Thursday, August 29, 2013

Dick's Broken-Backed Novels

I've read nothing like a majority of Philip K. Dick's novels, but I have read quite a few. Most recently I read We Can Build You, about which more below; it's among the prizes I bore away from the Cool Book Sale I described a few weeks ago. (The dear old ladies are selling those books by the box now. It's criminal, I tell you!) I started reading Dick in college after seeing Blade Runner for the first time. Naturally I began with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, but since then have read a pretty good selection of his work from different phases of his career.

Probably my least favorite Dick novels are the ones with his trademarked what-the-hell-is-going-on-oh-that's-what's-going-on plotline. These include Ubik and Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said. Even these have their moments, though, like the subtle dig against the protagonist at the end of the latter.

It's quite interesting, really, if you think about it. (In fact, I'm having a little epiphany right now as I'm writing.) In a nutshell, international celebrity Jason Taverner wakes up to find himself utterly unknown and without papers of identification. It's as though he'd never existed. After various adventures he throws himself on the mercy of Mary Anne Dominic, a potter. She's so introverted and unworldly that you get the impression she wouldn't have known who Taverner was even when he was famous.

This is where it gets interesting. Taverner thinks her pottery is nice in an offhand sort of way, but through carelessness breaks one of her beloved pieces. Afterward (or maybe it's before, I can't remember) they go to a café, where they hear one of Taverner's records on the jukebox. People begin to recognize him, and everything is back to normal. Eventually everything is cleared up in typical Dickian fashion, i.e., through drug use. But the epilogue is where the dig is; for we find that Taverner has lived out the rest of his rather frivolous life like any A-list celebrity, in pointless dissipation, while Mary Anne's simple yet beautiful work continues to quietly inspire. Do you see? Taverner returned to reality only after making contact with Mary Anne, whom he plainly saw as a nobody and whose work he took for granted; then it's Mary Anne who's revealed to have lived the true life.

And that's what makes Dick great, in my opinion: his humaneness. It's always people that he cares about, not things; beauty, and not power. This sets him apart from a great many science fiction writers. His most unsympathetic characters are handled with a profound compassion. This is attributable, I suppose, to the suffering and existential bewilderment Dick himself underwent throughout his own life.

Schizophrenia runs in my family. My uncle, who's severely paranoid schizophrenic, lived with my grandparents up until their death; he was (on the surface) a silent, morose man with an enormous brown beard who spoke only in monosyllables, but sometimes he'd lock himself in his bedroom and guffaw and chat about crazy things with the voices in his head. I remember listening to him late at night. He's in an institution now, and isn't the first in the family to have been institutionalized. There are various other quirks and hang-ups that crop up here and there. I myself have of course been diagnosed with an autism disorder, and have at times lived on the verge of homelessness.

So, it's something I have a bit of experience with. Dick's novels are often gripped with a terrifying paranoia that stemmed in part from his LSD use but more, I suspect, from his disorder, for which drug abuse was probably only a desperate remedy, as it was for my uncle. But, miraculously, he was able to turn it to good effect, and the people in his stories are real people, not figments or delusions.

Some of the novels in which he tried to handle themes of mental illness ended up not being wholly successful. Perhaps this is because a what-the-hell-is-going-on story has to have a stable backdrop of reality in order to arrive at a satisfying resolution. When the characters are deluded it's anyone's guess what the real story is. This would apply to V.A.L.I.S. and We Can Build You, both of which have a kind of broken-backed structure; but they're quite memorable, and a more "successful" attempt, The Clans of Alphane Moon, strikes me as rather trite.

V.A.L.I.S. is largely autobiographical; it amuses me that the Library of America copy I have on my shelf is entitled V.A.L.I.S. and Later Novels, as if the editors weren't entirely certain how to classify it. It's narrated in third person by the protagonist, Horselover Fat, which is of course a cryptogram for Philip Dick. The first half is a fairly realistic account of Dick's mental illness, drug use, and various theophanies; the second, a typically Dickian sci-fi story, is quite different in tone, and ends without a clear resolution. That's not doing the book justice, I know, but what I'm pointing out is the visible seam in the middle, where we go from schizophrenia to sci-fi. I'll discuss the work itself in a later post.

