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Masks
Ray Bradbury
Gauntlet Press, 245 pages

Masks
Ray Bradbury
Ray Bradbury is one of the greatest SF and fantasy writers of our time. Born in Waukegan, Illinois, in 1920, he authored such classics of the genre as The Martian Chronicles (1950) and Farenheit 451 (1953) by his early 30s, and continues to produce important work today.
In 1990, while at a summit meeting in New York, Mikhail Gorbachov made a special trip to visit Bradbury, his "favourite author," whose works he claimed to have read in the original versions. Bradbury is American fantasy's great ambassador.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Summer Morning, Summer Night
SF Site Review: Moby Dick: A Screenplay
SF Site Review: Fahrenheit 451
SF Site Review: Dinosaur Tales
SF Site Review: From the Dust Returned
SF Site Review: Dandelion Wine
SF Site Review: Green Shadows, White Whale
SF Site Review: Ahmed and the Oblivion Machines
SF Site Review: Driving Blind
SF Site Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes
SF Site Review: The Illustrated Man

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Mario Guslandi

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Sometimes a writer keeps a project in his drawer, an idea upon which he worked a little but then he forgot about it for a while and finally, after several attempts and faux pas, dumped altogether. The forgotten material often disappears in the attic or in a storeroom and that's it. But sometimes -- especially if the writer has become famous -- it's taken back in the open, unearthed by either relatives or fans or scholars. Such material, an unfinished novel, does exist for a living legend like Ray Bradbury and, not surprisingly, is finally becoming available to the public.

And who else but Barry Hoffman's Gauntlet Press could have undertaken the task of putting that material in print?

Fascinated by carved masks (of which he had assembled a remarkable collection) and intrigued by the concept of masks as a symbol of the way people conceal their true nature and their deepest feelings when facing, day in day out, the cruelty of the world they are living in, Bradbury conceived and tried to write a novel in the period between 1945 and 1950. In order to complete that novel, tentatively entitled The Masks, Bradbury also applied (unsuccessfully) for a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1949. In the author's words, the outline of the work was going to reveal how "people shape their personalities not to their hearts' desire, but to the expectancies of their friends and the demands of business and society."

The leading character wears masks all the time "to prove that each person is in reality many persons, assuming identities which are the most convenient and profitable in life."

Of the project, we have left a draft of about thirty pages, plus a number of notes and sketches trying to develop the central idea under different angles. Although clearly unrefined, the gross material has its charm, proving that "we are onions, all of us. Peel off a layer and find another. Peel off a layer and find still another."

The hero experiments and investigates other people's reactions to the masks he's wearing. For instance he manages to estrange a woman in love with him simply by substituting his mask with different ones. Another woman, who adores him because she finds in him variety, loses interest when he starts wearing the same mask all the time. In another fragment, a psychologically disturbed young girl, secretly in love with her own father, is attracted by the stranger wearing a mask with her parent's features. The masked man gets in trouble with the police for disturbing the peace by wearing his masks in public, is arrested, brought to trial and ultimately declared insane.

Graced by insightful comments by editor Donn Albright, the Gauntlet volume assembles all the available material surrounding the genesis of the aborted literary project. The unfinished novel, a treat for every reader fond of Bradbury's fiction, with its social and philosophical nature and its pessimistic view of human relationship, defies classification in terms of literary genre and somehow anticipates in a blunt allegory themes more subtly developed in his more mature work.

The reader put off by the uncharacteristically unpolished narrative style of this material must bear in mind that while writing it, Bradbury was more concerned by the need to properly develop the plot than by the desire to elegantly craft a text bound to be revised and edited at a later time.

As an extra bonus, the publisher has also included in the present volume a bunch of old, unpublished short stories which, to a certain extent, are in keeping with the theme of people wearing some kind of mask and fit nicely in the book. "The Face of Nathalie" is a harsh, cruel tale of cheated love, hate and revenge with an unexpected ending while "The Drothldo" offers an offbeat, effective metaphor of racism. There is a cute yarn about a man surrounded by too many woman ("They Never Got Mad"), a sweet fairy tale à la Charlie Chaplin featuring a disillusioned magician and a frail, scared girl ("Gallagher the Great"), a rather obscure piece featuring a peculiar sleepwalker and his affectionate wife ("The Walker in the Night"). Especially worth mentioning is "In the Eye of the Beholder," an excellent, allegoric story where a man, secretly nursing a sense of guilt for his past petty sins, is bothered by the puzzling behavior of the man staying in the adjacent hotel room.

All in all, Masks is a highly recommended book apt to delight any fiction lover.

Copyright © 2008 by Mario Guslandi

Mario Guslandi lives in Milan, Italy, and is a long-time fan of dark fiction. His book reviews have appeared on a number of genre websites such as The Alien Online, Infinity Plus, Necropsy, The Agony Column and Horrorwold.


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