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October/November 2007
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by Elizabeth Hand

Sides, by Peter Straub, Cemetery Dance Publications, 2007, $25.

Breakfast in the Ruins: Science Fiction in the Last Millennium, by Barry N. Malzberg, Baen Books, 2007, $14.

THE novelist Peter Straub is that rare contemporary writer whose work seems genuinely timeless. In elegance and ambition, books such as Ghost Story, Koko, The Throat, Mr. X, lost boy lost girl, and the collected short fictions of Houses without Doors and Magic Terror (to name less than half of them), stake their claim to a distinctly American, artistic exurb where the supernatural and the everyday, life-shattering violence and daffodil calm, all coexist. It's a place within spitting distance of the gated communities housing the likes of Updike, Roth, McCarthy, Salter, et al.; not far removed from the sprawl that's grown up around the Gothic manse of Straub's sometime collaborator, Stephen King; it borders in its more overgrown verges briar-rose-hedges and sinister root cellars that are the haunts of Link, Carroll, Crowley, and Evenson, among others. And it's also only a streetcar stop, or, if you're feeling flush, a taxi ride from the flickering neon and broken-bottle detritus of that dive where Block and Rankin go to chase Chandler's ghost, on the nights he's buying a round.

Straub's a good neighbor to all these folks; but after reading Sides, his lovely, affecting, and keenly intelligent collection of non-fiction, one gets the impression that, late at night, when all those other writers are in bed, or just waking up, he climbs up the long hill at the edge of his demesne—the spot where, if the moon's just right, you can see both Millhaven and Dunwich—and waits as a small crowd gathers around him. These are neighbors, too, though quiet ones—Flannery O'Connor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Brian Moore, Henry James—folks who, once upon a time, might not have had a lot to say to each other but now, with Straub in their midst, might realize they've got quite a bit in common.

Sides collects nearly all of the nonfiction Straub has penned in almost two decades, from 1985 to 2006. It's a gallimaufry that consists of introductions and afterwords to works by other writers—among them Lawrence Block, Bram Stoker, H. G. Wells, Stephen King—as well as "a frivolity" and two essays, one of them the heartbreaking elegy "Mom." There's also a series of short, very funny misprisions, er, appreciations, of Straub's novels, written by his fictive academic doppelgänger Putney Tyson Ridge, Ph.D.

Straub provides brisk and informed introductions to books by Ira Levin (The Stepford Wives), Graham Joyce (Leningrad Nights), and Caitlin Kiernan (Tales of Pain and Wonder), but Sides really begins to hit its stride with a hallucinatory riff on Poppy Z. Brite's collection Are You Loathsome Tonight, where Straub invokes Flaubert, Bataille, and "The Duino Elegies." It's less an intro than what Straub terms "a kind of aria, a kind of solo" when, later in Sides, he touches on Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. In his intro to Secret Windows, a collection of essays by Stephen King, Straub provides one of the best analyses of King's writing that I've read: he strips it of ivory tower cant and condescension, and makes a strong case for placing King in the company of the nineteenth-century writer Frank Norris, whose work embraces realism and naturalism, rather than horror.

"[King's] fundamental assumption…is that writing fiction is a job like any other, and must be done honestly and well. And the basis of any such conviction is that writing done honestly and well carries its own weight, regardless of genre or (vulgar) popularity. Quietly, at the level of the lowest frequencies, King is offering an implicit rebuttal to a notion he finds elitist, absurd, and insulting, that successful commercial fiction by definition must be inferior to fiction of other sorts. Truthfulness—truthfulness of a specific kind—grants any work of fiction authenticity, strength, and dignity, King believes, and a popular commercial writer faces a greater temptation to fudge than his more "literary" colleagues, due to his consciousness of how an artificial turn or change of direction would gratify his audience, should he impose it upon the living story."
Take that, Harold Bloom.

Even Straub's more deceptively offhand remarks can nail a writer with a dizzying combination of dead-on accuracy and unexpected leaps of insight —

"Rex Stout managed to stay crisp as a snap-pea for five decades of annual visits to Nero Wolfe's brownstone, but his level of consistency over time is matched only by P. G. Wodehouse, whose Drones Club and Blandings Castle have more in common with Stout's changeless brownstone than may be immediately apparent."
This, alas, is from "Hope to Die," a marvelous essay on Lawrence Block's Scudder series, so readers wanting more of the Wolfe/Wooster equation will have to wait. I haven't read Block's books (though I'm now presold on them). But "Hope to Die" finds that crack in the world that Leonard Cohen wrote about—the place where the light gets in—in this case, the jagged seam where the familiar fabric of crime fiction is torn away to reveal something bigger, stranger, more elemental and more powerful.
"…the Scudder series…presents violence in its most ideologically troubling form, as a variety of ecstasy. Though you would never guess it from reading the average crime novel, violence and the sacred share a common seam, they walk hand in hand, for both invoke the ultimate things."
The connection between ecstasy and violence, the continual human striving for transcendence through heightened states—sex, the supernatural, music; romantic or obsessive or deranged love—is, of course, one of the things that informs most of Peter Straub's fiction. Which makes it all the more impressive that he can also create such succinct, almost mathematically precise (and cheeky) assessments of, say, the difference between goth and Gothic in an essay on Dracula
"The ever-more-numerous fictions…describing the adventures of contemporary vampires, which adopt the repression vs. sexual anarchy template by inverting it to make the vampire heroic (Repression, boo! Go, you sexy immortal!) are almost always utterly enjoyable, but they are 'goth' rather than Gothic: less grand, less inward, and stabilized around a less inclusive vision of human nature. The supernatural has been externalized, therefore tamed, and what we are left with are empowerment fantasies described as 'transgressive.' Stoker's vampires are Gothic, and the transgressive, while immensely seductive, is about as glamorous as a wound."
Straub turns a more antic gaze upon his own oeuvre, writing as Professor Putney Ridge, "long the Chairman and sole member of the Department of Popular Culture at Popham College," "the Sewanee of the West" or "Middlebury writ small." Professor Ridge has turned the act of damning with faint praise into an art form as rarefied as tanka. I excerpt here the final sentences from several of his reviews:
"One wishes that [Straub] had been capable of learning from his own, no doubt bitter, example."

