Jonathan R. Eller and William F. Touponce, Ray Bradbury: The Life of Fiction

Ray Bradbury has always presented a problem for the science-fiction establishment: from Judy Del Ray’s comment defining the field by invoking Asimov, Heinlein, and Clarke, and noting “one could almost add Bradbury,” to his being solemnly consigned to the nether regions by critics and scholars for not fulfilling the “requirements” of the genre (whatever those might happen to be in any given circumstance), he represents a quandary. For Bradbury himself, according to Jonathan R. Eller and William F. Touponce in The Life of Fiction, “science fiction [is] the apotheosis of continuous change and intellectual freedom.”

Science fiction is, of course, only one of the areas that Bradbury has explored: he is a poet, a playwright, a memoirist, a writer of detective fiction and horror stories as well as science fiction, a short-story writer who has turned out a series of highly acclaimed novels, and is arguably one of the most important American literary figures of the twentieth century. Eller and Touponce approach Bradbury’s work from the vantage of what I shall choose to call “quasi-scholarly criticism”: their methods and terminology are those of contemporary formal criticism, but their approach is like to Bradbury’s own, wide-ranging, intuitive, open to new areas of exploration while solidly grounded in a few key concepts.

Foremost among these latter is the notion of “carnivalization,” a term first coined by the Russian Formalist critic Mikhail Bakhtin to identify the “transposition of carnival images and themes into literaure.” Carnivalization, as used by Eller and Touponce in regard to Bradbury’s works, includes the use of humor, the grotesque, identity, nostalgia, and a wealth of related themes and devices. While Bradbury sometimes uses literal carnivals in his works, more important is the wider sense of engagement with and an ongoing critique of the underlying modes of contemporary civilization — desire and the unconscious by way of Freud, and Nietzsche’s questioning of authority that has led to our crisis of values. The authors build this exploration on the ideas of metaphor, myth, and mask as they relate to Bradbury’s thought and writings. It is fortunate, I think (and very wise), that they do not attempt to develop a “system” from these basic concepts, but adapt them to the fluidity and openness of Bradbury’s work.

Metaphor becomes a key element simply because, by the authors’ account (which I will certainly accept as valid — this book had been growing for some ten years and had Bradbury’s full cooperation, including hours of interviews), Bradbury regards his fiction as interpretations of his life, and they are interpretations arrived at through metaphor. (One can quite legitimately, in fact, take the position that any of those “fictions” that we call art are, in and of themselves, metaphors — in the authors’ words, “magical objects that allowed transfers of meaning.”) Bradbury’s conviction that our fantasies are necessary for our survival leads into the use of pre-existing and the creation of new mythologies to inhabit those fantasies.

In their discussion of “Masks,” the authors characterize Bradbury as a romantic artist trying to resolve the romantic crisis of the nineteenth century: freed from the constraints of reality, the artist also assumes a sense of loss, searching for an ideal world that has disappeared from his universe. The “masks” that the authors use to typify this aspect of Bradbury’s fiction come from a planned early novel, in which masks become the metaphor for the disillusionment the artist feels. (And, as the authors note, before he abandoned this novel Bradbury had written the stories that comprise The Martian Chronicles, in which masks play an important role.)

The summation highlights the fact that this study is concerned with Bradbury’s authorship. Call it the post-postconstructivist position, in which authorship, rather than being submerged, becomes a critical factor in the apprehension of meaning. In the hands of Eller and Touponce, “authorship” becomes a powerful tool for examining the oeuvre of Ray Bradbury through a series of textual analyses that cast a fascinating light on one of America’s most protean artists.

As might be expected, this is a fairly dense book: Bradbury has been writing for a very long time, the study encompasses published and unpublished fiction, and the examination is detailed. I found it an enlightening and insightful book, illustrating not only the richness of Bradbury’s works but illuminating the relationship between “art” and “entertainment,” which share a conceptual identity most critics of science fiction seem unwilling to acknowledge.

Perhaps that’s why they have trouble dealing with Bradbury.

(Kent State University Press, 2004)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

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