Saturday, October 1, 2016

Six 1970s stories from Barry Malzberg

I recently was thrilled to discover, at Karen Wickliff Books here in Columbus, Ohio, a copy of Pocket Books' 1976 paperback, The Best of Barry N. Malzberg.  This book is huge, over 400 pages, and I love the nude idealized Everyman cover.  It's time to crack open this baby and try to grok the first third or so!

The introduction to the volume, dated "February 1974 : New Jersey" (MPorcius's home state!) is full of interesting info on the publishing industry and the life of the professional literary man in the 1960s and '70s.  Some will find Malzberg's bragging that he is the most prolific (70 novels written in 9 years, over 200 short stories in seven years) and best ("there are a few contemporaries in my field who are better novelists than I....but none to whom I will defer as a short-story writer") living writer and editor ("I set records that old-timers still talk about...twenty-two short stories rejected in a morning!") off-putting, but I find this kind of extravagance amusing, and Malzberg leavens his boasting with a big dollop of self-deprecation and a heavy sauce of tragedy.  The most important thing to take from the intro, I believe, is that Malzberg thinks of himself as a literary writer (he hints that Philip Roth was a kind of model for his young self) but, as the literary market had dried up and literary people are envious jerks, his only way of realizing a career as a working writer was to cater to the genre market, especially the science fiction market.  (Don't forget the sleaze market, though!)

"A Reckoning" (1973)

Malzberg writes an intro to each of the 38 stories in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg.  In the intro to "A Reckoning" he gushes about how much he loves Cyril Kornbluth's work.  (Malzberg says in the introduction to this volume that "ninety percent" of science fiction writers are "hacks" and that few SF writers can "write at all;" nevertheless I often find him extravagantly praising individual SF writers, including ones like Mack Reynolds whom I think are pretty mediocre.)  Malzberg picks out "The Marching Morons" for praise.  I am a Kornbluth skeptic, and in particular thought "Marching Morons" was bad, and I'm not the only one!  Well let's see what "A Reckoning," which Malzberg tells us is "a pastiche" of the work of Kornbluth, whom he calls "a brother," is all about.

"A Reckoning"'s seven pages are a preliminary report, a sort of summary or prospectus of a much larger report, from a researcher who is finishing up a study of an astronaut, Antonio Smith, who has been lost while penetrating the atmosphere of Jupiter.  The researcher declares that Smith was insane, but it is clear to the reader that the researcher himself is also likely insane.  He claims that he has documents that rival investigators have no access to, has put an explosive booby trap on the documents to dissuade other researchers from getting them, and, furthermore, is in psychic contact with the lost spaceman.  I liked how, like one of the Samuel Johnson's numerous early biographers, the narrator is rushing to get his work published before that of his rivals, whom he calls a bunch of liars.

Malzberg writes again and again about astronauts who are insane, and much of his work takes up the theme that the space program is somehow doomed, either a total waste or literally a threat to humanity.  "A Reckoning" is in this vein; we learn (should the researcher and/or Smith be believed) that Jupiter is inhabited and the visit from Antonio Smith is going to trigger the conquest of Earth by these Jovians.

"A Reckoning" is exactly what we expect from Malzberg; I haven't read The Falling Astronauts or "Out From Ganymede" in years, but "A Reckoning" feels like a condensed version of elements from both of them.  (I'm going to admit I have no idea how this story has anything more in common with a Kornbluth story than does any other Malzberg story.)  It would be easy to criticize Malzberg for doing the same thing again, but I liked seeing its various classic Malzbergian ideas in this concentrated form, so "A Reckoning" gets a thumbs up from me.

("A Reckoning" first appeared in New Dimensions 3 under the title "Notes Leading Down to the Conquest."  Tricky!)

"Letting It All Hang Out" (1974)

In his intro to "Letting It All Hang Out" our man Barry describes how much trouble he had getting this one sold.  It finally appeared in an issue of Fantastic as "Hanging," and, Barry tells us, appears in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg slightly revised.  He also tells us it could have been written by Stanley Elkin. Elkin is one of those important literary writers I know nothing about.