"A trivial bit of juvenilia understandably suppressed very nearly since its publication."

"Coy, smirking references to jazz musicians are hardly the worst of Ghost Story's exhibitionist failings."

"The title of the novella has no discernible significance whatsoever."

And, my personal favorite:
"The novel does contain some excellent descriptions of snow."
Still, the heart of this collection is "Mom," an autobiographical essay on Straub's midwestern childhood and his parents—a charming, somewhat feckless father who longed for a son who'd play with the Green Bay Packers, and a stoic, fiercely intelligent, often rage-filled mother who juggled a nursing career with the domestic rigors of housework and childrearing. Straub's father remarks, "You know, I hate art. I don't know why, I just hate it"; his mother's disappointments make her "a resentful cook" who gives voice to endless angry recitations while cleaning the floors. But Straub is too generous a writer and person to pen a bitter memoir of childhood grievances. "Mom," while poignant in its depiction of the nascent writer who appears, cuckoo-like, in the bewildered brown sparrows' nest, steers a clear course between sentimentality and dry, Garrison Keillor-esque comedy. When, at a distressingly young age, Straub's mother begins to display odd ritualist behaviors and memory lapses, the reader's heart catches; but again, there's no sentimentality here, no Oprah-staged moments of closure or redemption; just real people in real pain, displaying the sort of everyday decency that the media calls Heroism, but which Straub knows is really humanism in its simplest, perhaps greatest, form. "Mom" is an elegy for a parent, a life lost not once but twice, to Alzheimer's and then to death; a meditation on loss that is as moving, in its way, as C. S. Lewis's A Grief Observed. It shows Peter Straub at his best, a clear-eyed, deeply humane writer who knows first-hand the darkest, coldest soul-gnawing terrors that the night holds for all of us, yet is unafraid to stand beside his readers and wait for dawn to come.

But it lacks any descriptions of snow.

*     *     *

I read Barry Malzberg's collection of critical essays, The Engines of the Night, when it first appeared in 1982, and found it a bracingly dark, often contentious, defiantly melancholy insider's take on what at the time still seemed very much a boy's club. Damon Knight, Robert Silverberg, John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov—these, among others, were the guys Malzberg (mostly) admired and wrote about. At the time this grated on me, though I knew it wasn't Malzberg's fault the field still hadn't been successfully colonized by the mistresses of the night, though certainly the feminization of science fiction had begun and was well underway.

Now, reading Breakfast in the Ruins, a much-expanded collection that includes work from the '90s and noughts, I can see more clearly what took on the woman's role in the original book: science fiction itself. Malzberg writes with all the passion and fury of a true romantic, one who knows his lover is unworthy of him: of vulgar parentage, often shallow, capricious, ruthless, capable of infinite and subtle infidelities. She will betray him, and does, often —

And yet, and yet. She can be beautiful, possessed of immense wit and even wisdom; brave sometimes, taking risks that other, more domestically inclined lovers avoid; not afraid of political engagement, surprisingly open-minded, welcoming of outsiders. Her narrow-mindedness and conservatism in sexual matters over time gave way to a far more exploratory nature; there were threesomes, foursomes, some darker impulses that might best have been left alone. Some of these forays inclined her sympathies toward ivory tower extremists but, fickle as ever, she remains easily seduced by whatever's new and shining. It's part of her charm; it's what we love about her. Even Malzberg. Methinks the writer doth protest too much.

Breakfast in the Ruins is a delight, though I suspect the author would shake his head dolefully at that assessment. The onetime Schubert Foundation Playwriting Fellow is brilliant, hilarious, and cold-eyed by turns, as unsparing in his judgments upon the failures of the literature he so loves as he is of himself.

"As a writer who could write a little in a field where almost no one could write at all, as enough of a cynical hack to purposefully manipulate my work and as one who had an excellent understanding of the field by virtue of childhood reading…I was able, I say in all due modesty, to produce a body of work which is without parallel, quantitatively, in the history of the field."
If you doubt him, check out the essay titled "Some Notes on the Lone Wolf," which should be required reading for anyone tempted by the glamour of writing novelizations or media tie-ins. In 1973 Malzberg signed on to write ten novels in the Executioner series, for a $27,500 advance (25% upon signing). His John Hancock was on the contracts on January 16. By Valentine's Day he'd delivered the first three books.

None dare call it hackwork: Malzberg is the Iron Man of genre writing. Someone should name an award after him. Elsewhere, there is a wonderful account of working with the legendary Maurice Girodias, as well as a continuing inquiry into the nature of science fiction, and whether the expectations of the reader, or the mere provenance of a science fiction story, have doomed the genre to both literary respectability and denied sf any lasting literary merit. Throughout, Malzberg is both acerbic and laugh-out-loud funny: he bites the hand that feeds him, and I suspect he's typing while doing so.

Near the end of Breakfast in the Ruins, one of Malzberg's alter-egos observes, "I'm 67 years old. It's too late for further insights, I think." Perish the thought.

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