person story of his life. It’s meandering and melancholy. Life can be unfulfilling and unhappy no matter how hard you try to attach principles and meaning to it. But unlike the other stories, there are moments of joy, however fleeting. It’s almost like Chekhov arguing with himself here. The pointless tedium of life that he fears and portrays in other stories is present here but is shown as possible to combat. Maybe. 

 

Peasants and The Ravine

Peasants is an excellent depiction of living life poor in a village in the late 19th century. It was terrible. You cannot read this story without feeling honestly glad you live in the modern day and have at least some means that these poor sods didn’t.  It also has the best quotes:

The lamp went out. And the darkness, the two little windows, sharply lit by the moon, the silence, and the creak of the cradle for some reason called to mind only that life had already slipped by, that you can’t turn it back . . . You doze, lose consciousness, then suddenly someone touches your shoulder, breathes on your cheek– and there’s no sleep. Your body seems numbed as if circulation had stopped, and all the thoughts of death creep into your head; you turn on the other side– death already forgotten, but through your head drift the old, tiresome, tedious thoughts about want, about food, about flour becoming dearer, and shortly thereafter, you remember again that life has already slipped by, that you can’t turn it back…

The Ravine is more of the same but not as effective as Peasants, though it does include the most shocking and horrifying scene in the whole collection.

The Corpse Exhibition: And Other Stories of Iraq by Hassan Blasim

corpseexhibitonThis book is grotesque to point of being difficult to read. It’s disturbing. The tone fits the theme it explores — unending war, which visited Iraq on and off for the past thirtyish years.

The title story is literally the title. A man is talking to You, explaining his organization, how it murders people and artfully displays their corpses. He’s a stickler for creative sobriquets and matching artwork. Butchering a man and throwing his severed body parts in the street just doesn’t cut it. Get creative. This is art.The prose doesn’t shy from tight description of the kills and presentation. It’s black humor on top of black horror. It imagines a world so upset by war, that a corpse exhibition is completely reasonable. This is only the beginning.

What follows is a murder, rape, absence of hope, with occasional humor. It reminds me of Roberto Bolano’s horrific depiction of crime in Juarez in 2666. But unlike Bolano’s goal of desensitizing us to violence, Blasim is continuously shocking, each new abuse like a stab to the gut. The characters behave otherwise. When one protagonist decries his job of cleaning up oil spills, he lists the things he has to clean up from explosions and leaves ‘body parts’ for the end, almost as an afterthought. He’s used to it.

The violence is rarely blamed on invasions or dictators. It permeates the world the characters live in, is part of the air and dirt. No one questions it: it just is. It exists as a sort of mania that drives people to madness, convinces them they are feeling phantom pain.

Magic realism plays heavily in several of the stories. A man running for his life falls into a hole and finds himself unstuck in time, accompanied by a flesh eating jinn. In the closest things to a hopeful story, some unrelated people discover they share the ability to make knives disappear.  

A tough read.

Cathedral by Raymond Carver

cathedralThis book is called Cathedral: Stories but probably it ought to be called Alcoholism: Stories given the content it explores.

As I mentioned in my review of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Carver explores a white working class life familiar to my childhood that very few authors write about. At least not well. The practical but inimicable relationship to hated jobs, the centrality of an always-on television, a grim fatalism that can’t quite eliminate hope from the equation. But my family had this weird sort of asceticism: the dependency of the drinking class was basically absent. My grandfathers would drink a light beer in front of the TV and that was about it. My parents only started drinking, sparingly, in the last few years. Forget MJ or any hard drugs. So this collection doesn’t resonate as well, and despite being superb (Carver prose = magic), I think personal-familial musing aside, it’s just not as strong as the other collection.

Alcoholism in Cathedral is a demon. The demon. It unmans men, invokes violence and cruel madness, puts people in an early grave. Wives are willfully destroying marriages, husbands are hiding their 9am 2nd bottle of champagne behind the toilet, fathers are slapping their sons around. It’s effective, and the influence on Infinite Jest’s black comedy/horror scenes of AA meetings where people admit horrific-to-the-point-of-hilarious abuses due to the drink is crystal clear. But it does start to repeat a bit, in a less than compelling way. 

The first story is the best story; a man brings his wife to meet his work buddy, at the latter’s country ranch where he has a pet peacock and an ugly new baby. It shows us guileless, pure love, and then flips the switch to this helpless melancholy triggered by missing out on that same love, even when you tried pretty hard. It feels like maybe you only get once chance to get it right.

