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Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction
Jonathan R. Eller and William F. Touponce
Kent State University Press, 448 pages

Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction
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: 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 David Soyka

I once assigned Ray Bradbury's famed short story, "There Will Come Soft Rains," to an introductory college English class because it happened to appear in the anthology assigned to the course and I thought it would be cool to talk about something written by my childhood idol (who had been conspicuously absent from my own undergrad reading lists).

Now, this was a group of non-English majors forced to fulfill their humanities requirement, which may have been why the assignment didn't go over too well. Another was that my students hadn't come of age in a culture fixated on the possibility of global nuclear holocaust. So, I wound up explaining a lot more about the story than I had originally intended, to the point where I felt the need to say, "I don't want to ruin the story for you guys by overanalyzing it. Just try to get into the imagery and the flow of what happens."

Well, as it happened, they didn't. But I still sometimes think stories can get ruined if they're overanalyzed, particularly when it's in an English class.

Which brings me to Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction by Jonathan R. Eller and William F. Touponce, both English professors at Indiana University. While the title implies a biography, this is rather an exhaustive -- both in terms of detail as well as reader endurance -- scholarly examination of the Bradbury opus that seems to have collected every possible minutia that even die-hard fans might find themselves not caring too much about. In other words, this is a work intended for an academic audience, the type of people who actually read footnotes (of which there are 36 pages) and care to know about such things as the line edits between an author's first drafts and subsequent revisions. Unlike, say, Jerry West's Bradbury: An Illustrated Life, a Journey to Far Metaphor, which is more of a straightforward overview of a career that you don't even have to read to appreciate -- it's worth having just for all the pictures of movie posters, magazine art, book jackets and other pulp illustrations related to Bradburiana.

There are no pictures in Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction, though there are manuscript facsimiles, detailed graphs and charts. Nor are there any juicy bits, if indeed there are any, about Bradbury's personal life. As the authors explain, the title of their book:

…is intended to be read in a double sense… it is Bradbury's firm belief as a writer that life without fictions is unbearable. We believe that his writings have much to tell us about the need for the fantastic in culture, and this is to a large extent an investigation into the ways in which such writings affirm the life of the author. But there is an equally important sense in which we mean "the life of fiction" to be taken -- the complicated and fascinating life of Bradbury's texts themselves, much of it previously hidden from view. Therefore, we have not written a conventional "life in fiction" work about Bradbury, seeking to relate his works to his private life, but instead have undertaken the more difficult, and, we think, significant task of discovering the ways in which textual criticism and textual thematics can combine to illuminate the major writings of one of America's popular authors.
p. xix
The authors accomplish this by first constructing an overarching "theory of Bradbury" and then applying that theory to the texts, both public and unpublished, along with a chronology of how those texts were developed and ultimately came into being. In essence, the authors see "carnivalization" as the underpinning structure of Bradbury's imagination. Of course, carnivals frequently appear in Bradbury stories, most famously in Something Wicked This Way Comes, but Eller and Touponce mean much more than carnival setting as spooky scenery. Rather, it is a metaphoric critique of modern values and unconscious desires.

Even casual readers of Bradbury know Ray is none too pleased about a lot of technology (I believe he doesn't own a computer), even while embracing others (e.g., spaceflight, but for less prosaic purposes than NASA, which probably does not include uncovering God as part of its mission statement). But the authors are, after all academicians, and, thus, it gets a little more complicated, as in such expositions as:

We hold that a literary work does signify on all of its many levels, from the sentence to the larger narrative and its system of motifs. Theme in this study indicates the meeting place of the semantic levels of a literary work with formal structuring qualities such as prose, rhythm, style and narrative. It is the semantic dimensions of a work (what is being said in a piece) dispersed by and through its formal elements, including those involving intertextual relationships with other works (that is, allusion, citation and others).
p. 5
These guys are professional scholars, and this kind of prose is understandable to other scholars. But it could mean some occasional rough sledding for the fan who would never have connected Nietzsche or Mikhail Bakhtin to cool stories about spacemen discovering the aliens are us and Midwestern magical encounters between 12-year-old boys and adult corruption.

Which is not to say the book isn't worthwhile for someone not well versed in literary theory. For example, those who've read Farewell Summer (published subsequent to The Life of Fiction), might find interest in "The Carnival Blaze of Summer" chapter, which discusses why Bradbury eventually abandoned the story that some fifty years later would become his "latest" novel. Bradbury instead assembled Dandelion Wine, the "fix-up novel" of short stories set in Green Town, Ray's fictionalized and idealized version of his Waukegan, Illinois Depression-era hometown featuring the semi-fabulist adventures of youthful alter-ego, Douglas Spaulding.

One thing that might be surprising to most fans is the painstaking effort that went into these fix-up collections and how Bradbury, whose favored oeuvre is the short form, struggled to produce something novel-length, even when restructuring already published work. I always had the notion that Ray kind of banged these things out (if only because some his work, the later stuff in particular, comes across as first draft kind of stuff). However, Eller and Touponce document that Bradbury put considerable meticulous effort into restructuring his stories to fit into a thematically cohesive longer works. These were not cut and past jobs, but carefully crafted artistry.

Bradbury has always been held at arms length by the academic establishment, Clifton Fadiman's famous introduction to The Martian Chronicles notwithstanding (and, by the way, one of the many interesting tidbits here is that the book was titled The Silver Locusts in the British edition, which I think rather more fitting). In part, this is because Bradbury can appear deceptively simple (a claim the authors take pains to dismiss) and that his metaphors are sometimes sloppy (just one example: "…a bundle of old newspapers that would stir like a pack of mice and wish you the time of evening if you walked by." Huh?). Indeed, Eller and Touponce acknowledge that Bradbury is frequently viewed as a mere entertainer and that their efforts to treat him seriously justify their "detours through the mirror maze of contemporary literary theory." Bradbury is not an unwelcome subject for literary studies, as this book's extensive bibliography illustrates, but Eller and Touponce make a comprehensive critical case for Bradbury as a major writer of the late 20th century.

Copyright © 2007 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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