We Can Build You, a much earlier work, has this same seam, but it goes in the opposite direction, from sci-fi to schizophrenia. I read it, as I do most of Dick's books, in a single day, and the ending both disappointed me—because the main plot of the book had been abruptly and completely abandoned— and filled me with a very real, poignant sorrow. It is, from many points of view, a failed novel, but it's one that I think I'll go back to long before I re-read Ubik

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Claw of the Conciliator

This is a continuation of my previous post on Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. I was commenting on objections to the book, and had just suggested a parallel with the Grail cycle, with the Claw of the Conciliator as the "grail" that moves the plot along.

It's interesting, by the bye, that the Claw only performs "natural" miracles. It cures diseases, heals wounds, and raises the dead, but has little or no effect on the artificially enhanced beauty of Jolenta and the like. The miracle that most stands out to me is the changing of water into wine at the inn in Saltus. It is, of course, an echo of Christ's first miracle at Cana. In The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, Etienne Gilson, speaking of the attitude of the medievals toward such phenomena, has this to say:
In a way everything is a miracle. At the marriage of Cana Jesus made water into wine and everybody was astounded; but rain becomes wine in our vines every day, and we take it all as a matter of course. Nevertheless, it is God Who creates the rain and the vine and the wine; but He does it regularly, and we get so accustomed to it that we cease to wonder. Again, He speaks, and one rises from the dead and the whole countryside flock to see; but men are born every day in the usual manner and we enter the birth in the civil register as if it were the most natural thing in the world… Miraculous phenomena are not necessarily more admirable in themselves than the daily spectacle of nature; the government of the world, at once as a whole and in all its least details, is a much more wonderful thing than the feeding of the five thousand with five loaves.
He elsewhere notes:
The true Christian feeling for nature is that which finds expression throughout the Psalms, and, above all, in the Canticle of the Three Children in the fiery furnace: Benedicite opera Domini Domino; laudate et superexultate eum in saecula. And after many centuries St. Francis of Assisi will echo that song in his Laudes and the Canticle of Brother Sun, wherein not only water, earth, and air, and stars, but the very death of the body itself, will receive their meed of praise and benediction. If anywhere the heart of man entered into fraternal communion with all that lives and breathes and has being, most assuredly it did so there; for this purely Christian soul it was altogether one and the same thing to love the works of God and to love God.
This is the very spirit that runs through BOTNS from beginning to end.
What struck me on the beach and it struck me indeed, so that I staggered as at a blow—was that if the Eternal Principle had rested in that curved thorn I had carried about my neck for so many leagues, and if it now rested in the new thorn (perhaps the same thorn) I had only now put there, then it might rest in anything, and in fact probably did rest in everything, in every thorn on every bush, in every drop of water in the sea. The thorn was a sacred Claw because all thorns were sacred Claws; the sand in my boots was sacred because it came from a beach of sacred sand. The cenobites treasured up the relics of the sannyasins because the sannyasins had approached the Pancreator. But everything had approached and indeed touched the Pancreator, because everything had dropped from his hand. Everything was a relic. All the world was a relic. I drew off my boots, that had traveled with me so far, and threw them into the waves that I might not walk shod on holy ground. [The Citadel of the Autarch]
Here Severian echoes Moses before the burning bush—recognizing that every bush is a burning bush—and also Francis, the barefoot friar whose optimism was equaled only by his stern asceticism, as well as Augustine of Hippo, after whose Confessions his personal chronicle is perhaps modeled:
In loving you, what do I love? No physical beauty, no temporal glory, no radiance of light that commends itself to these eyes of mine; no sweet melody of songs tuned to every mode, no soft scent of flowers or of ointments or of perfumes, no manna, no honey, no limbs that can receive corporal embrace; yet I do love some kind of light, some kind of voice, some kind of fragrance, some kind of food, some kind of embrace, when I love my God, who is light, voice, fragrance, food, embrace to my inner man…