A shorter story from WWTAWWTAL appears here as well, except about four times the length. The first collection leaves us in a hospital with a dying child, this one kills him and shows us the aftermath, which involves repeated calls from a baker who made the dead boy’s birthday cake that no one picked up. Actually you know what? The stories about love are better than the ones about alcohol. My favorite boozing story — a couple, divorced due to the man’s alcoholism, gets together for one last magical summer — merely uses the drink as a backdrop. 

I’ve also heard this collection is supposed to be when Carver got happier and injected hope into his stories. While I guess this collection is slightly brighter, as it contains a whole two stories with hopeful endings (after a whole bunch of other bad stuff happens), it’s hilarious to call this collection happy or hopeful. It’s not happy! It’s grim! Grim with shades of survival.

 

Dubliners by James Joyce

dublinersThe Dublin I visited was a cacophonous jungle of tourism, seemingly as many visitors as locals. The Guinness factory was beer-disney world. A heat wave passed through, so it was humid and sticky. Trinity College, Grafton Street, St. Stevens Green were such a crush of people, it was hard to discern the landscape. Don’t get me wrong, I had fun (though not nearly as much fun as in the western portions of the country), but it was nearly a total flip of James Joyce’s Ireland.

Indeed, Dubliners is a sparse, wet, cold Dublin. Full of sad people in sad vocations in unfulfilling marriages. Alcoholism is like a plague, the pledge a desperate but typically hopeless cure. All of the characters share some great disappointment in their lives — family, passion, work, travel. Everyone is trying to get away and no one appears to be visiting. As a reader, you become suspicious when anyone appears happy because experience has taught you it must be a facade or hope will inevitably be dashed.

I liked it. Mostly. There’s a few duds but standouts like:

The Dead: The longest story and Joyce’s most well known. A joyous celebration followed by dismal ennui.

Araby: A teen boy tries to get his father to drive him to the bazaar to buy a gift for a girl; a perfect picture of adolescent disappointment.

A Mother: A dedicated & shrewd mother maneuvers her daughter into a stage performance; one of those stories that takes a potentially boring and low-stress situation and makes it tense and meaningful.

Yet, my vision of Joyce, not having read any before is influenced by Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake, notoriously difficult and esoteric reads. I was actually somewhat disappointed that Dubliners is so straightforward. Joyce uses short, clear sentences that describe the characters and action in precise fashion. The subtext is generally very clear — low hanging metaphorical fruit ala The Great Gatsby.

There’s an ‘Irish’ question that persists today. English influence versus Irish tradition, maintaining the old ways and the old language and discarding anglo-imitation slash adoration. Characters have conflicts like how swell and sophisticated they feel traveling to Paris or London vs. the disdain they receive for never visiting parts of their own country or being able to speak the language. It’s a continuing topic in Irish discourse and there’s been success on the traditional front — more people can speak Irish Gaelic than they could 10-15 years ago.

Dubliners influence on modern writers is clear. Thomas Pynchon is obvious, and the protagonists of A Painful Case or Counterparts could easily be some of the men in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. Yet unlike either of those writers, Joyce feels almost entirely free from irony or humorous cynicism; Dubliners is more like an earnest depiction of a very Irish problem. One that I didn’t see on the streets of Dublin but absolutely absorbed through the media (radio especially), temperament, black humor, and people from other parts of the country.

Three Moments of an Explosion: Stories by China Mieville

threemomenetsexplosionWant to read about sinister icebergs appearing afloat in the skies of London? It’s here. Long ago sunk ships forging legs and shambling out of the ocean? Got that too. Socialist dust particles out to radicalize your world? Read all about it. People obsessed with wearing hollowed out, decaying animal heads? Yep.

China Mieville has mastered the weird, the bizarre, the monstrous joke. A story about a terror lurking in the depths of a remote lake is not going to turn out to be another Lovecraft pastiche, but instead finds its influence in an obscure byzantine torture ritual involving a sack, a dog, a cockerel, and an ape. Even when the premise is extra wacky — therapist-assassins out to assure their client’s happiness at all costs — the tone of the story remains deadly serious and only only occasionally falls into ha-ha it was all a joke!

Most of the short story collections I have read in recent years are short, a few interesting pieces that may have been published elsewhere. You finish in a day or two. It feels kind of cheap. Three Moments of an Explosion is hefty by comparison and I appreciate it. You can really sink into the depths of this man’s imagination. There’s recurrent themes and motifs. There’s a running gag with prose movie trailers appearing at a few different places in the book — speedy, crawling zombies that hunt regular zombies, people manufactured with metal poles protruding from their backs, and so on. It faintly reminded me of the eponymous interviews in David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men. There’s a craft to the arrangement of stories!

