Monday, January 2, 2017

Six stories from 1973-74 by Barry Malzberg

You didn't think I had forgotten about Barry Malzberg and his 1976 collection The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, did you?  I was just taking a little breakypoo!  It's a new year, and time for some more of Malzberg's idiosyncratic fiction and keen insight into the writer's life and the history of genre literature.  This will be the fourth installment in our exploration of The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, which we began in October of 2016.  Here are links to the earlier episodes:

October 1, 2016

October 4, 2016

October 30, 2016

And now six more early 1970s tales from the notorious BNZ, whose Underlay was one of my favorite reads of 2016.

"City Lights, City Nights" (1973)

I find the extravagant way people talk about JFK and his murder tiresome, but all that Camelot jazz happened before I was born in 1971; Malzberg lived through it, and it seems to have had a big effect on him.  He tells us in the intro to "City Lights, City Nights" found here in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg that he first heard about the assassination while at the Aqueduct racetrack in Queens.  (I lived in Queens myself for like three years, but far from the track; my girlfriend (now my wife) and I lived quite close to the East River, in the border zone between Astoria and Long Island City, in what the landlord called a "garden apartment."  An equally appropriate description would have been "the basement."  One year our place flooded with sewage, and another year it was overrun with swarming winged ants.)  Malzberg admits to being "obsessed" with political assassinations, and seems to think that the literary community has failed to produce a work worthy of the topic.  Specifically, Malzberg argues that J. G. Ballard's "serious body of post-assassination fiction" "does not count" because Ballard is not an American, and that "That Day" by Robie Macauley is "dismal" and Wright Morris's One Day is "cheaply melodramatic."

In the future, Manhattan's skyscrapers are falling apart and its population is limited to those our narrator calls "the lumpen," criminals and dolts who are confined to the decrepit island.  Our narrator is an "Outsider" who has come to Manhattan to direct a film reenacting the assassination of President Kennedy, using local amateur actors. The story largely consists of his bitter complaints that the lumpen actors are terrible and lamentations that the repeated rehearsals are probably a waste of time, may even be degrading the quality of their performances by rendering them more mechanical and less spontaneous.

Kennedy worship leaves me cold, so I was pleased that Malzberg in this story uses the murder of the 35th President as much as an occasion to talk about other things as a subject in its own right.  The complaints of a snobbish artiste having to deal with actors whose incompetence approaches slapstick proportions made me laugh, and I found compelling the central insight of the story: it depicts an educated intellectual (presumably a "liberal") who romanticized and sympathized with the lower classes in the abstract, but finds himself disgusted by them when he actually meets them.  The narrator quickly comes to the conclusion that if the lumpen have it hard in life, it is largely because of their own inadequacies and poor choices.  "Dogs, pigs!" he yells at them.  "You deserve to be in the city!  Once I took pity on you, but that was before I came to know what you are!"

The lumpen achieve their revenge on the liberal who claimed to feel for them but in fact had contempt for them and manipulated them for his own ends (why do I feel like this sort of thing just happened in real life?), making the director play the part of JFK in an all-too-real reenactment of that assassination in Dallas so many years ago.

"City Lights, City Nights" would go on to form part of Malzberg's 1974 novel The Destruction of the Temple, and originally appeared in Roger Elwood's anthology Future City.  I think I've told you this before, but if you are curious about Future City and early '70s SF in general, you should check out the blog posts about Future City by elite vintage SF bloggers tarbandu and Joachim Boaz.  For an alternative take on "City Lights, City Nights"/The Destruction of the Temple, check out 2theD's review of The Destruction of the Temple at Potpourri of Science Fiction; while I here focus on the short story's depiction of the tension between the lower orders and the middle-class liberals who sometimes claim to champion them, 2theD talks about the importance, in the full-scale novel version, of the idea that city life is dehumanizing and that the pressures of urban life have caused many of the social problems we associate with 1960s and 1970s America.


"Culture Lock" (1973)

Another story from Future City.  In the intro to this printing of "Culture Lock" Malzberg takes pains to tell us again and again that he sees nothing wrong with homosexuality and welcomes the growing acceptance of gays.  You see, while the theme of "Culture Lock" is the dangers of government experts interfering in the lives of the people, the substance of the story is gay anal sex, and Malzberg is certainly vulnerable to the charge of exploiting people's disgust at homosexual intercourse in an effort to give his story, one of many depictions of a tyrannical dystopia, a little extra punch that might help it stand out from the crowd.  Passing the buck, Barry says that this story resulted from a request from "the commissioning editor" (presumably Roger Elwood) for a story condemning homosexuality.

