The race tracks must be away from the center of the metropolitan areas because they represent--at least, to those who patronize them--the excision of all those values on which the metropolitan areas themselves are based: rationality, causality, consequence, effort, consumption, production, accretion, etc. The racetracks are founded upon something different; they are selling (and selling well) the conception that there is no simple way out, that causality is meaningless, that accretion has to do only with psychic conditions and not with possessions (which must be metaphors for true gain) and if they are too close to the metropolitan areas, the message might move uncomfortably near to a larger heterogeneity of the population. They represent an alternative. And the alternative is one of annihilation, devastation and waste.Spider and Jeanne Robinson and comparing his style to Steve Rasnic Tem's, as well as pointing out his admiration for Henry Kuttner and C. L. Moore. Well, let's quit pulling at the scab of our Malzberg obsession and mainline some vintage Barry--1972's Overlay. I own a copy of the Lancer paperback edition of the novel which, barely legible stamps indicate, was once in the collection of the Library at Ohio State University's Mansfield Campus. On Overlay's acknowledgements page we are informed that Chapter I of the novel appeared in a different form in F&SF in 1970. That "different form" is the story entitled "Notes Just Prior To The Fall," which I read in 2017 in an Ace Double collection.
In two prologues we learn that in Earth Year 1978 the government of the galaxy decided that Earth, with its population of "dangerous and insane" people, was a menace that had to be dealt with. (Malzberg, writing in the first years of the Seventies, portrays 1970-1978 as "The Welfare Decade," full of high taxes, government debt, riots, arson and religious mania.) Our narrator, an agent of "the Bureau" tasked with dealing with the problem presented by Earth, introduces himself in the second prologue--the lion's share of the text of Overlay is this alien's diary, the keeping of which he admits is forbidden: "Agents are supposed to leave no written testaments to their mission...." The narrator describes his meeting with his superior, who tells him that the way to destroy Earth civilization is to "energize" and "manipulate" a "subpopulation." The boss has already selected the appropriate subpopulation: "horseplayers."
Four people who are addicted to betting on the races and live in the NYC area are selected at random and the narrator begins communicating with them. The narrator is invisible to them, and can read their minds, send them telepathic messages, and even tinker with their brains, working them like puppets if he so chooses. (Malzberg sort of compares the alien's manipulation of the Earthlings to the way humans ride horses.) Three of the four gamblers suspect that the voice they hears who gives them bad advice on how to bet at the track is evidence they are insane, as you might expect. The fourth is a woman.
body of work is full of people with such jobs as Malzberg himself once held such a job; writing about welfare investigators offers Malzberg rich opportunities to portray the callousness and incompetence of government, the pathologies of the poor, and the misery of middle-class educated liberals working tedious and unfulfilling jobs that put the lie to their rosy notions about the state and the underclass) is given an ultimatum by his girlfriend of three years: either he quits the horses and marries her or they break up. Seventy-eight-year-old Mary is not only a compulsive gambler but is also addicted to collecting tip sheets, and has giant stacks of them in her little apartment, organized in chronological order, and she likes to peruse old ones, reminiscing on how their advice has steered her wrong over the decades. (Compare to the Malzberg protagonists who collect stacks of old SF magazines.) Like Gardner, Mary is presented with an ultimatum--her son, though willing to foot the bill for her rent and food, refuses to finance her gambling any longer.
These are people who have screwed up their lives, and the alien narrator pushes them irreparably over the edge with his terrible advice and interventions into their brains. In the final chapters of the novel (of which there are 24, in a book of 185 pages) at the narrator's direction and sometimes compulsion Mary and Tony prepare explosives and then Mary, Tony and Gardner bomb the biggest race of the year, the Belmont (which in 1978 is being held at the Aqueduct for reasons Malzberg describes at some length), killing many people, including the President of the United States. Simmons acts as the alien's "explicator," yelling at the survivors words fed him by the narrator, a mock religious harangue ("We have forgotten the lessons of the Fathers: no fillies against colts; no maidens in straight claimers....We have been greedy. We have chased longshots. We have failed to learn the awful lessons of the tote....We have sinned!")
In a one-page epilogue we learn that the narrator has gone too far, that his superiors are angry that he has made "reclamation" of Earth "utterly impossible." Just like the human horse players, he "took it too seriously" and has screwed up his life.
I'm afraid Overlay is not among my favorite Malzberg works. While some of the kind of stuff I like--disastrous sexual and familial relationships and obsessive collectors, for example--there is a lot of horseracing material, and I don't find this as interesting as Malzberg's other typical topics, such as the space program, genre writers, and public employees. (By the way, if you don't know what an "overlay" is or don't know what "parimutuel" means, like I didn't yesterday--and will probably no longer tomorrow--you can check out this website.) And of course, like most of Malzberg's work, Overlay lacks the elements that draw most readers to genre literature in the first place: the tone and pacing are flat and monotonous, there are no thrills or chills, images and emotions are nebulous and vague rather than sharp and bold; there is little point in judging Malzberg's work on the same criteria you would use when judging a detective story or an adventure tale or one of those SF "world-building" exercises.
Malzberg's other horseracing novel, Underlay, is much better put together and much more amusing.
There are good things in Overlay, though, and I am still giving this one a thumbs up. I particularly like the idea (expressed in the epigraph I have selected for this blog post) that the Aqueduct is off in Queens instead of in Manhattan because the skyscrapers and business headquarters of the central city represent reason and order and the race track represents irrationality and chaos. Also good is a sort of metanarrative about writing--the alien agent laments his shortcomings as a writer and discusses narrative techniques, and admits that, as memoirists and "nonfiction" writers always do, he is streamlining and prettying up what he is presenting as a "true" story. (Compare to Malzberg's narrator in The Day of the Burning.)
After this hearty dose of 1970s pessimism we'll be returning to the World War II era in our next episode.