I questioned the physical world concerning my God, and it replied to me, "I am not he, but it is he that made me." I questioned the earth, and it said, "I am not he"; and all that was in it confessed likewise. I questioned the sea and the depths, and all living things that creep, and they replied, "We are not your God; look above us." I questioned the winds that blow, and the whole air and all its indwellers said, "Anaximenes is wrong; we are not God." I questioned the sky, the sun, the moon, the stars: "Nor are we the God whom you seek," said they. And I said to all these things that surround the doors of my flesh, "Tell me about my God, that which you are not; tell me something of him." They cried out with a great voice, "It was he that made us." My questioning was the concentration of my mind, and their response was their beauty. [Augustine's Confessions, Book X, trans. Philip Burton]
After reading a number of bad reviews, I begin to wonder if the issue isn't partly a matter of prejudice. I'm reminded of C. N. Manlove's study (Modern Fantasy), which finds The Lord of the Rings and Perelandra to be unsuccessful, while books like Phantastes and Titus Groan are held up as successful. Never mind that the former are perennial favorites available in any bookstore, whereas the latter are hardly read anymore. The cause, he's forced to conclude (after some fairly tortuous criticism), is religion:
[O]nly unprejudiced realists can write fully imaginative fantasy; only those who know one world thoroughly can make another with the inner consistency of reality.
And only those who eschew dogma are unprejudiced realists who know the world, because dogma is prejudiced and unreal and ignorant. I'm not going to throw myself into that fray because I don't like writing about religion per se on this blog, but I will suggest that this attitude seems more likely to be an a priori opinion than a reasoned conclusion. The notion that Tolkien's fantasy is not "fully imaginative" when compared to Peake's is laughable. But to those who prefer the joy and the hope, the grief and the anguish of Middle Earth to the dreary pointlessness of Gormenghast Castle and the zero-dimensional caricatures that inhabit it, Manlove has this to say:
It is almost worth…the failings of The Lord of the Rings to have that one frail, beautiful vision of the vanished garden in Lothlórien. But the word is 'almost': one must leave to the cultists the readiness to dispense with [what makes a successful novel].
Indeed. You know, I find books like The Left Hand of Darkness and A Voyage to Arcturus and VALIS and The Worm Ouroboros and Mythago Wood and Hart's Hope every bit as enjoyable as (say) The Lord of the Rings or The Book of the New Sun. A writer reveals herself in her writing, whether she wants to or not; if she holds a belief, religious or otherwise, then that gets woven in there with the rest. But the end is not the communication of an idea or an opinion. The end of the novel (unless it is a failure, as Perelandra to some extent is) is a kind of beauty, and this beauty is the beauty of truth only secondarily. It can be entered into by anyone, but you have to submit to its rules and make yourself vulnerable for the moment. I admit that this is not always easy. But it has this tendency: it makes you more humane.

As far as Wolfe goes, it's clear that it really is his confessional status that bothers some people, and not the book itself, because its symbolism is as pagan as anything. For that matter, Tolkien's mythopoeic ouevre isn't as Catholic as is always made out—he departed from received dogma on at least one important point, and was taken to task for it—while Lewis' stories are strongly neoplatonist. These writers are being found wanting because of something extrinsic to their works.

We all have this tendency to get trapped in our little ghettos, me as much as anyone else; but insofar as I've limited my horizons to what I'm comfortable with, I've become less of a person. That's something I seem to have to discover again and again.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Book of the New Sun

My wife and I read together a lot. It's amazing when I think about it what we've gotten through this way. Long works like The Lord of the Rings, Don Quixote, Emma, The Brothers Karamazov, David Copperfield, and The Worm Ouroboros; short works like Heart of Darkness, The Time Machine, The Big Sleep, The Man Who Was Thursday, and Our Man in Havanna. She used to teach elementary school, and we've read a lot of juvenile fiction, too, like the Curdie books, Island of the Blue Dolphins, The Wind in the Willows, The Neverending Story, and Lang's fairy tale collections. As you can probably tell, our tastes differ somewhat. Sometimes we read nonfiction, although we often don't finish this, usually because of my short attention span. It's easier to come back to something after having laid it aside for awhile when you're reading on your own than when you're reading aloud with someone else.

This summer we've been reading Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun, which is appropriate as he recently received the SWFA Grand Master award. I've read it before; this is her first time. It's a good book to read aloud because of its formal voice and attention to language. I suppose that's why we tend to go through a lot of nineteenth-century literature together—choppy dialogue and stylistic experimentation don't lend themselves to vocalization. Actually, in order to really appreciate beautiful writing, I find that I have to read it aloud; my pace makes me miss a lot otherwise. Conversely, bad writing becomes painfully apparent this way.

