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Green Shadows, White Whale
Ray Bradbury
Avon EOS Books, 240 pages

Green Shadows, White Whale
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: Ahmed and the Oblivion Machines
SF Site Review: Driving Blind
SF Site Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes
SF Site Review: The Illustrated Man
The Illustrated Man Excerpt
The Ray Bradbury Theatre

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

First, let's get this out of the way: I'm a long-time fan of Ray Bradbury. He was the first "real" science fiction author I ever read, (although I'd argue he is more a fabulist than an SF writer, even though that is how he is usually pegged), and he's been tremendously influential in shaping my personal reading tastes and writing aspirations. A lot of people -- and I'm assuming that might include you, since you're reading this review -- probably share similar sentiments.

That said, I'm afraid I have to report that I found Green Shadows, White Whale (recently published in trade paperback with a really cool cover as part of Avon's commendable re-release of Bradbury's oeuvre) to be a disappointment. This is partly due to my own unfulfilled expectations of what I thought the book was about, namely a fictionalized memoir of Bradbury's experience writing the 1956 screenplay of Moby Dick for famed director John Huston. Talk about two larger than life characters! Alas, though John and Moby do make their appearances, they are largely relegated to bit roles; ultimately, the problem with Green Shadows, White Whale is that the Green far too often overshadows the White.

This book is neither memoir, nor novel. While it features an unnamed writer -- though obviously Bradbury's alter-ego -- dispatched to Ireland to work with a director referred to only as "John," it is actually a series of vaguely connected short stories that primarily concern the slightly surreal adventures of the "boyos" who hang out in Finn's pub. With one exception, a slightly tiresome tale towards the end, virtually every chapter reads as a stand-alone story. Which is not surprising, since many did originally appear as such in slightly different form. "Banshee," for example, previously appeared in Bradbury's 1988 collection, The Tonybee Convector, and the most recent Driving Blind has a story that features the same "boyo" characters, though written after the 1992 publication of Green Shadows, White Whale. So if some of this strikes you as familiar, it's because it is.

And while the amalgamation of short stories sharing a theme worked marvelously well in The Martian Chronicles -- not to mention establishing Bradbury as a writer of serious literature, as opposed to merely pulp SF -- and even, to a lesser extent, The Illustrated Man, it's just not cohesive here. Sure, there's some enchanting stuff -- a house that literally throws out its bacchanal owner; beggars who have perfected a few tricks of the trade that help us see the world from the outside in as they do; the outwitting of Lord Kilgotten's desire to literally take his wine collection with him into the grave; and a scorned woman who even in death seeks the return of her love, with potentially drastic consequences for the man who spurned her.

But many other tales fall flat, or worse, just plain aren't interesting. Too much relies on the stereotypical notion of the hard drinking, but nevertheless good-hearted, working class Irish. How much of a story is it, really, that a heretofore calm and affable taxi driver who never pushes 35 mph becomes a maniac behind the wheel because he decides to give up drinking for Lent? Or that the resolution to the story is to give the driver a bottle and plead that he give up something else?

Speaking of stereotypes, I don't know whether to commend Bradbury for standing up to the forces of Political Correctness when he plops down an assemblage of gay men in Dublin, or to wince at the simple wordplay of "fairy" that underpins a tale that is as wispy as its characters. Then there's the occasional instance of what almost seems as if the author is satirizing his own famous distinctively Bradburian prose, e.g., "...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?

What really bothered me, though, is how the book hints at a theme it fails to get a grip on: the frustratingly debilitating effort of producing lasting creative work. Moby Dick is widely referred to as "The Great American Novel," and whether it is anymore, and whether it is widely read that much anymore except as a requirement for English majors, it aptly symbolizes the quest to produce a definitive artistic expression that will echo throughout time. Early on, I thought Bradbury was actively pursuing his own White Whale with a scene about the director's arrangement of a marriage ceremony in which the wedding guests conduct a fox hunt. The fox isn't caught, and the groom is unsaddled and disappears. (As another example of the book's patchwork quality, these characters never appear again.) With my English major hat on, I thought the hunt was supposed to parallel Ahab's search for the White Whale (i.e., God and, for this analogy, artistic perfection), which proves as equally elusive as the pathetic fox and the missing groom.

Unfortunately, the rest of the book's metaphors fail to live up even to this perhaps strained comparison. The only thing that comes remotely close is towards the end when the writer is figuratively, and perhaps literally, possessed by the spirit of Melville himself (though why he should be roaming Irish, rather than New England, shores is a question). Under Herman's guidance, the screenplay is finally completed, and thus the writer achieves a creative milestone of equal renown.

Well, hardly.

Almost as annoying is how Bradbury's ego shows through this thin fabric of storytelling. Not that it should be surprising that artists of Bradbury's stature shouldn't have big egos. And not that I don't agree with the author's implication that he should be included in the great line of American authors -- I myself have taught Bradbury at the college level, and if the academic discipline of American literature exists 100 years from now, I'd expect Bradbury to be in the canon. But the ways in which the writer equates himself with Shakespeare (a former flame refers to him as "Will" and "Shakespeare the Second") and Melville (in being possessed by Herman), strike me as fatuous. These guys are in a class of profundity all by themselves. As good as Ray can be, he doesn't belong in the same breath -- which is not a criticism, because so very few are. The director frequently refers to the writer as "H.G.," a comparison I find more apt, but, again, what's the point of this self-serving stuff?

So, if you're already a fan, you'll probably want to check out Green Shadows, White Whale at some point, if only to complete your collection. But if you haven't yet already delved into the Bradburian cosmos (and what's wrong with you that you haven't?), this is definitely not where you want to start the voyage.

Speaking of the White Whale: One of the things that makes Bradbury such a great choice for young adult readers is that the many references and reverence to classic authors might draw these new readers to them. "Hey, if Ray is into Shakespeare and Poe and Frank Baum, maybe I should check these guys out." I think probably the first time I became aware of Moby Dick -- a book I suspect most people know by reputation, but haven't read -- was through Bradbury. Knowing that he wrote the screenplay is why I watched the film version starring Gregory Peck and Richard Basehart, though it's been so long ago that the details are dim. I didn't see the recent remake with Star Trek's Patrick Stewart, but the SF connection to both versions is quite interesting. Indeed, Melville wrote one clearly science fictional story, "The Bell Tower," about the created turning against its creator, a theme not too far off from the epistemology of the Great White Whale. You can find this story collected in H. Bruce Franklin's Future Perfect, an anthology of 19th century SF.

Anyway, Moby Dick is actually quite suited to the SF audience, at least that part which is excited by delving into strange new worlds, which 19th century whaling certainly is. Some people are put off by the lengthily detailed, and what many consider boring, descriptions of how whales are hunted and butchered, but these are actually the essence of the tale. Pondering how these magnificent giant beasts are literally rendered into pieces of blubber and oil is a tremendous commentary on the larger meanings of the universe and humanity's pitiful role in it.

So, though it may be rough reading at times -- we are talking about some archaic language here -- if you haven't gone after the Whale yourself, do so. If only to figure out first hand where guys like Bradbury get their inspiration.

Copyright © 1999 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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