Friday, June 8, 2012

The World Loses Ray Bradbury, Part II

Yesterday, we were talking about Ray Bradbury and love.  His heart was huge and copious – it had room for Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and Capt. Ahab and Shakespeare.  As with all great lovers, Bradbury was somewhat indiscriminate, but his passion could not be faulted.

Because of his love, others found love, too.  The artists inspired by Ray Bradbury in one way or another would read like a list of some of the most popular voices of the past several decades: Stephen Spielberg, Stephen King, William Joyce, Rod Serling, Robert McCammon and Michael Chabon.  All of these writers/filmmakers have mined that deep vein of American nostalgia laced with science-fantasy, a cornerstone of the American literary voice.

Bradbury loved the movies, writing several himself.  His screenplay for Moby Dick (1956), directed by John Houston (1906-1987), is a masterpiece of concision and a model of adaptation.  His screenplay for his own novel, Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983), is something of a disappointment, as he felt the need to make changes to the plot.  These changes (including a whole reinterpretation of the Dust Witch, one of his greatest characters) greatly hampered the finished product, though it still has much to commend it.

In fact, much of Bradbury’s post-1960s work is a mixed-bag.  In The Bradbury Chronicles: The Lift of Ray Bradbury, Predicting the Past, Remembering the Future, biographer Sam Weller sums up Bradbury’s life from 1974 to the present in a scant 30 pages.  It’s possible that Bradbury, incredibly prolific and certainly promiscuous with his gifts, wrote himself out by the time he was 55 or so.  Sadly, the great man sought to sometimes go back to earlier masterpieces and ‘improve’ them, like a master craftsman handling his own work with wet varnish on his fingers.

But there was much to savor, still, in the later Bradbury.  Indeed Bradbury, always more of a short story writer than a novelist, actually started working seriously in the long form, producing some interesting work.  Perhaps the most interesting things about Bradbury’s later work was his persistent wish to rewrite his own life story.

A Graveyard for Lunatics, written in 1990, is a journey in nostalgic re-writing.  In this novel, young screenwriter Bradbury teams up with young stop motion animator Ray Harryhausen (both long-time real-life friends since adolescence) to solve a crime in a movie studio.  Green Shadows, White Whale (1992) rewrites his own experience working with Houston in Ireland on Moby Dick, and is a diverting fictional memoir.  From the Dust Returned (2001) is his homage to friend Charles Addams (creator of The Addams Family), inspirited by an Addams illustration intended for one of his books, but never subsequently used.  His two mysteries – Death is a Lonely Business (1985) and Let’s All Kill Constance (2002) – take him back to the Venice, California of his youth.

In 2006, Bradbury wrote a coda to what his perhaps his finest work, Dandelion Wine, called Farewell Summer.  In this slim book his protagonist, Douglas Spaulding (a thinly veiled Bradbury) experiences his own sexual awakening.

As the world mourns the loss of Ray Bradbury, perhaps it’s best to remember the things most notable about him: his gifts as a stylist, his love for all the artifacts of the great American Century, his central role as the bridge between High and Popular Art.  But more important, to your correspondent, is the man’s temperament.  Bradbury had a sense of wonder, and he wrote with a boy’s touch.  It was this eternal youth and strong sense of optimism that I think the world will miss the most.  Bradbury himself expressed this perfectly when, in an interview to have been published in The Paris Review, Bradbury spoke of the difference between himself and Kurt Vonnegut.

He couldn’t see the world the way I see it. I suppose I’m too much Pollyanna, he was too much Cassandra. Actually I prefer to see myself as the Janus, the two-faced god who is half Pollyanna and half Cassandra, warning of the future and perhaps living too much in the past—a combination of both. But I don’t think I’m too overoptimistic … It’s the terrible creative negativism, admired by New York critics, that caused [Vonnegut’s] celebrity. New Yorkers love to dupe themselves, as well as doom themselves. I haven’t had to live like that. I’m a California boy. I don’t tell anyone how to write and no one tells me.

I was lucky enough to meet Bradbury several times.  Each and every time I did, I made sure to tell him that he had a profound impact on my life and that I loved him dearly.  Today, I’m so happy to have had that chance.

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