To read A Pleasure to Burn as a straight fiction collection is to make a serious mistake. A straight readthrough, unaware of context or consequences, is liable to frustrate the reader as tropes and phrases are repeatedly dragged out, put through their paces, and trotted across the stage. The casual reader is liable to find the approach odd, the content repetitive, and the author prone to repeating himself.
Which, ultimately, is the point. The subtitle of the book, Fahrenheit 451 Stories, does the heavy work of cluing the reader in as to what’s actually going on between the covers. This isn’t repetition, it’s evolution, a story concept constantly reinventing itself through an author’s works until it was ready for its ultimate expression in Bradbury’s justly celebrated novel.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that, apart from the three bonus stories at the end, all of the fictions here are members of the Fahrenheit 451 family tree, ancestors and offshoots. It starts innocently enough with what looks like a horror writer’s nightmare, stories where it’s only the scary stuff like Poe and Lovecraft and suchlike that’s been outlawed. That’s the motivating force behind the walking dead man — the last one in the world — of “Pillar of Fire” and the ghosts of literary rebels inhabiting the haunted Mars of “The Mad Wizards of Mars.” But it’s not long before the natural development of that idea — if they can ban the scary books, what about the offensive or the dangerous or the thought-provoking ones — and from stories like “The Library” the road to the ultimate product is clear. Throw in concerns about government surveillance and overly homogenized society with pieces like “The Pedestrian” and “The Cricket in the Hearth,” and all of the elements of Fahrenheit 451 are in place. Thus the last two pieces of the core collection, “Long After Midnight” and “The Fireman,” which are dry runs, early stabs at Montag and his dilemma. And every step of the way, once can see the elements that ultimately came together in the final realization.
But since this is Ray Bradbury, the stories aren’t just polemics. “Cricket” may be about a surveillance device placed in a couple’s fireplace by an unquestioned, intrusive government, but it’s really a love story, and it’s the human reaction to knowing that your every word is observed that makes the piece sing. “Carnival of Madness” is as over-the-top rococo gonzo as one can imagine Bradbury being, an orgy of death and excess cloaked in literary disguise and wrapped around an ingenious triple-cross. And the desperation of those mad Martian wizards is as real as any of the fear they ever engendered.
Ultimately, A Pleasure to Burn is best summed up as literary living history, and as a pile of paradoxes. It’s a book dedicated to the joys of reading that’s best read in bits and pieces, a collection of wonderful works that when places in close proximity threaten to crowd one another, and a collection of short stories that’s perhaps more important for what isn’t included — the actual novel of Fahrenheit 451 — than what is. None of that, however, subtracts from the magic, or the importance, of A Pleasure to Burn. Read it for what it is, and prepare to marvel at the road that led to Fireman Montag’s door.