Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Four more 1970s stories by Barry Malzberg


It's time to explore the Dream Quarter (or Dream Quarters, you know, whatever) with our Virgil, Barry Malzberg (or Malzverg--you know who I mean!)

"State of the Art" (1974)

The fourth story in the 1976 collection Down Here in the Dream Quarter is "State of the Art," which originally appeared in New Dimensions IV and would later be included in the 2013 collection The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg.  In the Afterward, Malzberg tells us this exercise is a deliberate pastiche of Robert Silverberg's famous "Good News From the Vatican."

Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Ezra Pound, William Shakespeare, Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and the narrator, or simulacra or representations thereof, regularly meet at 1:00 at a Paris sidewalk cafe in the future or a simulation thereof.  Hemingway gets run over by a street car, Shakespeare is poisoned by a vengeful waiter (or maybe just gets sick) and dies, and then the authorities cart the writers all off to prison.

"State of the Art" strikes me as show-offy and self-indulgent and ultimately sterile. Maybe we are supposed to hunt the text for quotes from the luminaries who inhabit the story (Pound's only line is "like petals on a wet. black bough"), but in the Afterword Malzberg assures us the story is serious and not a frivolous light piece, so I guess it is supposed to be a warning that technology is bad for culture and a lament that society does not appreciate writers. Unconvincing and boring.  Have to give a thumbs down to this thing, which reminded me a little of a horrible off-off Broadway play I once endured in which Mae West and Billy the Kid (in the afterlife, mind you) debated the meaning of existence.

"Isaiah" (1973)

In the first installment of our look at Down Here in the Dream Quarter we learned that Malzberg was angry about the way that editors Jack Dann and George Zebrowski had rejected "A Galaxy Called Rome."  Well, in the Afterword to "Isaiah," we learn of another instance in which Jack Dann (allegedly) screwed over Barry!  As Barry tells it, Dann commissioned a 2,000 word piece from our hero for Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction, he delivered "Isaiah,"and Dann rejected it, complaining that he wished it was longer!  In 1981 Dann made it up to Malzberg by including "Isaiah," eight years after it had been printed in Fantastic, in the sequel to Wandering Stars, More Wandering Stars, along with a second Malzberg story.

Top Billing!  Take that, Jack Dann!
Reading "Isaiah," I got a strong sense of deja vu--had I read this before? After all, I do own a copy of that issue of Fantastic with the sexy comic book witch (hubba hubba) on it.  But, no, what "Isaiah" reminded me of was "Bearing Witness."  Both stories include detailed descriptions of religious authorities smoking cigarettes, both stories mention "the Great Snake," and in both stories a guy goes to visit clergymen to ask them questions about their faith, only to find them distracted by more secular, political matters.  In "Bearing Witness" the narrator goes to a Catholic Church and talks to the chain-smoking Monsignor about the Apocalypse, then, after being sent away brusquely, he has the hallucination that he is the Second Coming of Christ.  In "Isaiah" the narrator goes to visit various people learned in Jewish religious traditions (first a Chasid, then a student rabbi at a Reform congregation in Teaneck, and finally a secularized and alienated Jew at what Malzberg calls "the Ethical Culture Society"), and after they have dismissed his questions about the Messiah out of hand, he returns to report to a man on a throne, I guess God himself, to report his findings.  God (?) climbs off his throne, stubs out his cigarette, and ventures forth.

I laughed out loud when I realized how Malzberg had reworked this material to produce another salable story.  Oh, Barry, you scamp, what are we going to do with you?  (Don't worry, we still love you--we still love The Kinks even though "All Day and All of the Night" and "You Really Got Me" are almost the same song, after all.)

I actually think this story is a little more interesting than "Bearing Witness," being longer, more audacious, having more characters and being about real specific places like Teaneck, New Jersey and The New York Society for Ethical Culture. whose massive building on Eighth Avenue I used to walk past regularly, back in my late and lamented New York days, when I would spend hour after hour in Central Park looking at girls and birds instead of hour after hour behind the wheel of a car looking at the trash and wrecked vehicles on the side of Route 71 (or as people here insist on calling it, "I-71.")  It looks like I graded "Bearing Witness" "acceptable," but "Isaiah" earns a "marginally good" score.