BOTNS is one of those books that divide people. Some think it's one of the great novels of modern times; others just don't get it. Unsurprisingly, it garners more stars on Goodreads than Moby-Dick, and the reviews are really rather similar. People who don't like it find the plot too meandering, the action too halting, the ruminations too digressive; people who like it have a hard time giving a single, coherent reason. Everyone who reads Moby-Dick and hates it takes great pains to make it clear that they get it—understand the symbolism and allusions and so forth—only that it doesn't impress them. But "getting" a book in the sense that you know all the stuff the endnotes would tell you isn't really getting it at all. There's a landscape here, and you have to live in it. You have to have come to love the cadences of the King James Bible, been daunted by the cruelty of the Old Testament, set yourself up against Nature in hate and fear, looked into the maw of a universe without God, been swayed by the music of Pantheism. It isn't a story, for God's sake. It's a monument. Much the same can be said of BOTNS.

So, first let me offer some faltering explanations of why I like the book. After that I'll discuss a few objections.

To begin with, I've written elsewhere about how much I admire the vocabulary. It's eminently suited to the story, which takes place in a Dying Earth so far in the future that the only productive mining is in the "hills" of heaped remnants of previous civilizations, the great city is a world unto itself tapering into ruins at its extremities, and exposed strata in the mountains consist of layers of million-year-old human artifacts. Wolfe has a way, too, through careful word choice and image-painting, of making you think you understand something—the nature of a building or a person, perhaps—and then dashing it to pieces by the narrator's casual mention of some minor detail. For example, you realize only gradually that the Citadel in which the story begins is in reality a collection of ancient space crafts. The vertigo of "time's abyss" (as The Encyclopedia of Fantasy has it) occurs too many times to count.

The structure of the book is that of a traveler's tale. Such stories bore some people to tears, but I find them profoundly enjoyable when done well. This one is done well. Its cast of disappearing, reappearing characters reminds me, oddly enough, of the anime cartoon Belle and Sebastian, which I watched on TV when I was in kindergarten but haven't seen since. It also contains numerous tales-with-the-tale, much like Moby-Dick, something that, again, isn't to everyone's taste, but is to mine. A couple of the stories are far-future retellings of current tales (Theseus and the Minotaur, Mowgli's Brothers). It is, in general, as profoundly erudite a piece of speculative fiction as you will ever find.

Objections to BOTNS fall into several categories. Some people take offense at the fact that the book doesn't spell everything out. Some reviewers have concluded that BOTNS is little more than an immense puzzle for the reader to solve. Admittedly, the book does contain many puzzles. Personally, from a stylistic point of view, I appreciate it that Wolfe didn't clog his story with infodumps. I mean, the infodumps (and, in the later volumes, the synopses) are there, but you have to put them together yourself. It's really rather artfully done. It's as it would be if Tolkien had written The Lord of the Rings by taking Frodo from his front step to Rivendell, with no "Shadow of the Past" or Council of Elrond, ending with his acceptance of the quest for Mount Doom. No appendices, no backstory: the history of the One Ring—including Frodo's destiny—is to be pieced together by the attentive reader from an assortment of hints and allusions. They are, of course, vastly different works, but have this in common: verisimilitude. LOTR purports to be a version of the Red Book of Westmarch, a chronicle, while BOTNS is presented as Severian's confessions.

Other people get angry about the treatment of women in Wolfe's Urth, as if this is his coda for how he thinks women ought to be treated. One reviewer lists all the rights women in Urth fail to enjoy as though they are Wolfe's crimes against humanity, ending with a heartfelt "f*** you." It's strange. Would they feel the same way about a historically accurate novel set in (say) Imperial China? I mean, setting a story in a milieu in which women (and people in general) don't enjoy basic rights and privileges doesn't make the author an apologist for it.

Of course, some authors might be accused of taking a little too much pleasure in the mistreatment of female characters. John Norman comes to mind. I personally can't bring myself to read Stephen Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane because of the rape scene at the beginning. But I don't get same feeling from BOTNS. Severian certainly beds a lot of women, and some people argue that that's chauvinism right there, in that the author is making all the women want the protagonist. However, he also makes monstrous undines and masked hierodules want the protagonist. So, perhaps it serves a thematic purpose.

