Thursday, February 19, 2015

Three stories by Barry N. Malzberg: "At the Institute," "Track Two," & "O Thou Last and Greatest!"

Let's check in with Barry Malzberg...the Barry Malzberg of the past!  This week I read three stories by Malzberg I found in old digest-sized SF magazines, two stories from 1974, and one from 1989.

"At the Institute" (Fantastic, March 1974)

In the intro to this story Fantastic editor Ted White (author of Spawn of the Death Machine, I am sure you will remember) gives Malzberg a little space to speak kindly about famous SF editor John Campbell, Jr.  Malzberg won the first ever John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1973, which was widely seen in the SF community as ironic, as Malzberg's politics and attitude are quite different than Campbell's. Here, however, Malzberg claims that Campbell taught much of value to the SF community and had been a positive influence on his own writing.

"At the Institute" would be reprinted two years later in the 1976 collection The Best of Barry N. Malzberg.  A translation of the tale appeared in the French collection L'assassin habite au XXIe siècle in 1987.

Like so many Malzberg stories, here we have a first-person narrator with some kind of mental problem.  It is the future, and murders are few because society has learned how to "attack root causes."  Our narrator has a lust to kill, and so he is in the Institute for treatment, which consists of wearing a helmet that produces dreams.  In the first dream the patient faces his father, and kills him.  This constitutes failure.  In the second dream the narrator kills his unfaithful girlfriend; another failure.  He only gets one more chance; if he fails the third dream the authorities "will have no choice."  But in the third dream the narrator faces himself, and he is not sure if killing himself represents success or failure.

An entertaining story.

"Track Two" (Fantastic, July 1974)

Like "At the Institute," "Track Two" was first published in Ted White's Fantastic, and would be included in 1976's The Best of Barry N. Malzberg.  I'd like to get a copy of that collection--it has a great cover by Roger Schulz and apparently is a whopping 400 pages.

Malzberg has themes he returns to again and again, and the life of Christ is one of these. In "Track Two" Malzberg presents us four vignettes ("tracks," he labels them) from the life of Jesus: Jesus on the cross, Jesus brought before Pilate, Jesus meeting Lazarus's wife, and Jesus wrestling Satan. Malzberg alters these episodes in several ways (does Lazarus have a wife in the Bible?); for example, Jesus has no supernatural powers, and has to tell the people of Bethany that he can't raise Lazarus.  Most importantly, Jesus believes that when something bad happens to him (losing the "public opinion poll" to Barabbas, hanging on the cross between the two thieves) it is just a dream and he will wake up. Jesus also admits to Satan that he would rather just live the simple life of a carpenter.

This story is entertaining enough.


Malzberg also appears in the letters column of the July 1974 issue of Fantastic, just after a letter from Harlan Ellison and before one from Christopher Priest.  Malzberg points out that his kind words about John Campbell, Jr. in the March issue were not meant to be published!  Malzberg also praises Brian Stableford: "He is the absolute best writer who has come into the field in the past couple of years."  Wow, high praise! What works of Stableford's could have so impressed Barry?  Maybe the early Hooded Swan books, which my man Tarbandu talks about here?

"O Thou Last and Greatest!" (Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1989)

This one appears in the 40th anniversary issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction.  As I often get to say when I blog about Malzberg, this story has only ever appeared here, so all you Malzberg completists out there need to track down a copy of the October 1989 issue of Fantasy & Science Fiction!

(Actually, isfdb doesn't mention it, but it appears there is an e-book of Malzberg stories which includes "O Thou Last and Greatest!")

On sitcoms aspiring writers are told to "write what you know," and here Mazlberg follows this advice; "O Thou Last and Greatest!" is about Malzberg's frustration with his literary career and the unsure place of science fiction in literature.

Barry is in the afterlife (realized as a bar where the drinks materialize before the patrons) with a bunch of other writers, like Thomas Wolfe, Flannery O'Connor, Ernest Hemingway and Emily Dickinson.  With the exception of H. P. Lovecraft, for whom Barry has contempt, there are no other SF writers present.  (Malzberg does not use Lovecraft's last name in the story, but instead calls him "the man from Providence" or "the author of Colour Out of Space," that sort of thing.  He also uses the word "acromegalic" to describe him again and again.)

Malzberg produces little imitations of the writers' styles, which mostly fly over my head because I am not familiar with Wolfe's or O'Connor's work.  In the end of the story angels or similar beings, judges, appear, and it is suggested that Barry is trapped in purgatory because he refuses to admit that SF is his true home.

I found this story a little boring and hard to follow; Lovecraft, O'Connor, Wolfe and Malzberg himself are all very long-winded, cryptic and vague, and I am not sure what the pay off is.  Reading this story gave me that uncomfortable feeling you get when you know you are missing all the references and jokes.  I do have some theories about what "O Thou Last and Greatest!" is all about, though.  The story's first three words are "In the corner" (Lovecraft is sitting in the corner), and the story's last dozen words include the phrase "in the corner" three times.  Is this an indication that the judges (and maybe Malzberg) think SF belongs on the periphery of literature?

Another theory I have is that Lovecraft is described as having acromegaly again and again because acromegaly is related to gigantism, and Malzberg is commenting on Lovecraft's growing reputation.  Could Malzberg be likening the pulp writer whom he looks down upon to a deformed and diseased giant who is unnaturally and undeservedly considered by some (Joyce Carol Oates, maybe?) a major American writer like Wolfe, O'Connor and Hemingway?  The problem with my theory is that I am not sure how far along Lovecraft's rehabilitation had gone in 1989.


Three brief stories that are worth the reader's time.     

No comments:

Post a Comment