Thursday, August 7, 2014

Three 1971 stories by George Alec Effinger

I guess I bought Clarion, an anthology of stories from a 1970 writers' workshop in Pennsylvania, a few years ago because of the Robert Thurston stories.  I quite liked Thurston's Alicia II, which I read in my youth and reread in my 30s, and which I glowingly reviewed on Amazon.

Going through my books this week while tidying up my study, I flipped though Clarion and found that it had three stories by "Geo. Alec Effinger," and on a sort of whim decided to read them.  I guess I had Effinger in mind because Joachim Boaz mentioned him recently; Boaz loves Effinger's novel, What Entropy Means to Me.

Two of these three stories never appeared anywhere else, so Effinger completists will want to seek out this paperback.

"Trouble Follows"
In his intro to this seven-page story editor Robin Scott Wilson tells us Effinger "has enormous talent and a brilliant future."

This story isn't very good.  It is a letter written by a college student to another college student, telling the story of how an old drifter came to the campus student union one day.  We get overly long descriptions of peoples' clothes and hair, and of the student union.  The drifter uttered some gnomic wisdom, and our narrator made fun of him and insulted him, calling him a "hippie creep" and jocularly comparing him to Odysseus.  The narrator basically drove him off campus, but that evening felt compelled to join the old man, and took to the road after him.  Months later, as he writes this letter, he has not found the drifter yet.

Maybe there is some kind of symbolism or literary allusion here; are the narrator and the old man supposed to be like the Wandering Jew?  Or is the narrator supposed to be like Telemachus, following his (spiritual?) father?  Does the wandering represent man's life, spent on a fruitless quest for wisdom or repentance?  Well, whatever.

I love extravagant ad copy like this,
especially with deflating typos
"A Free Pass to the Carnival"
 "A Free Pass to the Carnival" appeared in the May 1971 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction as well as here in Clarion.  Wilson calls this satire "a perfect literary setpiece," comparing it to Johnathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels and Oliver Goldsmith's Citizen of the World, which all you literary historians out there already know consisted of letters by a fictional Chinese visitor to England expressing Goldsmith's gripes about British society.  I can't say I was excited to hear what Effinger's gripes were about American society, but I figured I would be able to handle a mere 7 pages of gripes.

The story takes place in New York, which a family of aliens known as "lords" is visiting as tourists.  It seems like the aliens have the Earth at their mercy; it is suggested that they can just take what they want from stores and pay only if they choose to.

The adult aliens think New York and human beings suck balls.  They allege that humans suffer an inferiority complex because of the superiority of the lords, and their culture has suffered.  They lament that human goods are all mass produced instead of handcrafted (I guess these aliens got to Earth in a handcrafted star ship.)  They theorize that humans are sexually frustrated, which is reflected in their debased economic, political and religious lives.  And so on.  The child alien in the story starts off finding New York exciting, and even finds a human girl attractive, but by the end of the story is a human hater like his parents.

Who or what is being satirized here?  Does Effinger believe all that stuff the aliens say about sexual frustration, mass production, and how humans (or just Americans, or just Westerners?) "sell themselves" and "put prices on everything they have?"  Maybe he does.  But the aliens are not exemplars; Effinger also seems to be using them to satirize the way adults pass their prejudices on to their children, and how First World people think of the Third World and how First World tourists behave in Third World countries (at one point the question of whether the folk music in a Village dive is "authentic" is raised.)

I thought "Trouble Follows" was too lame to bother figuring out, but this one is far more interesting.  Marginal thumbs up for "A Free Pass to the Carnival."

"The Westfield Heights Mall Monster"
Effinger told Wilson that this story is the "transcript of a nightmare...I woke up shaking, and crawled out of bed to write it."  Wilson tells us it is so good that having it in his anthology makes him feel like the guy on Columbus's ship who was first to spot a sign of the New World.

The story takes place in the future, after some kind of socialist revolution, and is about a guy who goes to the movies, which are free.  He gets a coke from the coke machine, and, here comes the joke, the coke machine dispenses plastic packets of cocaine!  Also free!

Most of the story consists of a detailed description of the film.  There are lots of lines like, "The camera swings left, down the main street, focusing on a large suburban shopping center," and "...the background music has returned to that ominous mode...."  The movie, apparently, is an anti-capitalist propaganda film in the form of a horror movie.  It follows two teenagers as they go to the mall, where the stores become blobs that chase them down and assimilate them.  The end of the story is full of famous phrases and references to famous images, including Winston Churchill's "we shall fight on the beaches" speech, a line from the Beatles' "Penny Lane," the Black Power salute at the Mexico City Olympics, and the October 21, 1967 photos of  protesters with flowers facing National Guardsmen (Effinger seems to be conflating two photos, taking the female protestor and the bayonets from the Marc Ribaud photo and adding them to the Bernie Boston photo in which the (male) protester actually puts a flower stem in a rifle barrel.)

This story isn't terrible, but it certainly feels long (we get detailed descriptions of the teenagers' attire, for example) and it doesn't impress upon you any strong feelings, just a sort of free form dissatisfaction with the universe.  (In the intro, Effinger explains that he is "fed up with society," but also skeptical of revolution, or, as he puts it, "bro, the Revolution don't look so cool from here, either....")  I think I've giving this one a borderline negative vote.


So far, the most entertaining thing about Clarion has been the hysterical enthusiasm of the intros and advertising blurbs; the critical pieces, like Harlan Ellison's (sample passages: "these Clarion writers are in the noblest traditions of those who have dealt with High Art," and "the revolutionary writers of sf hurl fire and thunder and lightning in their work...") promise more of the same.  The Effinger stories have been tepid, so right now I can only recommend Clarion as a kind of historical document, providing insight into literary SF's hopes and fears in 1970, but I'll read some more of the fiction in the coming days and see if there are any gems in here. 

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