Thursday, November 13, 2014

Ray Bradbury's Long After Midnight (part one)

I'm halfway through this collection:


It's a better than usual collection of short stories, helped by the fact that there are a number of Mars and Green Town stories that read as outtakes from Martian Chronicles or Dandelion Wine. A few of these are from the 1950s, but most appear to have been written for Playboy in the 1970s and show more of his "adult" side.

Some thoughts. Spoilers ahead.

The Blue Bottle

This first piece is a beautifully written Mars episode. There is a legendary bottle that confers upon its discoverer their heart's desire. The interesting twist is that the people crazy enough to hunt after this relic are neurotics who want "an end to doubt, to torture, to monotony, to want, to loneliness, to fear, an end to everything." An ordinary guy, just along for the ride, picks up the bottle and discovers bourbon. The 1950s rat-racers, destroying crystalline Martian skyscrapers with their coarse yells, find the final peace they've subconsciously wanted all along.

One Timeless Spring

This is a "prequel" to Dandelion Wine. Douglas Spaulding is the first of the boys to realize that they are soon to lose interest in games and past times. As it was in the novel, the Waukegan ravine from Bradbury's childhood is the focus point for change, as Doug ends up kissing a girl in the wild area that once provided him with imagined adventures.

(photo by Pam D. on Yelp)

The Parrot Who Met Papa

Here we have a tribute to Ernest Hemingway, who I could care less about, but appears to be a hero of Bradbury's. The main interest for me here was the amazing take on Truman Capote and his entourage. A Cuban parrot whom Hemingway had been whispering secrets to for years has been kidnapped by "Shelley Capon," with an intended auction to the highest bidder. The dialogue between Bradbury's and Capote's avatars are marvelous, with the author being non-judgmental, yet showing the ridiculousness of Truman's hipster scene.

The Burning Man

A slight scare tale involving Doug Spalding and his Aunt picking up a hitch-hiker in her famous car on the way to Lake Michigan in the middle of a drought. Interesting mention of the Waukegan asbestos factory that in modern times is best known for destroying the lake shore with pollution, but skippable.

A Piece Of Wood

One of the few sci-fi pieces that justify the cover blurb. A man has come up with the means to turn all weapons into rust in his presence. This is an obvious threat to the military-industrial complex, leading to an ambiguous ending involving reversion to the wooden club. A bit heavy-handed, even for Bradbury.

The Messiah

A fascinating counter-point to "The Martian" from The Martian Chronicles. The thought-sensitive shape-changing native who is running from the mob in that story ends up in a cathedral and picks up the stray thoughts from the local priest. This priest had been entertaining some of his fellow religious leaders, expressing the wish to meet the Messiah when he ever returns. As tough as it was for the characters in the previous story to let go of their dead, the need of this humble man to be in the presence of Martian-turned-to-Jesus is heartbreaking in Bradbury's prose.

G.B.S. - Mark V

An odd space-faring tale about a man who talks to a robotic version of George Bernard Shaw. This consternates his ship-mates who would prefer he spend his time with the sex-bots in the rec room. A not quite successful comment on manly peer pressure, but fun for its faux Shaw dialogue.

The Utterly Perfect Murder

Another Green Town story. Doug Spalding, as an old man, decides to go back home and kill his childhood bully. This is a problematic story about how, as children, we really love our tormentors. For the attention, I guess? Didn't work for me at all. I don't care how starved someone is for friendship, no one really harbors secret love for their bully.

Punishment Without Crime

A very rich man rents a robot version of the woman who turned him down. He "kills" her, which turns out to be a crime equated with actual murder. No real deep philosophy here; more of a meditation on guilt.

Getting Through Sunday Somehow

Every now and then, we'll get one of these Ireland stories. Here, Bradbury is inspired by a fellow pub-drinker on a dreary Sunday to go out and thank the people who give him a little pleasure in life. He then encounters a street harp player, and almost ruins her playing by making her self-conscious of the effect she may have on those around her. It sound trite in description, but this has some of the better poetic passages so far, and doesn't have an easy solution for needing a non-religious way of thanksgiving.

Drink Entire: Against The Madness Of Crowds

My favorite piece so far. On a burning New York day (oh those pre-air conditioner days...) a failing middle-aged businessman is randomly riding the trains and wandering the city when he comes across a storefront sign for MELLISSA TOAD, WITCH. A chance at changing his life is offered, presenting the possibility of contentment and success, but also presenting the threat of change and domesticity. The central symbol of this story is the woman who sleeps in a block of ice, used here as in Something Wicked This Way Comes as an expression of closely-harbored male desire.
"There she slept the nights away, a Princess of Snow. Midnights, he and other boys snuck out to see her smile in her cold crystal sleep. They stood half the summer nights staring, four or five fiery-furnace boys of some fourteen years, hoping their red-hot gaze might melt the ice..."
This is the Bradbury that affected many of us as young readers, an author who knows the dark fear that separates the young boys from their futures. He's an author who gets accused of dabbling too much in nostalgia, but a closer look at the bright summer days of his youthful fiction reveals adult fears and neurosis lurking within the deep ravines.

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