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1984: Selected Letters
Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments
Snake 'N' Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret
The Integrity Stipend
A few months ago a journalist told me how he'd recently interviewed a graphic artist---the same sad old story, a brilliant young woman and promising RISD grad, forced to toil in the commercial cesspool to make ends meet.
"The thing is," she admitted, "I always thought I'd be getting an integrity stipend."
The integrity stipend! It's been ages since I'd even thought of it; probably not since buying Paul Westerburg's last album. So few artists bother with it these days. They either check in directly with their career counselors, and proceed directly to day jobs; or else they check out, permanently (see recent NIMH statistics for rates of suicide and clinical depression among creative individuals).
Still, if ever there were an artist who deserved the stipend (and a generous one) for a body of brilliant, masterful work, it would be M. John Harrison. Since the appearance of his first story in New Worlds thirty-odd years ago, Harrison has defied categorization, even as he's invited comparison with the likes of J. G. Ballard and Mervyn Peake. Harrison is perhaps best-known for the Viriconium sequence---The Pastel City, A Storm of Wings, In Viriconium and the story collection Viriconium Nights---fuliginously dark, mordant and exceptionally haunting novels which are among the masterpieces of twentieth-century fantasy (and which have been reissued as such, in the UK's Fantasy Masterworks series).
What is most remarkable about Harrison is not that he is now, belatedly, being recognized as one of the great writers of our time, but that he just keeps getting better. His last two novels, The Course of the Heart and Signs of Life, were among the best books of the 1990s. With the exception of James Salter, I can think of no other writer who has consistently produced such stellar, unapologetically grown-up work.
Salter, author of A Sport and a Pastime and the heartbreaking Light Years, is commonly regarded as being the writer's writer's writer; he may not be the first person who springs to mind when discussing British genre authors. Yet, in addition to the clarity of their prose---both favor a deceptively supple, stripped-down style that makes prime use of overheard dialog, as well as of rapturous descriptions of the natural world---Harrison and Salter are, above all else, majorly Guy Writers, writing about Important Guy Things. In Salter's case, these include fighter pilots and sexual infidelity; in Harrison's, rock climbers and sexual despair. Both publish far too infrequently to satisfy their readers; which makes the appearance of Harrison's new story collection, Travel Arrangements, a matter of not inconsiderable, if muted, joy, since the book is not available in the U.S.
Travel Arrangements gathers fourteen stories, dating from 1983 to 1999. Most originally appeared in theme anthologies, and most were published in the UK (two of the exceptions had their first appearance in this magazine). This is salient, because Harrison is not just an extremely English writer, but a ferociously quirky one, and not necessarily for the reasons that often doom ferociously quirky writers.
Harrison's work has always relied on a powerful grounding in the mundane. Even the Viriconium sequence, set in one of the most dazzling, lapidary, and baroque Dying Earths ever envisioned, has about it the pungent reek of everyday life---doomed scholars of arcana worrying about their teeth, alien invasions triggering not just panic but a palpable sense of ennui and thwarted plans for commerce. Existential high fantasy is a tricky thing to pull off, but existential, in-your-face urban fantasy---which is what most of the stories in Travel Arrangements are---is even trickier.
On the face of it, this wouldn't seem to be the case: but the rigorous calculation of most---almost all---contemporary urban fantasy leaves little room for genuinely mindbending work. The willing suspension of disbelief upon which our literary ghetto is built includes an ironclad infrastructure of reliable, pre-cut devices: teenage runaways bumping into punk elves, disaffected faerie musicians running into punk kids, that sort of thing, with a pop gloss of cultural references du jour---tattoos, piercings, Napster, whatever---standing in for genuine strangeness, or that sense of profoundly dislocating exile which informs the greatest literary fantasy, from Lord Dunsany to John Crowley. If one removes all the bells and whistles of contemporary genre fiction---the thrills, the suspense, the ghosts in the machines, the machines themselves, from computers to fembots to gene splicers and dicers in the grocery aisles---one is left with very little to entertain or enlighten readers with a taste for transcendence, or even just something resembling Real Life in the 21st century, where the Future butts up against the Everyday, every day.
Harrison has been writing about the way we live right now for some time. His territory, while amply seeded with computer simulations, ghosts, and genetically engineered individuals, is mostly populated by the walking wounded; Beautiful Losers, in Leonard Cohen's term, but beauty is the operative word here. In the best gothic tradition, Harrison is a poet of the ruins. His ruins include old women lunching in department store restaurants, couples capsized on the shoals of failed marriages; parents haunted by the loss of children, children by the loss of childhood: a daisy chain of regret and mourning.
Yet, improbably and despite its overtones of Dispirutus Mundi (this is where the brilliance kicks in), Harrison's writing is neither grim nor depressing: it shines and cuts, black and sharp as an obsidian blade. At its very best, it can give a reader the sort of high usually associated with illegal drugs or the more extreme forms of religious experience. Harrison's late work is concerned above all with the search for ecstasy and meaning, usually through sexual or romantic union. Not surprisingly, in Art as in Life, his characters seldom achieve the transcendence they seek; what is remarkable is that the reader can. Harrison might be describing his own work when he writes
Implicit here is the knowledge that transcendence is not the same as understanding. Harrison's work can be inexplicably strange and disturbing, as in the bizarre contact with the supernatural divined (I think) in "Gifco" or the Ballardesque, noir manipulations of "The Neon Heart Murders." At its best, Harrison's depiction of the supranormal is grounded by his uncanny, and often hilarious, knack for evoking the serenely mundane---
The stories in Travel Arrangements dart in and out of the grand terra incognita of Harrison's earlier work. "Anima" reads like a compressed file of Signs of Life. "Seven Guesses of the Heart," this collection's only overt piece of fantasy, seems like a benign green offshoot of Viriconium's world-tree. The finest stories are the most recent, "Black Houses" and "Science & the Arts." Neither could easily be described as genre work. "Science & the Arts" was published in the London Times Literary Supplement; it is a relief to see that, in the UK, at least, he is receiving the recognition he deserves. M. John Harrison is one of the last (or first) late-modern visionaries---
In those days he made you feel that some revelation was imminent, something that had little to do with our social conscience, or even our society, something about being human that it was intolerable for us, in this century, not to know.