And what might that purpose be? Given that Severian's predecessor is an impotent androgyne, and that Urth is dying of exhaustion and sterility, perhaps his prodigious virility and attractiveness signify his role as the one who is to bring the New Sun. Actually, the book practically says as much in one of the final chapters:
If I am he who is to renew the youth of the sun with the White Fountain of which I have been told, may it not be that I have been given, almost unconsciously (if that expression may be used), the attributes of life and light that will belong to the new sun?
Again, time is spoken of as a tapestry woven from many threads, and Severian's particular course seemingly leads to a planet inhabited by green men who live by drinking in the rays of the sun. He aids a green man sent back to his own time and is aided by him in turn. As is well known, the Green Man is a personification of fertility.

Severian is, in fact, a Grail Knight, in the sense of From Ritual to Romance and The Waste Land. Remember that the "grail" of Wolfram von Eschenbach's version is a mysterious stone, not unlike the miracle-performing Claw of the Conciliator carried by Severian through most of the story.

Well, this is getting to be a long post, so I'll continue in another.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Stars My Destination

One of the spoils of my book-sale conquest a couple weeks ago was The Demolished Man (1953) by Alfred Bester. I'd read The Stars My Destination (1956) some time ago and liked it a lot, so this new one was the first I read of the bunch. It caused me to revisit TSMD. After A. E. van Vogt, I'd now say Bester is my favorite of the Golden Age writers.

It's quite surprising how contemporary these two books feel. They've been hailed as precursors of cyberpunk; in fact, they're merely early entries in the subgenre. Neuromancer (1984) certainly goes beyond them, but I don't see anything significantly new about it apart from the idea of cyberspace. TSMD has a high-tech underworld, super-powerful corporations, criminals with cybernetic enhancements, and all the rest. I don't say this to diminish Neuromancer in any way, as originality is, I think, overrated.

Both novels (TSMD and TDM) abound in delightful invention and colorful detail passed over quickly. I think, for instance, of the neo-savage Scientific People in their cobbled-together space habitat; the underground Shanghai "hospital" for people addicted to illegal diseases; the Gilt Corpse, a notorious socialite with a surgically enhanced, "pneumatic" body; a commercial jingle so persistent it allows a murderer to keep his mind from being read by the police while he has it going around his head; the Coop, a former ceramics factory bombed into a rainbow-colored labyrinth during the last war and serving to house a brothel and psychic act. The novels jump from one thing to the next and are truly a pleasure to read just for that. It isn't a surprise that Bester seemingly wrote himself out so quickly, for any one of the ideas he touches on so lightly might have served as the conceit for an entire novel in the hands of a lesser author.

The esper world of TDM is, to me, a terrifying one, a world in which crime has been eliminated because the police can read minds. Bester doesn't really comment on whether this is good or bad, which I appreciate. My own opinion is that enhanced safety is generally accompanied by diminishing freedom, and that it is possible to trade away so much freedom that the safety is not worth having. Does that have a contemporary application? Hm, no comment. Except to say that I recently read an article discussing advances made in brain-mapping and the possibility that answers to questions posed by (say) law enforcement officers might one day be scanned directly out of the perp's head. Does the right not to testify against oneself include keeping one's own mind from being read? I hope I'm dead before the SCOTUS attempts to answer that question.

TDM is, they say, explicable only in light of Freudian psychology. I didn't find this to be so myself. Certainly Freudian psychology lends the plot cohesion, but I don't find that I have to suspend my disbelief in it in order to enjoy the book. Attention is generally drawn to the Oedipal urges of the protagonist, but the "Electra complex" that develops in the young Barbara (who is mentally regressed to infancy and raised by a police prefect—whom she refers to as "Daddy"—and his love interest, ultimately coming to maturity and stealing the heart of the former from the latter) is, shall we say, slightly more unsettling. It reminds me of the strange, immature kinkiness one finds in many of van Vogt's novels.

Weird and immature or not, there's nothing of the sort in TSMD. Its original title (in the UK) was Tiger! Tiger!, and the epigram to the first part is a verse from Blake's poem:

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,
In the forests of the night;
What immortal hand or eye,
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

This serves as a description of the protagonist, Gulliver Foyle, whose impetuous, comet-like course in pursuit of revenge defines the novel. He's an Everyman, a type of the human race, rising from apathy and savagery to enlightenment only to discover what a chimera he is, and how unworthy and pointless his mission. But also to find the stars within his reach.

