09 April 2005 by Published in: entertainment No comments yet

I love Ray Bradbury. I had recently been thinking that it had been too long since I’d read over any of his stories. I remembered with fondness and nostalgia the wonder of discovery on reading The Illustrated Man, the aged before their time feel of the pages of my cheap copy of The Martian Chronicles, the thrill of seeing the thick eyebrowed author himself pull the page out of his typewriter at the beginning of the TV show I watched late night during my early college days. What a master of the short story form. It was quite a delight to discover that he is still writing and publishing. Unlike so many others of the authors I loved in my young adulthood, this one is not only still here, he is also still writing and I still love his stuff. Others have died, or ceased writing, or somehow lost their luster for me. So Bradbury has a special place in my heart, and it was with near reverence that I approached Cat’s Pajamas. I can’t say that it doesn’t seem weird in the extreme to be reviewing his work. I have honestly never thought about his work in that critical way before, and simply enjoyed it for its ability to whisk me away. This probably has as much to do with his gift as it does with the age at which I first encountered him.

What an extraordinary volume this is! It spans over fifty years of stories, starting from tales created in the late 1940s to pieces written as recently as 2004, all but two never before published. It also spans every possible genre, from fantasy to horror to romance to humor to tragedy. This book has included every possibility of the type of writer Bradbury might have exclusively been. To think that he was (and is) all of those incarnations in one iteration boggles the mind. It’s amazing to think that some of these stories sat mostly forgotten in his basement for decades before being given out to us an audience. I liked the order the stories have been placed in, which is not chronological. Each story has its date included beneath the title. Old and new stories abut, speaking to and of one another in a discourse that is layered, subtle and fascinating. For example, the last line of the story “The Island” (1952) is “Then, and only then, did she stop crying.” while the first line of the story that follows it, “Sometime Before Dawn” (1950), is “It was the crying late at night, perhaps, the hysteria and then the sobbing violently…”. The placement of the stories (for which, to be fair, I do not know if I can give Bradbury the credit as perhaps this was the work of his editor) is just as skillfully executed as the stories themselves.

There are some really strong, standout pieces in this collection: particularly the racially charged opener “Chrysalis” (1946-1947), the old school, apocalyptic “Sometime Before Dawn” (1950), the creepy “A Matter of Taste” (1952) and the unabashedly tender “Cat’s Pajamas” (2003). The volume is easy to read and compelling, with the vast majority of the stories included as courses of a banquet to be relished. This is still a master at work. However, during my progress throughout the book, I realized that I love old Bradbury far more than I love new Bradbury. The new stuff is not as good, and I’m not sure I can exactly pinpoint why that is, though of course I shall try. There’s the failure of “Sixty-Six” (2003), for example, to make me feel any of the righteous anger which propel the characters inside it, though I’m certain I’m meant to be cheering for them. Or arriving at the end of “The John Wilkes Booth/Warner Brothers/MGM/NBC Funeral Train” (2003) and thinking “Zuh? Was that supposed to mean something to me?”. Or even realizing with a kind of disappointed jolt, when I read “Ole, Orozco! Siquieros, Si!”, that this premise had been done better by others. The primary thing I noticed, however, was the decline of his ear for dialogue. It’s as though he’s slowly become deaf to the cadences and subtleties of conversation. Maybe it’s an attempt at being more realistic, and maybe people talk in ways that are harsher, more boring and too blatant today. Whatever the reason, too many of his characters are reduced to saying “My God!” and “Bastards!”, sometimes several times a page. Maybe they always did this and I didn’t notice, but I don’t think so. The earlier stories included here have a lot less of those interjections than the later ones and while I have no essential gripe with an occasional interjection, it does seem kind of a cheap shot to keep using that (and not much else) as a telegraph for a character’s emotion. Even though it bothered me in most stories, even this objection is not an absolute rule, since one case where pages of single word interjections worked surprisingly well is the mischievious “All My Enemies Are Dead” (2003). To be fair, a good number of the later stories are just wonderful, such as the outrageously comical “Hail to The Chief” (2003-2004) and others that I’ve already mentioned.

I want to draw attention to one more tale that I find hard to categorize, but that I thought was superb, and that’s the simultaneously disappointed and hopeful “We’ll Just Act Natural” (1948-1949). Bradbury himself, in the introduction, describes the story as a sort of what-if about himself, an examination that’s none too charitable. The story has such a well-spring of conflicted emotions, and is written through a powerful lens of love, so that I found myself very moved by it, despite its simplicity, lack of robots or aliens, and its uncharacteristic zero ending. It puts me in mind of painters who work at still lifes, a set of simple objects, a mundane tableau which through careful work of a master’s stroke reveals a deeper truth than what it depicts.

Ultimately, my criticisms are little more than small quibbles, to be expected with such a broad and varied collection. It is well worth reading, especially to anyone who has enjoyed Bradbury in the past.


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