Samuel R. Delany is another writer who knows something about being human at the turn of the millennium. The correspondence gathered in 1984: Selected Letters, form an aviso from the frontlines of the twentieth century directed to us where we sit, exhausted, on the vanguard of the twenty-first. In his introduction to the collection, Ken James points out that these 351 pages comprise only fifty-seven letters, creamed from one year in this prolific, protean writer's life. Suffice it to say that Delany crams more insight, wit, and provocation into fifty-seven letters than most of us fit into a lifetime.
Delany's fierce intelligence is on ample display here, as is his good humor and disarming (or alarming, depending on your sexual, political, medical or religious views) penchant for describing raw sex. Like de Sade and Bataille, Delany breathes and speaks sex: it's a language for him, and readers familiar only with his classic, early science fiction novels (Nova, Triton, Babel-17) may be discomfited by some of the correspondence here, clearly written by the author of The Mad Man and Hogg, novels that pushed (hell, broke) the envelope for literary pornography. Delany's city in 1984 is New York B. G. (Before Giuliani)---grittier, smarter, more dangerous and more enthralling than the millennial metropolis.
There's enough great stuff here to fuel years of debate and discussion, on everything from literature to postmodern academic theory to AIDS to good old-fashioned sci fi. One letter, to Camilla Decarnin, contains more astute and genuinely useful advice to writers, new or world-weary, than any ten writers' workshops or How-To books on (ugh) craft. In another, to Robert S. Bravard, Delany laments
Robert Scholes was presenting a paper "Le Guin and Derrida;" I actually felt a tiny thrill of jealousy: "Why," I wondered, "isn't that paper about Derrida and me?" I walked on consoling myself: "Well, I'm probably mentioned in it somewhere."
Not to worry. In his novels, criticism, and now his letters, Samuel R. Delany left an indelible mark upon the last century, and there's little doubt he'll continue to do the same in the present one.
Michael Dirda, writer and senior editor of the Washington Post Book World, would be another candidate for the Integrity Stipend, but in 1993 he received the Pulitzer Prize for Distinguished Criticism, and that's probably just as good. Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments, collects almost fifty of Dirda's bi-weekly "Readings" columns from Book World. It's hard to think of another Pulitzer Prize winner whose work could be described as unabashedly boyish in its enthusiasm; but then, it's hard to think of another Pulitzer Prize winner who can quote freely from people as diverse as P. G. Wodehouse, Howard Waldrop, Ross Thomas, Vladimir Nabokov, Olaf Stapledon, Raymond Chandler, Flann O'Brien, Guy Davenport, Lord Dunsany, and Edward Gorey.
Dirda's writing is equal parts melancholy and tres amusant; he gives equal time to exhilarating boyhood reminiscences of discovering dirty books, and to the joys of Peter Brook's breakthrough staging of "A Midsummer Night's Dream." He can be as funny as Dave Barry (though Dave Barry with a good thesaurus and personal knowledge of Marcus Aurelius). And he can break your heart, as in the beautiful, poignant, "Listening to My Father," Dirda's tribute to his steelworker father.
"I never saw my dad read a book in his life," Dirda writes, then goes on to describe how this difficult man "introduced me to the beauty and evocative power of words," through storytelling and by making certain there were always books in the house Dirda shared with his mother and sisters.
Elsewhere in Readings, one can find the hilarious "Weekend with Wodehouse;" trenchant "Commencement Advice;" and a listing of the 100 Best Comic Novels, from Leave It To Psmith to Ulysses. All this and more, from someone who has championed John Crowley, Gene Wolfe, and J. K Rowling (before she was famous); a literary critic unafraid to evoke Bertolt Brecht and The X-Files in the same breath.
Fittingly, the last essay in here is called "Millennial Readings;" it showcases both Dirda's melancholy insight and his unquenchable optimism, as well as his unabashed love for that frayed magic carpet, The Book. Readings is pure gold, the ideal holiday lagniappe for any lover of literature of the past, present, or future.
Coda: Last year, the Washington Post unforgivably stopped making Book World available by subscription, but Dirda's essays and reviews (and the rest of Book World) can still be found every week on the Post's Web site, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/style/books/.
And Now for Something Completely Different---
Living in the boonies as I do, I somehow entered Extremely Early Middle Age without ever having heard of Mark Kupperman, artiste and creative genius behind Snake 'N' Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret. I can only surmise that people living everywhere else on earth have been reading his comics in alternative newsweeklies for decades now: yet another reason for me to feel inferior and ashamed next time I visit Manhattan.
Still, better late than never. Snake 'N' Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret is the funniest thing I have experienced since first being exposed to Monty Python, back in the last Ice Age, or first seeing the Three Stooges in the middle Cenozoic. Anyone who can come up with panel titles like
***Bob Dylan in "HOUSE FULLA MURDER"***
***THE NARCOTICS MURDERS: THEY'RE LOVELY! Whoops—not lovely, Horrible***
deserves a Pulitzer Prize, or a Nobel. Something, anyway. Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman has long occupied its space, alone, on my Funniest Book Ever Written shelf; but now I've had to make room for this one. Snake 'N' Bacon's Cartoon Cabaret is the other funniest book ever written. And it has pictures.
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