Afterword to "On the Campaign Trail"

We read "On the Campaign Trail" when we immersed ourselves in futuristic evil, evilometer in hand, by reading Future Corruption, a volume compiled by controversial anthologist Roger Elwood.  In the Afterword to the story here Malzberg claims that "On the Campaign Trail" was prophetic and moans that his prophecy was unrecognized: "The writer in America functions in obscurity; how much more obscure the domain and audience of the science fiction writer, who, the more serious he becomes, the more resistant he finds the audience."  I wonder if Malzberg is singing the same tune now that every "with it" person is expected to know who is having sex with who in the latest episode of the zombie show and the dragon show and in the killer clown movie.

Malzberg likes to pose puzzles, and he gives us one in the second para of this Afterword: "...the only two worthwhile national figures in American political life in my time have, I feel, totally betrayed me and all of us."  Who can he mean?  Get out the Venn diagrams!
It's not hard to come up with two national level politicians who were left-wing college professor types (the kind of pols I'm guessing a person like Malzberg might identify with), guys like George McGovern and Hubert Humphrey, but does Malzberg have a reason to feel betrayed by McGovern and Humphrey?  It seems impossible that Malzberg could have ever admired vulgar and brutish Texan LBJ, and as for America's photogenic royal family, the Kennedys, I don't know why Malzberg would feel betrayed by Robert, doubt Malzberg cares about Chappaquiddick, and I don't think many Democrats hold their matinee idol JFK responsible for the Bay of Pigs fiasco or the Vietnam War.  A mystery!

"Report to Headquarters" (1975)

Like "State of the Art," this one first appeared in one of Silverberg's New Dimensions anthologies and then was included in 2013's The Very Best of Barry N. Malzberg.

"Report to Headquarters" is in the form of a glossary of terms used by the X'Thi, natives of a gaseous alien planet, sent by explorer Leonard Coul from that planet, upon which he is stuck because of a crash and perhaps an attack from the panicked (but now friendly) X'Thi.  Through the glossary entries Coul describes the native's cosmology and metaphysics, engages in a little self-aggrandizement, and begs for help.  Time is running out, soon the X'Thi's major religious festival (a sort of sex orgy followed by a mass pilgrimage) will take place and then they won't be able to help Coul.  How they are helping Coul now is not clear--Coul has to stay in the disabled ship because he can't breathe planet's atmosphere, and he communicates with the natives, whom he can barely see in the swirling gasses, which they in fact resemble, via viewscreens.  We readers have to assume there is a chance there are no X'Thi and Coul is another of Malzberg's many insane astronauts.

Not a bad story--I laughed at one of the jokes, and a digressive glossary is a good idea for an experimental literary story.  In his Afterword, Malzberg tells us "Report to Headquarters" is a sort of pastiche or homage to Nabokov's Pale Fire, which he says he "reveres."  I haven't read Pale Fire myself, though I am a Nabokov fan; maybe this is a signal it is time to tackle it?  Malzberg tells us he thinks nobody has ever discerned the point of "Report to Headquarters," and I would not venture to claim I grokked it, either.

Afterword to "Streaking"

The next story in Down in the Dream Quarter is "Streaking," which I read in 2015 in the aforementioned Future Corruption and didn't really get.  This afterword isn't helping me much.  Malzberg explains what streaking is (mansplains?) because, he says, today's technology causes fads to arise and be forgotten very quickly, and we readers probably don't recall the phenomenon.  He makes some weak jokes about Watergate (Nixon should have streaked, he says) and that's it.  I don't usually grade the ancillary material, but I think I'm giving a thumbs down to this Afterword.

