Posted by: cctracker | June 8, 2012

Thank you, Mr. Bradbury

More than anyone else, Ray Bradbury is responsible for my having fallen in love with books. For that alone I am more grateful than I can say.

But he did something else for me that was every bit as vital. I’ve been trying to figure out how to express it in these days of reflection on his passing. The trouble is I’d have to be Ray Bradbury to capture it.  I want to try here, anyway.

Reading Ray Bradbury as a boy set the music of my soul in the key of meaning and romance.

I don’t know which of his stories I read first. It may have been one in R is for Rocket. But as soon as I was inside a world he created, something stirred inside. It wasn’t a response to astonishing landscapes on other worlds. Or characters caught in a spiraling web of weird events. Or the occasional monster.

It was a felt sense that something important, something extraordinary, something full of undisclosed meaning was about to be revealed. Events charged with a mysterious significance were unfolding for his characters, moving in an urgent direction. When the moment came, they might be horrified. They might be agape in wonder. They might be saved in the nick of time. They might be disemboweled.

But whatever happened, I felt as if I’d arrived somewhere I’d never been, somewhere important. I’d seen something I needed to remember. Reading Bradbury, I developed an expectation, an appetite, for that moment of disclosure:  Where were these events leading?  What was the truth behind appearances? What horrible or holy secret lay under the surface of a pond in summer or in the electrifying recesses of the mind?  I turned the page and started another story and he whirled me along toward the next revelation.

I’ve read that he was fascinated with magicians and magic as a boy. His standard slight-of-hand for producing this heightened state of expectation in me involved two basic elements: 1) a clever plot idea or conceit to drive the narrative forward and 2) a philosophical or metaphysical truth– almost never explicitly named– to reveal. Here are some examples from his stories. I didn’t have to go back and re-read these. They were still there waiting for me in my memory as soon as I turned back the pages to find them.

All Summer in a Day

The truth: The horror and blindness of human cruelty.

The device: On a planet where it always rains, school children don’t believe a girl who rapturously describes sunny days. She saw them long ago on another world  longs for them terribly. When a once-in-a-life-time sunny day is rumored to be coming, the kids lock the know-it-all in a closet and forget about her.  Until the day has come and gone.

Frost and Fire

Dreams are worth the risk and sacrifice.

Beings have been stranded for generations on a planet where exposure to sun violently accelerates the pace of life. They live in caves, venturing out to hunt and gather. Even at that entire lifetimes are lived in a single week.  They dare not risk the years it would cost to reach a nearby space ship that might provide escape to life as it should be. A journey that took half their lives might only bring them to a dead and useless hulk. A dreamer comes along to challenge their private greed and communal fear.

A Sound of Thunder

The future rests on every choice made in the present.

It’s election time in an era of peace and plenty threatened by building clouds of violence and decay. One candidate advocates facing the truth and working together to face the issues, the other offers fascist rhetoric. The right man has just won. Time machines offer the wealthy a passage back in time for the ultimate sport: shooting a dinosaur just before it would have died anyway. Despite elaborate precautions to protect the present by disturbing nothing in the past, a hunter falls off a walkway and steps on a butterfly. When he returns to the present signs are spelled just a bit differently. And the  fascist has won.

The Veldt

Ordinary people, harmless and innocent though they may appear, can be monsters.

Clueless and distracted parents have indulged their children with the very latest in video games: a room that allows the gamer to enter an immersive and fully realized environment. They begin to face up to the truth that their kids need their attention.. and some reigning in. A contest of wills ensues and each time the parents enter the game to call the children home they are unsettled by the harsh African savannah they’ve built as a playground. What do they do all day in a place where lions feed on carcasses in the distance?  They resolve to shut the damn thing off, but when they go into get them for the last time the children are hiding out in the tall grass. Then come the lions.

Skeleton

Our neuroses and obsessions can be our undoing, especially when predators can exploit them.