Gully Foyle is my name
And Terra is my nation
Deep space is my dwelling place
The stars my destination

The basic conceit of the book is a world transformed by the advent of jaunting—personal teleportation—which allows a person to instantaneously move to a distant location simply by willing it. The difficulty is that the jaunter has to have seen the location previously. This permits the rich and the powerful to keep their hold on society; as the novel says, the limitations on jaunting give the Grand Tour a whole new significance. Also, jaunting through space is seemingly impossible.

The secret of the space-jaunte is revealed in the end and is, appropriately, rather metaphysical. In order to jaunte, one needn't have seen the place of desire; it's necessary only to have faith that the place exists. This is, I think, a beautiful exploration of a purely natural faith or (to be more accurate, in my opinion) hope. The ancients averred that hope could degenerate into one of two opposite vices: the infantility of presumption and the senility of despair. TSMD is a tale of the middle course being laid open to man, and no more.

It closes on an ambiguous but optimistic note, with Foyle distributing PyrE, an agent of mass destruction, to the great unwashed to do with as they will, then going on a jaunte through the furnace-places of the cosmos. The last paragraphs find him curled up like a fetus in the hold of an outer-space cargo cult, dreaming divine dreams, a sleeping giant whose awakening will bring enlightenment to humanity.

After his brief science fiction career in the fifties and sixties Bester went on to edit a travel magazine. He eventually returned to what made him famous, with mixed results. I haven't read his later novels, but the reviews paint them as violent, joyless, and misanthropic. He gained the reputation of being a mean drunk in his last years, died right before receiving his SFWA Grand Master award, and left his estate to his bartender.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Lost in a Maze

One movie that I like a lot, that I'm a bit ashamed of liking, is Labyrinth. I watched it many times growing up, renting it over and over again from the tiny Videoland huddled in the front part of the warehouse down the street. I guess I always had a thing for Jennifer Connelly. I also actually still think David Bowie's a pretty good actor; he played an excellent Andy Warhol in Basquiat.

Part of what makes it a good movie, despite its goofiness (and David Bowie's pants), is its poignant message, some of which goes unstressed. The protagonist, Sarah, having faced a personal tragedy—some barely-glimpsed newspaper clippings reveal her mother to have been an actress, possibly dead(?)—, has retreated into a fantasy world, constructing an elaborate environment (her bedroom) over which she has complete control. Each item is beloved, each in its proper place, and her foray into the labyrinth is in reality a foray into the maze of her own mind. With muppets.

This theme becomes clear when she awakens from the stupor induced by a poisoned fruit to find herself in a vast, nighted junkyard. She's accosted by a creepy old woman-muppet with an enormous pack, a little goblin who reminds me strongly of certain second-hand dealers I've met. Sarah goes through a door into a perfect replica of her bedroom, with all her beloved things in their places. She shuts the door, shutting out the world, and everything is as it should be. Except that soon the old woman bursts in and begins burying her under a pile of stuffed animals and knicknacks. Sarah, entranced at first, rejects it all in the end. The room falls to pieces and caves in, and she climbs out to be reunited with her friends.

That old woman is for me the embodiment of the spirit of hoarding. I've been thinking about it a lot. We just passed the third anniversary of my grandmother's death, who was almost literally smothered by mountains of junk and decay. I lit a votive candle in church for her. That's what people of my bent do when someone we love dies, especially if they were in a bad way.

About fifteen years ago I watched Grampa die. He'd had a stroke but was recovering, when a nurse accidentally put his feeding tube into his lung. And that was that. Watching his brain-dead body gasp for air after we unplugged him was like watching a machine wind down, and when his heart finally stopped his mouth was frozen in a permanent snarl. After that I dreamed about him every few weeks or so. He would come among us again, but I'd know that something was wrong; in the end I'd always remember that he was supposed to be dead.

When I told my father about the "visitation," he advised me to light a candle while I slept. Granny's brother—the alcoholic air-traffic controller after whom I was named—had haunted Grampa in the same way, it seems, and lighting a candle had done the trick. (My grandparents were both from Puerto Rico, and were what we of the anglosphere would call "superstitious.") I never did "light a candle," and the haunting never stopped, either, although it became less frequent with time. In hindsight I suppose the practice comes from the custom of praying for souls in purgatory. So it could be said that I light candles for both my grandparents now.