"Making It to Gaxton Falls on the Red Planet in the Year of Our Lord" (1974)

This story made its debut in Nova 4, and then in the 1990s Ursula K. LeGuin included it in The Norton Book of Science Fiction: North American Science Fiction, 1960-1990, a book of SF inflicted upon college students. As Thomas Disch relates in The Dreams Our Stuff is Made Of, LeGuin employed a number of editorial strategies to create in The Norton Book of Science Fiction a volume that would promote and cement in the minds of college students a vision of science fiction as a body of work with a feminist and leftist character.  One such strategy was to cherry pick stories by men which reflected LeGuin's own agendas, even if they were neither very representative of the author's work as a whole or examples of his better work.  Disch relates how LeGuin wanted a story of his which Disch was not very proud of, and would accept no substitute, and he also dismisses the Malzberg story we talk about today as weak, not "mordant and funny" like better specimens of Barry's oeuvre.  Let's see if "Making It to Gaxton Falls on the Red Planet in the Year of Our Lord" delivers the pinko goods.  

Our narrator and a young woman, Betsy, inhabitants of the year 2115, on Bastille Day, visit a recreation of a 1974 American town built as a tourist attraction on Mars.  Our narrator moans that Mars has become a tourist trap!  He also lets us know that Venus is suffering terrible unemployment!

The fake 20th-century town is like a carnival, with barkers enticing people into tents. (Dare I point out the contrast between Ray Bradbury, optimistic Christian from a small Middle Western town, who loved loved loved carnivals, and Malzberg, urban Jewish pessimist, who seems to think carnivals are disgusting?)  Betsy and the narrator visit an attraction billed as "the iconoclast."  Inside the tent a person (human or robot? the narrator wonders), representing a contrarian of 1974, argues that the space program must be abandoned, explaining that it wastes money that should be spent on "our cities" and "the underprivileged" and distracts people from their real problems on Earth and in their own souls.  "We won't be ready for space until we've cleaned up our own planet, understood our own problem."

Betsy and the narrator argue with the iconoclast, and then, on the hallucinatory final page of the four-page story, the narrator and the iconoclast describe radically divergent histories of the post 1970s space program, the iconoclast one in which Man never colonized space because of 1980s civil unrest and the narrator the one in which the story is (apparently) set, in which Mars, Venus and the moons of Jupiter were colonized in the late 20th and the 21st centuries.  Then the narrator is hypnotized or has his consciousness sucked out of his body and placed in the iconoclast's shell or something--he comes to believe the iconoclast's pessimistic vision and finds himself in the iconoclast's place, arguing to people that the space program must be abandoned.

While I agree with Disch that this story is earnest instead of funny, says boring goop that lefties say all the time, and does not represent Malzberg at the top of his game, I still think it is a pretty good story, whether or not you share Malzberg's pessimism about the space program (Betsy makes the standard pro-space exploration arguments about as effectively as the iconoclast makes the standard anti- ones.)  In the Afterword, Malzberg tells us writing the story was "profoundly satisfying" because for the first time in print he was "speaking in his own voice."  He compares himself to Harlan Ellison, John Dos Passos, Sinclair Lewis and Norman Mailer, suggesting he now knows the attractions of writing in the confessional mode and addressing issues and the audience directly.  One wonders if Malzberg is happy that our society (as reflected in political priorities and public discourse, at least) has abandoned the romance of space exploration and instead focuses on diversity matters, redistribution schemes, and environmental issues.  (As for myself, I'm with Betsy--"But don't you think that exploration is an important human need?  We'll never solve our problems on Earth after all so we might as well voyage outward where the solutions might be.")

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These stories, and even more so Malzberg's Afterwords, serve as a window onto Malzberg's recurring themes and interests and the 1970s milieu in which he wrote them.  Definitely recommended for the Malzberg aficionado--if there's a Malzberg otaku in your life, keep Down in the Dream Quarter in mind this holiday season!

1 comment:

  1. In 2000, Silverberg wrote "The Millennium Express" which also has many of the same historical characters as Malzberg's "State of the Art" and also hanging around a Paris cafe.

    I wonder if this is some sort of Silverberg-Malzberg feedback cycle.

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