If the collection has a weakness, it’s that a few of the longer stories start to get samey. They generally start with a character who has pre-existing knowledge of the weird happening that will be central to the story; we slowly gain context and can make sense of the earlier bits; The baffling horror takes shape; then the story wraps up without really giving a complete answer to the mystery. There is exceedingly low amounts of resolution in this collection, and this works better in some stories than others — you don’t always need a conclusion but sometimes the story feels unsatisfying without one. There’s a story about aliens discovered in a volcanic island that builds and then just… ends.

China Mieville is a singular voice in sci-fi/fantasy/horror. I think this is about seventy percent due to his imagination, which is both fresh and inviting. You don’t know what to expect, but you know it will be strange. The remaining thirty percent is craft — he’s a smart writer with a handle on prose that most genre writers either don’t have or don’t try to achieve. The language & tone are ambitious. The blockiness of language present in his early novels is greatly diminished. There’s occasional times where I had to reread a paragraph because it wasn’t quite clear what happened, but this is minor in comparison to the devilishly affected imagery sprinkled throughout each story, or the slowly emerging black humor. The man also has a prodigious vocabulary. I learned some oddly specific words. Take peristalsising on:

the involuntary constriction and relaxation of the muscles of the intestine or another canal, creating wavelike movements that push the contents of the canal forward.

Yum.

 

Thanks to Netgalley and Random House for hooking me up early.

 

Occultation and other stories by Laird Barron

occultSome horror stories are character driven — the interpersonal drama is as important and interesting as the creepshow. Others rely heavily on mechanics of the horrorstuff — the characters are just vehicles to drive us from one slavering monster to the next abandoned mountain cabin. The stories of Occultation try to do both, but they are at their best when they are embracing the latter.

While there are occasional echoes of Stephen King (the title story), Barron is primarily a disciple of H.P. Lovecraft. Weird, unknowable horror. Unfathomable, ancient entities breaking our protagonists minds. Terrible, ominous wilderness. It works, sometimes; there is occasional piercing, stomach dropping visuals, like a woman opening her closet and seeing saggy skin corpses hanging amongst her clothes. Or the creepy whispering one protagonist hears, late at night, floating up from the vents in his apartment:

Intestines. Kidneys.
Ohh, either is delectable.
And sweetbreads. As long as they’re from a young one.
Ganglia for me. Or brain. Scoop it our quivering.
Enough! Let’s start tonight. We’ll take one from—

Other times it’s a little too campy. Anyone not named Lovecraft using the word ‘cyclopean’ in a horror short comes off as a bit of a poser. And sometimes the darkness comes off as a murky adjective soup that is barely comprehensible, let alone scary:

(group of hikers finds a mysterious cave with a pool of water in the center, described in the quote below)

The trough was a divining pool and the water a lens magnifying the slothful splay of the farthest cosmos where its gases and storms of dust lay like a veil upon the Outer Dark. A thumbnail-sized alabaster planetoid blazed beneath the ruptured skein of leaves and algae, a membranous cloud rising.The cloud seethed and darkened, became black as a thunderhead. It keened–chains dragging against iron, a theremin dialed to eleven, a hypersonic shriek that somehow originated and emanated from inside my brain rather than an external source. Whispers drifted from the abyss, unsynchronized, unintelligible, yet conveying malevolent and obscene lust that radiated across the vast wastes of deep space. The cloud peeled, bloomed, and a hundred-thousand-miles-long tendril uncoiled, a proboscis telescoping from the central mass, and the whispers amplified in a burst of static.


This is only an excerpt; it goes on. Slothful splay indeed.

These stories occasionally have way too much backstory or don’t know when to end. A great example is my favorite story of the collection, Strappado, about a group of people going to investigate some edgy, modern performance art. It unfolds rapidly, chills, and leaves a disturbing impression in its wake. The people involved absolutely don’t matter. So the 3-4 page leadup introducing the main character and his relationship with his on and off boyfriend is a totally cutt-able bore. It probably could have ended a page or two earlier too — an image of a man trying to slice his wrists with a cut-up credit card, failing, and calling the cleaners was all it needed.

These stories were written individually and arranged in a collection later — this causes an issue that would never have occurred if I was reading them as one-offs. Namely, they start to feel a bit samey. The characters fall into a few (wealthy) types. Everyone smokes*. The wilderness of Washington state is thoroughly plumbed. I found myself saying, satanists, occultists, again? And after the Nth time it happened, I wanted to alert Laird Barron that not all stories need to end with the protag succumbing to madness or ripping off the zipper on his human suit. Sometimes watching our mangled hero scrabble to escape is the far scarier experience, whether he/she makes it or not.

