The Illustrating Man

June 8, 2012

"Anything you dream is fiction, and anything you accomplish is science, the whole history of mankind is nothing but science fiction."-Ray Bradbury

Ray Bradbury made me want to be a writer. It was, more than anything, his gorgeous, sensual phrases, wonderfully evocative little details giving magic to seemingly mundane things that made me want to write. I loved those details even more than the oh-so-ironic endings to so many of his stories. I wanted to capture the world in that same way. Here are some examples:

The gentle sprinkler rain filled the garden with falling light. (from There Will Come Soft Rains)

The hot straw smell of lion grass, the cool green smell of the hidden water hole, the great rusty smell of animals, the smell of dust like a red paprika in the hot air. (from The Veldt)

He felt his brain fill with boiling mercury. (from Fever Dream)

A cry came across a million years of water and mist. (from The Fog Horn)

It came on great oiled, resilient, striding legs. It towered thirty feet above half of the trees, a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker’s claws close to its oily reptilian chest. Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior. Each thigh was a ton of meat, ivory, and steel mesh. And from the great breathing cage of the upper body those two delicate arms dangled out front, arms with hands which might pick up and examine men like toys, while the snake neck coiled. And the head itself, a ton of sculptured stone, lifted easily upon the sky. Its mouth gaped, exposing a fence of teeth like daggers. Its eyes rolled, ostrich eggs, empty of all expression save hunger. (from A Sound Of Thunder)

And the sand in the dying light was the color of molten copper on which was now slashed a message that any man in any time might read and savor down the years. (from In A Season Of Calm Weather)

I recognize that some of these are, at best, examples of overwriting. Bradbury sometimes tends to pile up metaphors and similes like a train wreck. There may have been a certain pragmatism in that; a lot of Bradbury’s early writing was done for pulps that paid by the word. I revered him so much when I was young. But then I developed high-minded (or so I thought) literary aspirations, and looked condescendingly down on "popular" writers. I played the part of the literary snob, but, when I was truly honest with myself, I felt a sense of loss. Ray Bradbury used to represent all I wanted to be, and no other writer ever came close to filling the void I created when I pushed him aside.

Even when I called myself a fan, though, there were some major Bradbury works I couldn’t get through, specifically the novels. I didn’t get much farther than the first couple of chapters of Something Wicked This Way Comes, and not much farther than the first couple of pages of Dandelion Wine. It was the short stories I really loved. In high school sometimes I’d say I needed to do research for a term paper as an excuse to go to the library and read a thick blue hardback volume of Bradbury’s complete (up to that point) short stories. But as a thirteen-year old devoted Bradbury-phile I couldn’t avoid Fahrenheit 451. In fact I looked forward to it, certain it would be a great book, that it would have everything I loved about Bradbury. When I found a copy I bought it with my own money, which was important to me. Knowing what it was about I wanted to feel I fully owned the book, and besides I couldn’t wait for my birthday or Christmas. And yet as I read it I became more and more disappointed. This was supposed to be Bradbury’s masterpiece. As young and naive as I was I felt there was something smug and self-satisfied about his vision of a future divided into the saintly dreamers and preservers of books, who purposely separate themselves from society, and the evil, self-destructive non-readers. The message seemed to be that reading books was more important than understanding them.

As an antidote to Fahrenheit 451 I preferred the black humor of a short story, Usher II, in which a devotee of Edgar Allan Poe invites people who’ve officially censored Poe’s works to a party where he systematically murders them and replaces them with robotic replicas. I never thought murder was an effective way to counter censorship, but I don’t think Bradbury did either. Usher II was deliberate parody–Bradbury’s modest proposal to deal with book banning, or maybe just a tongue-in-cheek way of saying that when we ban books, when we try to suppress rather than face what makes us uncomfortable, we risk becoming robots. There was also The Town Where No One Got Off, in which a man has to do some quick thinking, and some quick talking, to save his own life. I didn’t realize it the first time I read it, but later on I’d see it as a very apt metaphor for what writers do.

Like O’Henry Bradbury is associated with the surprise ending, but his stories could have surprisingly ambiguous endings. Maybe it was because of the open-ended nature of some of them, inviting readers to carry on where he’d left off, that made me want to be a writer. Even now when I reread the story The Veldt I wonder the same thing that I did when I first read the story: the kids are alone with the lions they created. How long before the lions turn on them? The written story ended, but prompted me to imagine more.

Bradbury has written about the writing of The Veldt. It came out of a time when he’d set himself the task of writing a short story a week. He’d write a first draft on Monday, do complete rewrites on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, and then Friday mail it out to magazines to be published. Bradbury made writing sound like extremely hard work, but that was what made it appealing to me. I knew adults who called writers lazy, who said writing books wasn’t "a real job". Bradbury was the first to make me think that writing was a job, an extremely difficult one that took a lot of dedication. If writing a story a week was what it took to be a writer, I thought, that’s what I’ll do. For three months I tried to write a short story a week. Most of them never got past the first draft stage, and none ever got published. Finally I gave up, although I did keep a couple of the stories, and kept revising and revising them for years afterward. Bradbury made writing sound like hard work, but it turned out to be even harder than I thought it would be. Still, reading Bradbury, among other things, I kept at it, still wanting to be a writer.

I also had an English teacher who, when he caught me reading some cheap paperback (not by Bradbury), couldn’t resist making a disparaging remark about science fiction. I said, "What about Bradbury?" And he said, "Oh, Bradbury’s good!" And then he quietly added, "Hey, could I borrow that book when you’re done with it?" In fact I had several teachers whose attitudes ranged from a resigned "If you’re going to read science fiction at least read Bradbury" to emphatic recommendations of The Martian Chronicles and The Illustrated Man. Even now, having fallen out of love with Bradbury, I can honestly say that The Illustrated Man is one of my favorite books.

That same teacher who said "Bradbury’s good!" had the class read the story There Will Come Soft Rains. When we were done he asked, "What is the theme of this story?" Up to that point I’d been taught that the theme of any literary work was like the moral that was always written in italics at the end of one of Aesop’s fables: an easily digestible capsule that told us what the story or novel was supposed to teach. And there was only one right answer. The teacher explained that the house in There Will Come Soft Rains is like the human race: capable of extraordinary things, but, in the end, unable to save itself. Then he added, "That’s one way of looking at it." It began to dawn on me that literature, great literature, wasn’t about telling us what to think, but rather was supposed to make us think.

In the Eighties when I was reading Bradbury the Cold War seemed to be escalating. Both Fahrenheit 451 and The Martian Chronicles climax with the outbreak of global nuclear war. Although Bradbury wasn’t the only writer to predict it he was the only writer I was reading who was predicting a future that seemed like it could happen at any time. And yet in Bradbury I also found hope. At the end of The Illustrated Man the unnamed narrator sees his own murder foretold in the illustrated man’s tattoos. The fact that he escapes, the fact that he lives to tell his story, leaves open the possibility that what he’s seen is only one possible future and that, having seen it, he has the power to change it. The power lies in knowing that the future is not fixed.

Hail and farewell, Mr. Bradbury.

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