A man obsessed with his aches and pains finds a strange, yet anxious relief in the treatments of a mysterious doctor who tells him he has a “skeletal” problem. He becomes more and more dependent on the treatments–which require more and more strenuous tugging on his bones– and less and less trusting of the man behind the cure. His desperation and fear rise together until the doctor proposes a final cure, an ultimate release from the underlying problem.  On the day of the last treatment his wife can’t find him. She opens his office door to find a giant jellyfish lying on the floor. It calls her by name.

Night Call, Collect (from The Martian Chronicles)

While we can behold the mystery of time passing and nevertheless coherently remain ourselves from moment to moment, who we once were and who we are now are not the same person.

A man is the last living soul on a planet. His sense of time begins to warp. He looks to the future and knows that another man is out there, by himself, living just as real a life as he is now. He is young. That man is old. He enjoys his youth but hates his isolation. There is only one other person he can talk to who will hear…or understand. It occurs to him that he can call him now and record the conversations so that his only partner will get them in the future. At first the calls are tentative and cordial. Then intimate. But as time advances and he realizes there is no stopping it’s inevitable march toward age and decrepitude, a dark impulse rises within him. He begins to mock and curse the future he cannot prevent and cling to the present, immortalized in the telephone calls. He will still be young and vital when the old man gets the calls. Eventually his youthful anger and spiritual resistance fades. He forgets he made the calls. Wisdom and peace grow slowly within him. He accepts his life. Then, one day, the phone rings.

This is the one I probably return to most often. The calls have started.

20 years ago I had wonderful chance to express my gratitude in person. I came to a book-signing with my oldest son. There was a long line, but I explained to him that this man was important for me: he’d taught me to love reading. I don’t think my oldest had read any of his stories yet, but he was a voracious reader and he was willing to be patient.

At last the moment came. I had so much I wanted to say so quickly. It came out something like: “This is my son. He loves to read. If not for you I might never have learned to love reading and we wouldn’t be standing here together.” He couldn’t have been more gracious. He paused, looked at my boy. He lingered with us. Asked my son some questions about what he was reading. I handed him the copy of his Quicker Than the Eye I’d bought, already feeling he’d given us too much time. He signed it and penned good wishes to my son. The other day when Ray Bradbury died, a text message from my son was how I got the news.

And so, not only for a life-time of reading, but for a life-long inclination to read, in the world around us, the great mysteries and romances of the world within, thank-you, Mr. Bradbury.


Responses

  1. Beautiful post, Jim. Ray Bradbury occupies a special place in my reading life, too. I think it was the summer after my freshman year of high school when I checked out a big book of Bradbury stories from the library. I remember being entranced by them—”The Veldt” and “A Sound of Thunder” have stuck with me, as they have with you. I also remember one called “The Scythe”, a fascinating parable about why bad things happen to good people, why the world seems out of joint.

    Now that I think about it, that collection was probably my introduction to the short story form—a form that has ended up being very important to my life. I read short stories all the time, have a whole bookshelf devoted to collections of them, and spend a good part of each year teaching students to write them. Bradbury’s book introduced me to the pleasures of these brief imaginative forays, to the magic that can happen in the space of five, ten, or twenty pages.

    In a way, short stories are like those phone calls that the lonely man makes, aren’t they? Messages from the lonely soul to other lonely souls, packets of language that may endure beyond the writer’s life to invite people of the future into the mind of another. Spirits in the world, indeed.

  2. A wonderful tribute and that description of the book signing was so heartfelt, how wonderful that your son also shares your joy of his work and that he had the good fortune not just to meet him but to exchange a kind of mutual energy of sorts. Thank you so much for sharing this.

    • Claire,
      Thanks for your kind words and for stopping by. It was, as you say, a moment of “exchange.” To be able extend my gratitude in person to someone who’d been such a vital influence was wonderful, but to have him accept it so graciously in a line of hundreds of folks, that was a confirmation of a generous heart behind the genius. Gratefully, Jim

  3. Really lovely tribute, my friend. I’m so envious that I wasn’t there when Andrew met Mr. Bradbury, but so grateful that you had the experience. Thanks for writing this piece.
    MT


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