The sum is lesser than its parts, though. I feel this review is too negative for the generally positive outlook I have of this book. 7 of 9 of these stories are solid, good reads.


*This book feels really old. I have a beat up used copy with a cheesy 90s cover. Everyone smokes cigarettes or has dusty old cars. Satanism is an earnest, not laughable, fear. So I always felt sort of confused when the book mentioned recent events like the recession or prop 8. The book was published in 2010 and this edition in 2014!

What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver

what-we-talk-about20091Raymond Carver is magic. Enchantment. His prose is sorcery. A handful of common words somehow reveal the depths of working class anxiety. It goes beyond minimalism or technique, beyond literary dissection.

I grew up in a working class neighborhood and the setting these stories evoke is familiar. Milkweed and cattails, an obsession with catching bass. Why bass?? I didn’t understand fishing then and I do not now. Old, wind-reddened men with inexplicable nicknames reminiscent of Disney characters like Dimmy or Smiley. Rusted cars on cinderblocks. My parents were married and I was born while they were teenagers, a predicament identical to most of Carver’s characters.

What I didn’t see as a pre-teen, before moving out to a more middle class neighborhood, was anything unordinary about the physical grind, the hopeless-hopeful conflict, and the booze and drug excess were only just becoming clear. Nor, of course, the love, drooping and hardy like weeds pinned between pavement, that is incredibly clear in retrospect and the subject of What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The doomed romance of alcoholism and dashed hopes. And, just as unique and strange as the magic of Carver’s writing itself, is that despite love being probably the most common topic in all art — literature, film, songs, you name it — the sentiment here, the impetus behind the most memorable quote that I’ve appended to the end of this review, somehow feels unique, barely touched, new.

The best short story collections build on each other; they are not isolated occurrences. It’s hard to even isolate this collection as individual stories and not just facets of the same chiseled granite. It’s like people having the same conversations over and over, circling the same filthy drain.

There was a time when I thought I loved my first wife more than life itself. But now I hate her guts. I do. How do you explain that? What happened to that love? What happened to it, is what I’d like to know. I wish someone could tell me.

The Last Defender of Camelot by Roger Zelazny

Last_defender_of_camelotJust look at that cover.

Written in the 60s and 70s, wreathed in a halo of cigarette smoke, amidst the fallout of an assured nuclear war, this collection of stories embodies an era. An era where a man could make a living writing dozens of short stories a year — filling plentiful sci-fi/fantasy magazines to the point where he needed pen names to allow multiple stories in the same issue.

Roger Zelazny’s stories follow a peculiar cosmology. Humanity is almost always extinct, or else we’re on our way to being so. Typically there are now robots or some kind of AI machines trying to emulate, understand, or ritualize the acts of the long dead humans. Even so far as racing stock cars or turning into vampire bots. Take away the radioactivity and craters, and everything else about the post apocalyptic wasteland he evisions matches up with modern sci-fi writers post-climate change future. No nuclear warheads necessary like they were in the 60s.

Many of the stories are very short, though there are three longer novellas in the middle. The first and longest one, He Who Shapes, is unfortunately a super weak sci-fi noir tale. It’s the only story where the casual misogyny of the time and genre was really distasteful (to me). The second novella, the tale of former ex-con biker literally named ‘Hell’ as he tries to drive a rocket-launcher armed, spinning blade equipped armored car across a post apocalyptic US from the nation of California to the country of Boston, is so completely silly and ridiculous it somehow turns out compelling. The last, For a Breath I Tarry, a story of sentient machines trying to recover the memory of man in a frozen over future earth is by far the best. Unlike most modern writers, Zelazny can write a story that is quite clearly allegory or metaphor in a straightforward manner that embraces its own internal story consistency without feeling the need to wink or gesture at the reader ro point out how clever and/or deep he is being.

Zelzany’s prose is better than most genre writers, and indeed he has a little intro at the start of the book where he says an integral piece of him becoming a good writer was to stop insulting the reader’s intelligence. The sparse prose that often references classical verse becomes jarring and kind of hilarious/fun when a very silly sci fi trope suddenly bounds on to the page. It’s fascinating how the original sci-fi grandmasters all cite their inspiration as the literary greats — when I see modern genre writers list their influences, it’s typically just past genre writers.