"Letting It All Hang Out," six pages, is a satirical fantasy that suggests that contemporary cliches like "freak out" and "give me five" are actually composed by a guy sitting in an office somewhere.  Every day a messenger comes by to collect the "eight to ten typewritten pages" of new cliches, reminding me of the messenger boys who would come to whatever tavern or rich guy's house at which Samuel Johnson was hanging out to collect copy for the latest issue of The Rambler just before deadline.  The plot of the story concerns the messenger telling the cliche writer that he is being laid off.

I like it.

Introduction to "The Man in the Pocket"

I'm skipping the next story, the sixty page "The Man in the Pocket," because it was integrated into the novel, The Men Inside, which I read and wrote about in 2011. Malzberg's introduction to the story is interesting; he considers that The Men Inside is one of the least read of his novels because it is "not precisely upbeat."  Well, Joachim Boaz and I read it with some care, so, Barry, consider that all your labor on it was worth it!

"Pater Familias" (1972)

This is a collaboration with Kris Neville, and in his intro to the story Malzberg gushes about how great Neville is.  He recommends in particular Neville's "Ballenger's People," which I read in February of 2015, "Cold War," which I read in January of 2015, and "The Price of Simeryl," which I own (in The Far-Out People) but haven't read yet.  "Pater Familias," which Barry informs us is a failed story of his which Neville heavily revised, first appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

In the late 1990s a machine will be available for sale that lets you summon your parents from the past for just a few minutes. Why just your parents? Why just a few minutes? This story feels pretty contrived, but is self aware of how contrived it is.

Anyway, the story's narrator, who had a very bad relationship with his father, buys one of these devices and summons his dead father a few times for a chat. Their conversations go so poorly that the narrator's father whips out a knife (he carries it with him to protect himself from the draft rioters endemic to 1988) and kills himself. The next time the narrator summons his father, his rotting corpse appears.  Soon after, the government outlaws the machine.  (I was instantly reminded of that Carter Scholz story I just read--is 1970s SF chockablock with calls for greater government regulation of time travel?)

When I read it I thought this four-page story a little slight, but now that I am reliving "Pater Familias," so to speak, as I write about it, I am laughing, so, thumbs up.

"Going Down" (1975)

Years ago Joachim Boaz and I both read the Malzberg stories from Future City, including the dystopian "Culture Lock," in which the government forces everybody to participate in homosexual orgies.  (At the link is Joachim's blog post on Future City, where we both air our opinions and theories about "Culture Lock," as well as a good Lafferty story, "The World as Will and Wallpaper;" my contributions appear in the comments.)  Well, here is another dystopian Malzberg piece with homosexuality as a theme.  "Going Down" first appeared in the anthology Dystopian Visions, and would later be included in the 1984 anthology Kindred Spirits: An Anthology of Gay and Lesbian Science Fiction. 

You might call "Going Down" a character study. Our narrator (who suffers from dissociative disorder and sometimes talks about himself in the third person) was born on November 22, 1963, the day JFK was murdered, and strongly identifies with the young monarch of America's Camelot, even indulging in the fantasy that Kennedy's soul passed into his infant body on that fateful day.  As he grows older the narrator is disappointed in his life; he sees JFK as a man who fulfilled all of his desires, while he himself is a failure, a stifled man who works at a government welfare agency where he deals with violent and grasping public assistance cases who browbeat him.

The 1980s and '90s depicted in the story include some crazy elements; for example, the Kennedy clan is worshipped by the masses--on "Kennedy Day" government employees are required to attend a weird ceremony in which dancers reenact the Dallas assassination and a giant image of JFK's face ("sixteen feet high") is hoisted into the air.  (I thought Malzberg was trying to construct parallels between the fall of the Roman Republic and the JFK assassination, with JFK as a Julius Caesar figure; it is implied that JFK's brothers and/or son become president, forming a dynasty, or at least that American presidents take the name of "Kennedy" the way the Roman emperors took the name "Caesar.")