They were troubled people with a lot of secrets. Some of the secrets came out when Granny died, but probably not all. I won't reveal them. Let what the dead saw fit to bury remain buried. They'd lived in an atmosphere of mutual animosity, but Grampa was Granny's mainstay, too. She was both strong and weak. When the decision was made to let him die she refused to leave the waiting room. The rest of the family had no patience for her, but I remained behind. "Fifty years down the tubes," she kept saying. I told her how wrong she was, and how she'd always regret not having been by his side at his death, and in the end she consented to go, holding my hand all the way like a child. In his room she clasped his hand and wept, whispering mi Dios, mi Dios as his body heaved and groaned. I was nineteen at the time.

It was then that things began coming apart at the seams.

My grandmother, in the sixties.
She'd always had the propensity, I suppose. She lived in a small, sunless house cluttered with exotic bric-a-brac picked up on their travels, with bars and heavy curtains over the windows, and an iron-wrought gate covered with ivy before the front door, and an overgrown, labyrinthine backyard, and about eight yapping dogs that did their thing on newspaper under the dining room table, and cages with the injured birds she took in. She never got rid of anything. One of the bedrooms upstairs had remained exactly the same as when my aunt had lived in it as a girl. Actually, I was twenty-seven or so when I was suffered to go up the stairs for the first time in my life, to use the toilet; and I'd grown up about mile down the road, so it wasn't like I hadn't been there much. Grampa's bedroom, also upstairs, hadn't been altered after his death, either. I should have known that her not letting me into the downstairs bathroom, which lay beyond her bedroom, was a bad sign, but I didn't. Her house was like her mind. There were parts locked away and left alone. The thing is, when you leave something alone, it doesn't just remain the same. Entropy sets in. It begins to decay.

We remained close after Grampa's death. She told me she considered me her spiritual advisor. Sometimes she would confide in me, telling me about how she could feel Grampa's presence in the house, speaking to her. That it might have been dementia didn't occur to me, for her mind was quite sharp in other ways, and she'd always been given to paranoid fancies.

Without Grampa there to check her, the mountains of junk began to grow. During the last year or two of her life you couldn't really get past the living room. She lived in it, watching TV on one of those little sets they used to sell, and sleeping on the couch at night. You could hardly move around even there. A distinct odor of death and decay pervaded the house, and there was always a telltale rustling. I tried to ignore it. Of course we all knew she had a problem, though we didn't realize the extent of it. My parents tried to get her to let them clean the place for her, attempts which were met (finally) with open hostility. To me she admitted that she needed help, but was terrified of the immensity of the task. I ought to have done more, I think. With my place in her life, I might have been able to start cleaning for her. She would have trusted me. But I was wrapped up in my own affairs, with a new baby and a fresh doctorate. Then again, maybe she was too far gone even for my help. Maybe she would have just cut me off as she had my parents.

Her body was a wreck. She was diabetic, took about thirty different medications, lived on bottled oxygen, and had legs that were swollen into thick clubs that wept tears of blood. When the hallucinations started my father and aunt had her committed to the psychiatric ward of a hospital downtown. There was nothing else to do. I visited her there often. If dementia was truly her problem, its onset had accelerated. She would go into strange fugues and talk about how the hospital was built on a cemetery and how "creepy things" would come out of holes in the wall for her. Eventually she was moved to a nursing home, and there died after a matter of weeks. During her last days she spoke often of suicide.

The clean-up started once she'd been committed, and continued well after her death. It was one of the most horrific experiences of my life. Working our way into the kitchen, we discovered that she'd been relieving herself in a bucket on the floor. The cockroaches had colonized virtually every nook and cranny in the house. Nothing was free from their excrement and egg cases. After we bombed the place I found about twenty of them soaking in a coffee pot like shrimps in a boiler. The sink was full of dishes that hadn't been washed in years. When I mined out a corner down near the cabinets I came across rat nests and skeletons. There were piles upon piles of unopened mail-order merchandise: appliances, and clothes, and sheets for the big four-poster bed that she hadn't even seen in who knows how long.

It took months to clean the place out. I helped my parents as much as I could. My father hauled tons—literally, tons—of junk to the dump in a big flatbed trailer. And then they discovered the storage room, which hadn't been opened since well before my grandfather's death. My father calculates that my grandparents spent something like twenty-five thousand dollars on it over the years, for a pile of shit they'd forgotten they even had.

