You Always Remember… Usually…

“That is the kind of life I’ve had. Drunk, and in charge of a bicycle, as an Irish police report once put it. Drunk with life, that is, and not knowing where off to next. But you’re on your way before dawn. And the trip? Exactly one half terror, exactly one half exhilaration.”

That brief excerpt from an essay by Ray Bradbury has been the heart of my near-former MySpace profile for a long time.  Beyond being a really cool (to say nothing of painfully Obviously Meaningful) profile quote, it’s a reminder of one of those key moments that set me on the path to becoming a writer.

I’m not entirely sure which book introduced me to Bradbury, though the safe bet would probably be The Martian Chronicles. (Let’s face it, it’s always either The Martian Chronicles or Fahrenheit 451). But I do remember the effect reading it had on me.  Simply put, before Gaiman and Chabon and even before Shakespeare and Dickens and Chandler and so many other names, Ray Bradbury is the first writer whose work I fell in love with, though I might be at a loss for words to explain why.

There’s a simplicity to Bradbury’s prose that obscures what he’s really up to.  Take nearly any sentence from that school-library staple, Fahrenheit 451 – this one (a quote from Faber, a character I always thought of as one of the author’s many surrogates) has always been one of my favorites:

You’re afraid of making mistakes.  Don’t be.  Mistakes can be profited by.  Man, when I was young I shoved my ignorance in people’s faces.  They beat me with sticks.  By the time I was forty my blunt instrument had been honed to a fine cutting point for me.  If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you’ll never learn.

There’s nothing particularly extraordinary about Faber’s language in this speech – though his choice of metaphor is really cool, there’s nothing obviously fantastic about the wordplay he uses to realize it.  But try reading it out loud and you’ll understand what makes it work so well.  Bradbury is one of those writers who can take words we all use in everyday speech and turn them into dialogue no human being has ever spoken, or may even be capable of speaking, in real life.  And his rare gift is that he can get away with it.

It’s not just the dialogue – there’s a lyricism in all of Bradbury’s stories that defies generic labels, which is a big part of why he’s never been entirely comfortable with the “sci-fi” label.  It would be easy to classify “There Will Come Soft Rains” (a highlight of The Martian Chronicles) as yet one more post-apocalyptic tale.  It has all the elements… except for a plot.  That’s where the writer’s genius comes in.  The story is told not through action or dialogue, but through a silence broken only by the voice of a house computer as it goes about its daily routine, with nobody left to go about it for.  Without being told, we know that this routine is taking place in houses all over the world, and without being told, we know why…

Through that one simple and brilliant conceit, Bradbury reveals the life of the homeowner, making the absence of any human presence all the more devastating.  It’s a marvelous story, just one of too many to list here.

That’s the kind of imagination Bradbury has.  It’s the kind of imagination I aspire to, the kind that finds the extraordinary in the ordinary.  To be Ray Bradbury is to see horror, humor, romance, nostalgia, and wonder in the things we walk by everyday without a second thought.  To read Ray Bradbury is to stop and give those things a second thought… and maybe a few more…

If you’re a fan, you know what I’m talking about already.  If you’re interested in becoming one, I’d recommend starting with one of the “fix-up” novels fashioned from Bradbury’s short stories, such as The Martian Chronicles, Dandelion Wine, From the Dust Returned, or Green Shadows, White Whale. I can’t quite explain why it is, but something in that format makes it the best showcase for his imagination.

Wherever you start, I hope it’s not where you end as well.  I hope you come to enjoy his writing as much as I do.

And with that, I bid you a fond “be seeing you…”

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