My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Read on the occasion of Halloween. I enjoyed Bradbury in my youth and surprisingly loved his short stories when I decided to take an adult look at them after his death. His stories, it seems to me, merit Borges’s praise of him):
What has this man from Illinois created—I ask myself, closing the pages of his book—that his episodes of the conquest of another planet fill me with such terror and solitude?
How can these fantasies move me, and in such an intimate manner? All literature (I would dare to answer) is symbolic; there are a few fundamental experiences, and it is unimportant whether a writer, in transmitting them, makes use of the “fantastic” or the “real,” Macbeth or Raskolnikov, the invasion of Belgium in August 1914 or an invasion of Mars. What does it matter if this is a novel, or novelty, of science fiction? In this outwardly fantastic book, Bradbury has set out the long empty Sundays, the American tedium, and his own solitude, as Sinclair Lewis did in Main Street.
But Ray, alas, is no novelist; his characters are too flat and allegorical to be vivid, and he is too invested in symbolic and sensory description—at which he is very good—to keep narrative moving at a decent pace. And he is didactic, though I actually liked the didactic passages, some of which scale to Emersonian heights in their orphic praise for life. I think the problem with Bradbury—and, really, with a number of mid-twentieth-century writers—was the almost exclusive prestige of the novel as dominant literary form. This prestige led people who would have been better off working in other forms to extend gifts unsuited to narrative over long stretches of prose. But Bradbury is the master of the fabulist prose poem, and that should be gift enough. This book goes on too long and is wildly uneven in tone, register, even genre: it can switch from Nathaniel Hawthorne to The Goonies in the course of a page.
There are beautiful passages, though, ones I will remember, like this almost Whitmanian paean to love as the fruit of shared experience:
“Why love the boy in a March field with his kite braving the sky? Because our fingers burn with the hot string singeing our hands. Why love some girl viewed from a train bent to a country well? The tongue remembers iron water cool on some long lost noon. Why weep at strangers dead by the road? They resemble friends unseen in forty years. Why laugh when clowns are hot by pies? We taste custard we taste life. Why love the woman who is your wife? Her nose breathes the air of a world that I know; therefore I love that nose. Her ears hear music I might sing half the night through; therefore I love her ears. Her eyes delight in seasons of the land; and so I love those eyes. Her tongue knows quince, peach, chokeberry, mint and lime; I love to hear it speaking. Because her flesh knows heat, cold, affliction, I know fire, snow, and pain. Shared and once again shared experience. Billions of prickling textures. Cut one sense away, cut part of life away. Cut two senses; life halves itself on the instant. We love what we know, we love what we are. Common cause, common cause, common cause of mouth, eye, ear, tongue, hand, nose, flesh, heart, and soul.”
In passages like this, and in his prose-poetry of description, Bradbury is in the American tradition, a popularizer, a hundred years later, of the best of the American Renaissance. The Martian Chronicles remains my favorite of his books, and I think I will stick to his short stories.