Granny's hoarding was something grown wildly out of control, out of a natural agoraphobia, a habitual desire to control her surroundings, and (I suppose) an irrational fear of the regret of loss. She and I were alike in many ways, and sometimes I see a similar propensity in myself. What if one day it's me who gets lost in the labyrinth?

For Granny, all I can do now is light a candle. I suppose that writing this is a way of lighting a candle, too. I love her, and I miss her, and I hope she is happy.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Sci-Fi in the Hinterlands: A Tribute

I am, as long-time readers of this blog will know, a used-book aficionado. I also have a fondness for classic science fiction.

Recently, the town in which I live was part of the Hotter 'n Hell Hunnerd Mile Yard Sale, or some such thing, with all and sundry lining the highway from Point A to Point B and trying to sell junk. As part of this, the worthy ladies who support the county library were holding a "Cool Book Sale." You see, they always have this little room in the lobby where they sell used books for a dollar or two, right beside the maize exhibit, but I never find anything good, not being interested in coffee-stained copies of Going Rogue or the Left Behind series. So, I figured, I'll go to this little sale they're having and poke around, because, you know, I have family in town and want to go hide out somewhere, but surely I won't find anything.

Was I ever wrong!

It was just this big room filled with big tables filled with stacks of old hardcovers. For fifty cents apiece, no matter what. First edition of Dashiell Hammett's The Glass Key? Fifty cents. First edition of A. E. van Vogt's Empire of the Atom, cover and all, in perfect condition, from a run of 2,000 copies by a small press that went out of business immediately thereafter? Fifty cents. I got an excellent old Modern Library copy of Plutarch's Lives, and a collection of C. L. Moore's best pulp stories, and a flawless Everyman's Gawain and the Green Knight, and Dorothy Day's autobiography, and a book on Thomist existentialism by Jacques Maritain, and, well, other things.

And then there were these tables filled with old paperbacks. They had plastic grocery sacks: fill one for a dollar. There's just something wrong with me, I think, but I genuinely enjoy certain books more when they sport simple, non-glossy covers with crude artwork and lots of exclamation points. Well, I now have enough to last me through, oh, the rest of the year. A. E. van Vogt! Alfred Bester! Poul Anderson! Damon Knight! James Blish! Robert Heinlein! E. E. "Doc" Smith! They had stacks of 'em, and they were begging me to take as many as I could carry! Which I did. Twice.

In all I spent eight dollars and twenty-five cents. Eight dollars and twenty-five cents! It was like one of my bizarre bookstore dreams. I mean, here's this perfect and rather rare first-edition copy of a classic science fiction novel, and I only paid fifty cents for it. Actually, I feel kind of bad about it, and am tempted to see what I can get for it on Amazon, so I can donate the money back. I'm not sure if I feel that energetic, though; maybe I'll just sit on it for a few years and see if the price varies. Right now it would bring in anywhere from sixty to a hundred and fifty dollars. It's a shame that the library people can't wrap their minds around doing something more with these books, but hardly surprising. People around here simply don't use computers much. I would try to get involved, but I don't know. The guy spearheading the disc-golf course project is already making enough waves as it is…

I think most of the novels came from the same person, probably through an estate sale or a donation by family members. The Hammett novel has a name in the front, dated 1944, and the same name appears in many of the paperbacks. He served in the Marine Corps and apparently had much the same taste in science fiction as I do. Based on what I heard the old ladies saying while I was crawling around on my hands and knees under the tables, pawing madly through boxes like Gollum looking for his Precious, a lot of the paperbacks came from the drugstore right off the town square. They dated into the seventies at least.

So here we have this native son, a marine and possibly a veteran—I would guess World War II or Korea, given the spread of dates—who, during his mature years, would frequent the town drugstore to see what new science fiction they had on the rotating rack. But some of the paperbacks plainly came from second-hand dealers in other parts of the country, so maybe he sought out the writers he really wanted, too. And what he wanted was the greats. None of that Asimov stuff.

Our marine apparently wasn't much of a fantasy reader, alas. There were some sword-and-sorcery items (Michael Moorcock, Fritz Leiber, &c.) but no out-and-out fantasy. My abiding dream is to find an old hardcover copy of The Worm Ouroboros for really cheap. It seems that I must continue to wait.

So, to conclude: Sir, I salute you for your service to our country, your loyalty to our town, and your enlightened and wholly anomalous taste in fine literature. Your collection will (partly) be in good hands. Requiescat in pace.