Thursday, December 9, 2010

We'll Always Have Paris by Ray Bradbury

[I "read" this as an audio book, if that matters to you.]

Sometimes it feels a little weird when I do reviews here of authors I like quite a bit, because it seems like the review I end up doing would indicate otherwise.

This is one of those times.

My mother was a huge Ray Bradbury fan, and despite not reading his longer works, I'm always interested by a collection of his short fiction. I've read several over the years, though none recently. His anthology television show was great, from the episodes I saw on DVD. You can peg a Bradbury episode of other shows almost without his name, and then it's a great pastime to try and spot the folks who were inspired by him.

That's why this review is a hard one to write, because with a few exceptions. I just didn't care for the stories included in We'll Always Have Paris, a mish-mash of speculative, sentimental, and stolid fiction that only ever seems to flirt at the ages of the Bradbury magic.

When reading Bradbury, you come to expect stories that have a sense of whimsy, of possibilities realized and lost, and of people who often could just as easily be you or me. There's a definite sense of familiarity involved, but that's true of just about any prolific author. The trouble is when the author doesn't use their own quirks to advantage but instead to play it by the numbers. That's the way this book felt to me.

I knew I was in trouble when the lead-off story, Massinello Pietro, never did anything but tell the sad story of a man who refused to give up his animal menagerie. I kept waiting for the big payoff, but in the end, it was just the silence of his absence that drives the closure. Like other stories in the collection, Bradbury seems to be experimenting with the postmodern style here, but it doesn't suit him. Stories of non-sexual seduction or trying to put relationships back together (or watching tragic mistakes play out before you) just aren't in Bradbury's wheelhouse. I give him some credit for trying to be different, including the use of non-straight couples from time to time, but they don't strike out on their own enough to work. When they are mixed in with tales of ghost children who can only stop crying by the act of procreation*, perhaps the very antithesis of a post-modern story, the results are jangling, jarring, and almost cause for giving up entirely. Had this book been longer than roughly five hours, I doubt I would have kept going

Some of the concepts work out okay, but that's as far as they go. A story of golfers who putt well into the night to forget the mistakes of their life is clever, but just not creepy enough to hook the reader. In fact, the strongest stories in this collection all have a bit of a horror feel, such as when a radio personality comes to life to bedevil a middle-manager in Ma Perkins Comes to Stay. The trouble is, the reason for the horror is never fully realized here, leaving the reader wondering just why the man snaps. This is also the problem with The Murder, which was my favorite in the book. Bradbury gives us a great little horror story, but races his way to the punchline, spoiling his own idea like a cook who burns dinner by having the heat up so high.

Even when the story has a pretty good premise, such as bringing the Earth to Mars, the potential is lost in pedestrian prose. The idea that we'd need to change any alien world to match our own makes sense and could easily bring a moral along with it. Here the idea is presented without comment. The hope that might once have added something, anything to the work just wasn't around. It's as though Bradbury himself has become like the dead man walking character that wants to keep his old life going in The Reincarnate. Just as that character must accept that he is dead and will live on in others, perhaps it's time for Bradbury to realize that his literary career, which has so many shining lights, needs to rest and allow others to bring light to the same ideas. Tons of science fiction writers can cite Bradbury as an inspiration. I'd hate to see that change by having more books like this one tarnish his legacy with mediocre prose.

For me personally, I think I'll stick to Bradbury's older work, if this is what he's doing today. There's just nothing here that interests me, as the plots feel recycled or uncomfortable (sometimes both, as when he advocates reviving an older man's life by having an affair with a younger woman). I'm afraid that while I certainly don't want us to Always Have Paris, I'll certainly be happy to say we'll always have the Martian Chronicles. This is a book I'd definitely put on the avoid list, even if you're a big Bradbury fan. Re-read an older collection instead.

*I really and truly wish I was kidding, but When the Bough Breaks is literally about a couple who decides to be child free, hears a ghost child, and makes love to stop the sound. This is such a terrible story idea, I don't even know where to begin.

No comments:

Post a Comment