Jun 7, 2012

Ray Bradbury, R.I.G. (Rest In Gusto)

I'm sure Ray Bradbury would want me writing this in a summer field soaked with restless stormy electricity, with pencil nub and dime-store pad of paper balanced on my virginal knees, in the gurgling, bewitching twilight. While I've got the small-town part covered, I am in fact writing from a laptop hissing and whirring on my not-quite-virginal lap, with ambient electronica being funneled through my brain from those same evil seashell earbuds that make Mildred an ignorant zombie slave in Fahrenheit 451. Bradbury's world, full of fantasies spun not only about space exploration and supernatural carnivals but also the wholesome milk-fed purity of America, is long gone. Not from the consciousness of readers or devotees of escapism, but from the material and undeniable world of today. He only just recently died, but has really been consigned to the past for a long time.

Let me make this clear, however: I in no way want to disparage Ray Bradbury, or undermine his value. I was so electrified by his writing that, at age 14 when I first picked up The Golden Apples of the Sun in a bookshop and read its opening paragraph, I seized five more of his paperbacks and carried them resolutely up to the register. I think he is priceless, his energy is commendable and beautifully irrepressible, he writes with abandon and passion but also finesse. He is also completely accessible -- an excellent thing, paving the way for future popular fantasists like Stephen King and Neil Gaiman. But I was affected by his death, as were a lot of people, and started thinking about what his identity was... who he is, who he saw himself as, who America remembers him to be. Because he does seem utterly inseparable from the identity of America; no other author has written about its cultural history and traditions written about with such warm, frank sentimentality. He is also a great example of American individuality and persistence, the idea of the self-made man; he never went to college, instead locked himself in a library for a few years and emerged a writer. As magically as a butterfly from a chrysalis. Not really, but isn't it appropriately poetic to think so?

I tried to post this quote of his as a commemoratory Facebook status, but it is too large to fit in the allotted space. I'll stamp it onto this blog instead, so it can at least exist in some corner of the Internet, however obscure:

"Thomas Wolfe ate the world and vomited lava. Dickens dined at a different table every hour of his life. Moliere, tasting society, turned to pick up his scalpel, as did Pope and Shaw. Everywhere you look in the literary cosmos, the great ones are busy loving and hating. Have you given up this primary business as obsolete in your own writing? What fun you are missing, then. The fun of anger and disillusion, the fun of loving and being loved, of moving and being moved by this masked ball which dances us from cradle to churchyard. Life is short, misery sure, mortality certain. But on the way, in your work, why not carry those two inflated pig-bladders labeled Zest and Gusto?" (from Zen in the Art of Writing).

As I said, Bradbury is irrepressible. His sentences gallop and froth and are set suspended, glistening on the page, in the same defiantly sublime attitude as the sight of a baseball arcing hugely and silently over grass and upturned heads, or the sea-green swirl of a galaxy seen deep in space. As you can probably tell by that inadvisably overwrought previous sentence, I completely sympathize with this tendency to over-describe. It's the desire to craft the Perfect Sentence by piling on more and more layers of poetic imagery which so many other writers and editors try to strip away like the indulgent fat that it is. But for me, the most entertaining writers, the writers with the most heart, have always been the description-a-holics: Edgar Allan Poe, Oscar Wilde, Martin Amis. Bradbury's writing is particularly exploratory, messy, unafraid, striving to create pure magic.

He has a particular vision of the purity of America, American youth and particularly summertime. I've seen  certain themes and images stretch across almost everything he's written... the enchantment of summer evenings, the crispness of fall, the eerie charm of a small town, the magic atmosphere of carnivals and fairs, running-jumping-climbing trees, baseball and libraries, wandering through graveyards and wondering about life... it is an America where boys still toddle down dusty sidewalks smacking on popsicle sticks and run a mile back to the house the minute they see a shiny red bicycle in a shop window that they have to have. You can hear the sadness radiating off the page as you read Bradbury's descriptions of this slow, sepia-toned life... it is the atmosphere that his imagination fermented in, what he grew up with, and he knows that it is disappearing. I remember reading some very funny cranky-old-man comments he made a few years ago about the Internet. He was protesting adamantly, "But it's not real! It doesn't exist! Where is the Internet? Where?" Not an exact quote, but he said something to that effect and degree of force.

The stories of Ray Bradbury (who is, by the way, the most skilled craftsman of the short story who I have ever read) seemed destined to become folklore from the beginning. Their wonder, their magic, their idealism and innocence but also their dark delight, resonate with every open mind. They are atmospherically perfect, like any ghost story told with relish around a campfire on a sharp, smoky autumn night. But that earthy, intimate, enchanted, mysterious, quiet, catching-fireflies-in-a-jar type of world is as sadly dead as the man who immortalized it in his writing. And he did it with relish, joy, bombast, and pure gung-ho gusto.

As the back cover of my tattered-but-still-intact copy of The Golden Apples of the Sun proclaims, in the brassy voice of a carnie trying to draw passers-by into his tent of wonders, "Strange, haunting, bizarre, grotesque, rooted in reality, soaring with imagination, alive with people who never were and creations that one day will be... creatures and stories to set you shivering, gasping with terror, gaping with wonder..."


  1. I have a huge volume of Bradbury short stories on my shelf, given to me by my father (apparently when he was a child, he wrote a letter to Bradbury, his literary hero, and received a reply!) I feel guilty admitting it, but I have yet to really delve into them. Would you recommend any place in particular to start? It sounds like it's about time I encountered him...

  2. All of his short stories are seriously wonderful... I think you'd really like him. A few of my favorites are "The Sound of Thunder" and "The Fog-Horn". The Illustrated Man is a really nice, cohesive book of stories to start with. But really, I've never read a bad one.