The story's six pages are the tale of Bert, a man living in a hundred-story public housing project in a city where there are absolutely no women.  Weekly group sex sessions are essentially obligatory, and the ritual before each orgy (a "statement" of "the principles") makes clear that the government prescribes these group sex sessions as a means of crushing individualism and artificially creating a collective group solidarity among the men of the city.  "Brothers all, one to one and then together for the greater good."  We learn that sociologists designed this system forty years earlier.

Reminiscent of the policies of socialist countries that ostensibly try to legislate equality and solidarity but instead lead to mass poverty and rampant corruption, the city's policy is a human disaster as well as a failure on its own terms.  None of the men in the story believe "the principles," and they still feel envy and jealousy and desire monogamous relationships, relationships which the mandatory orgies impossible to maintain.  Instead of pursuing brotherhood and working together for the good of the city, the men are violently at odds with each other, the strong preying upon the weak physically and emotionally.

With its graphic depictions of non-consensual homosexual sex and suggestion that gay sex is characteristically exploitative, as well as the story's sexist undertones, (the narrator repeatedly describes the passive participant in anal sex as having been "made the woman,") "Culture Lock" is probably going to disturb almost everybody who reads it.  An effective and unsettling piece of work about the dangers of elite intervention into the private lives of individuals that employs homosexuality as its vehicle.

Thumbs up!

"As In a Vision Apprehended" (1973)

Here's another story from Roger Elwood's anthology The Berserkers--Elwood included three stories by his pal Barry in The Berserkers, and we've already read one of them, "Trial of the Blood," back in October, and will read the third, "Form in Remission," later today.

In his introduction to "As In a Vision Apprehended" here in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, the author tells us it is one of the few of his stories which addresses "the Judaic theme."  This is a pretty straightforward philosophical horror story about how people (one of the characters says this specifically of the Jewish people) ignore warnings and fail to plan ahead, though maybe I am missing something.

Mottel, a Jew in Eastern Europe in 1878, is possessed by a demon (sometimes it is referred to as a "dybbuk,") and suffers feverish, agonizing visions of the next century--these prophetic visions indicate that it will be a century of mechanized mass murder! Doctors and conventional rabbis are unable to help Mottel, so a mystic is enlisted.  The mystic meets the sick man on the road; Mottel has decided to walk the 500 kilometers to the capitol to warn the authorities of the disaster that will be the 20th century.  The mystic exorcises the demon, but it enters his old and weak body, killing him.

Not a bad story, but conventional and simple when compared to most components of Malzberg's body of work--this story is actually written in the past tense in the third person!

"Form in Remission" (1973)

This story appears to be a sort of riff on Kafka's famous "Metamorphosis."  Our narrator, an anti-social and depressed office clerk in his early forties, wakes up one morning to find a man-sized insect with eyes all over its body lying in bed with him. The creature tells the clerk that it will accompany him closely, the rest of his days. The punchline of the story, which Malzberg in his intro complains was spoiled by a "blurb" written by "the editor of the anthology in which this piece first appeared," presumably Roger Elwood, comes when the narrator asks the monster "Why are you with me?  This is hell."  The monster responds "you're not in hell.  I'm in hell."  I don't know if I like the way this is worded; if they are both in the same place, aren't they both in Hell?  I guess the point (and surprise twist) of the story is that the clerk and/or his life is so dreadful that spending time with him has been chosen by the deity of some alien planet or dimension to serve as punishment.

Introduction to "Opening Fire"

I'm skipping "Opening Fire" because I wrote about it when I read some stories from Roger Elwood's The New Mind back in 2014.  In his intro to "Opening Fire" here in The Best of Barry N. Malzberg, Malzberg tells us that in traditional SF stories aliens are usually ruthless enemies out to destroy humanity or benign beings we should accept as models, and points out that these "views are the opposite sides of the child's reactions toward his parents in middle-class culture...."  Then he says that he prefers a vision of aliens as incompetent low level bureaucrats.

"Running Around" (1973)

In the intro to "Running Around" Malzberg tells us that (unspecified) studies indicate that "the turnover in commercial, genre writing among readers is close to ninety percent in four years...."  This means that, Barry laments, science fiction "has no history," that almost none of the people reading SF in a given year will have any knowledge of SF stories from ten years ago or earlier.

"Running Around" is about time travel, and Malzberg tells us he didn't really want to write a time travel story, but did it because an editor (again, one assumes the unnamed editor is Roger Elwood, as "Running Around" first appeared in Elwood's Omega) requested a time travel story.  Despite his reluctance, Malzberg produces a quite fun little piece of pessimistic humor here, the most entertaining story I'm talking about in this blog post.