In hopes of becoming the man he would like to be, the narrator pays a considerable sum of money for therapy at an "Institute."  Several of the short chapters of this at times fragmented and oblique 22-page story are internal correspondence penned by Institute personnel.  The narrator receives a sort of hypnotic dream therapy which allows him to experience, as if they really happened, his desires to have anal sex with young boys, adult men, and animals.  The good people at the Institute also throw murder and incest into the mix; this story is full of violent gay sex.  There are also characters who may be real, may merely by products of the therapy or the narrator's insanity, or metaphorical representations of portions of the narrator's psyche, or some combination thereof.  Does the therapy work?  I guess that depends on your perspective; the narrator does not achieve his dreams of being "satisfied in every orifice," like his hero JFK, but the therapy does seem to calm him down ("He feels nothing.")  Something like a lobotomy or a neutering, perhaps?

Crazy and potentially offensive in any number of ways (it seems to both render conventional and to pathologize homosexuality), "Going Down" is absorbing, and I think better than most of the Kennedy-related Malzberg stories I have read.  I also appreciated how it had a recognizable plot arc, actual characters, and memorable images, things we don't always get from our wild and crazy buddy Barry.
"Those Wonderful Years" (1973)

This is a pretty mainstream literary story on the theme of how the past can serve as a stable foundation but also as an albatross that can hold you back if you become too attached to it.  The narrator is an insurance claims investigator who is not only obsessed with old pop music ("golden oldies"), but actually lives his life with a deliberate effort to create memories for which he can be nostalgic in the future.  His relationship with his girlfriend, who thinks the nostalgia craze is a government plot to distract people from the problems of the present, collapses when she insists he make a serious commitment to her and start "living in the now."  Malzberg suggests that the girlfriend is like one of the accident victims whose claims he has been able to deny by scrupulous investigation of the facts and following of the rules, that the narrator's commitment to his values has lead him to lack compassion and charity and fail to support others when he might have.  Is it possible that this man who is obsessed with happy memories is actually piling up a bunch of regrets?

Not bad.  "Those Wonderful Years" was first published in Frontiers 1: Tomorrow's Alternatives, the cover of which depicts a naked girl in an egg with a giant frog.  (You may recall that I own a copy of Frontiers 2: The New Mind, the cover of which depicts a naked man with his arm chopped off.)   

"On Ice" (1973)

In his intro to the story Malzberg says "On Ice" is probably the most controversial story ever published in Amazing.  "Letters were violent for months afterward," he relates, and admits that it "pains" even him to reread it!

"On Ice" uses the same conceit as "Going Down," which would appear two years later. (Maybe I should have read these stories in chronological order?  Well, in the intro to the volume Malzberg warns us that some took years to sell, so publication order doesn't match the order in which they were composed, so probably it doesn't matter.)  There is an Institute where you can get hypnotherapy which gives you the experience of having sex with whoever you want, including your parents.  The first paragraph of the six-page tale is a graphic depiction of a guy having sex with his mother! (You have to retch or laugh, or both, at lines like "'Give it to me, son!' she shrieks....")

The use of the therapy in this story parallels the issue of drugs in real life, and seems also to be some kind of lament about money and how it (according to Malzberg) corrupts people and society.  The therapy, of course, is supposed to be used sparingly to cure the patient of psychological problems, but the narrator uses it as recreation.  A doctor warns him that he may become addicted, but the narrator, accurately, asserts that the Institute will keep giving him his fix as long as he pays, that they care more about money than actually helping people.  I detected a possible caricature of libertarian ideology in the story, as the narrator repeatedly talks about how he is "free," thanks to his wealth and society's technological developments, to do whatever he wants as long as he isn't hurting anyone.  In the last therapy session in the story the narrator eagerly indulges in a scenario in which he rapes and tortures the ineffectual doctor who tried to get between him and his pleasure.

This is a graphic, shocking piece of work, and it is easy to see why it would be controversial.  But I don't think it is gratuitous; it is economical, has a provocative point of view, and is effective.


I don't want to sound like a fanboy, but I have to admit that all six of these stories, and all the introductory material, are good.  I'm even more pleased than before to have got my hands on a copy of The Best of Barry N. Malzberg; this is a must for all Malzberg fans and for those interested in literary SF from the '60s and '70s.  And I still have over 250 pages to go!

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