A guy in 1973 is so unhappy with his government job and his marriage that he decides to commit suicide.  In fact, he wishes he had never been born!  Luckily, as a hobby, he has invented a time machine in his basement!  He goes back in time to 1903 to murder his grandfather and to 1933 to murder his father.

I laughed at many of the jokes in "Running Around," and I have a weakness for stories about difficult sexual relationships and difficult parent-child relationships, so I am all over this one.


"Overlooking" (1974)

This one doesn't provide an opportunity to praise or criticize Roger Elwood; it appeared in Amazing, at that time edited by Ted "Spawn of the Death Machine" White.

"Overlooking" is another Kennedy story, one set in 1962, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in an alternate universe, a world in which things are going considerably worse than they did in our own world.  It is strongly suggested, for example, that the current dispute over the Soviet deployment of missiles in Cuba will lead to nuclear war.   Things are so bad that movie theatres have been refitted into "memory palaces," where people gather to watch newsreels from the happier days of the early 1950s in hopes of forgetting the current, disastrous, state of affairs.  Our narrator, who hasn't been able to achieve an erection since the "great depression of 1955" seven years ago, blames the government, specifically the president, for all his and the world's problems.

The central mystery of the story is the question of who is president in this universe's 1962; Malzberg does not clearly state the President's name but instead presents clues that support two alternative theories: one that Richard Nixon is president, another that JFK is in the White House, as he was in real life, though perhaps a JFK less smooth and photogenic than the one my mother swoons over.  I'm going to guess that the clues pointing to Kennedy are red herrings, and the president whom the impotent narrator calls "crazy" and a derelict beggar calls "a fucker" and who is going to lead the world into atomic war against the USSR is Nixon.  



A good batch of stories that run the gamut--some funny, some potentially controversial and upsetting, some including little puzzles--and are characteristically Malzbergian, with their preoccupation with JFK and sexual frustration and dysfunction.

We're on page 322 of this 398-page volume; keep an eye on this space for the final episode in our look at The Best of Barry N. Malzberg in the coming weeks!


  1. Nice review fellow Malzberg fan!

    I have to admit, I the VERY first Malzberg short story I read was "Culture Lock" (1973) and at the time I despised it as I did now know how satirical he was being etc. I wonder what I would think now. It's a morally odd story, not sure where his own views lie.

    A list of SF stories about Kennedy assassination paranoia would be comprised mostly of Malzberg -- haha.

    1. I remember those days when people, including me, were recommending Malzberg to you! Luckily you stuck with him after "Culture Lock."

      In his intro to "Culture Lock" in Best of he really works hard to inoculate himself from charges of homophobia, in the process throwing Roger Elwood under the bus (as the kids say nowadays.)

      Whether or not Malzberg or the reader is personally disgusted by homosexual sex, I think the story works because it portrays the government trying to crush monogamy by forcing people into public promiscuity; Malzberg combines our fears of government tyranny with our fears of sexual dysfunction, one of Malzberg's recurring themes. Malzberg did the same thing in "Getting Around," another story for Elwood from 1973, with the difference that the government is forcing people to have heterosexual group sex. I wrote about "Getting Around" on October 30, 2015.

      An interesting thing about Malzberg, one way he differs from older and more prominent SF writers like Heinlein Sturgeon, and Pangborn, is that while they celebrate and romanticize sex as a means of expressing love and bringing people together, Malzberg focuses in his work on the challenges of sexual life, portraying one failed relationship after another, rape, and the use of sex as a weapon. This mirrors the way space travel, celebrated by, say, Heinlein and Anderson, is portrayed by Malzberg as a challenge mankind is not ready, perhaps not even interested in, overcoming.

      I'm glad you liked my review, and there are definitely more to come: Screen and Universe Day and Herovit's World and Overlay are right there on my shelf!

  2. His comic horrors and exhausting failures of sex is a theme that places Malzberg into the cohort of Jewish writers of the then-preceding 15 years: Mailer, Philip Roth, Wallace Markfield, Bruce Jay Friedman. Also remember that the poor man had to churn out some 25 stiffeners in the first three years of his professional career just to survive – so the thrill of writing about sex would probably rather have worn away by the early 70s.

    - matthew davis

    1. You are absolutely right--in the intro to Best of Malzberg hints that as a beginning writer he saw Roth's career as a model for his own, and when I read Malzberg's Horizontal Woman I compared it to works by Roth and Bellow, all three books being largely about NYC-area Jews dealing with African-Americans.