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Views expressed by guest or resident columnists are entirely their own.

Barry N. Malzberg is the winner of the very first Campbell Memorial Award, a multiple Hugo and Nebula nominee, twice the winner of the Locus Award for Best Non-fiction Book, and the author of more than ninety books.

 FROM THE HEART'S BASEMENT
by
Barry N. Malzberg

Trudging Through the Land of Smiles

Three days ago was the fiftieth anniversary of my third sale, my first real sale, the 1,200-word short "We're Coming Through The Windows" to Fred Pohl's Galaxy. Quelle triumphe! Quelle dommage. The two earlier sales to the fifth or seventh rate Playboy imitator, Wildcat (I wrote about the first sixteen months ago) were real because I was paid, but they never felt authentic; the stories were wispy, deadening pornography and the position was ridiculous. The sale to Galaxy was different; I had (as I wrote G.P. Elliott) "finally sold a magazine of which someone has heard" and in fashioning an inconsequential, breezy little satire for a respected market I had demonstrated to myself that I could do this. "I can do this," I had thought, reading Norman Kagan's "Laugh Along With Franz" in the 12/65 Galaxy. "If this son of a bitch can get away with this kind of social satire in a category market, then I have some kind of a future because I can do this too." But I did not believe it until I had done it.

The sale was important out of all proportion to its remuneration or length. After that fellowship year (and a hundred rejections) at Syracuse, after failing to break The Atlantic, Esquire, or The Hudson Review, after all of the contemptuous dismissals or cock-teasingly worthless near misses (the Atlantic Monthly Press editor Esther Yntema was the most cunning and vicious), I had crawled back to New York without possessions or hope, willingly foregoing the larger fellowship I had been offered for the next year because my young bride and I were flat out of money, $750 in debt to the State of New York, and there seemed no way to get through the summer simply to enjoy another academic year of humiliation. Scott Meredith hardly beckoned but seemed willing to take me on for $90 a week. Starting in the fee department and exhibiting talents I never suspected I possessed, I was able to hang on and shortly thereafter become familiar with the agent's client list: Mack Reynolds, Marion Bradley, Phil Dick, Christopher Anvil, Charles Runyon, James Schmitz. These clients, even beyond the mystery writers, interested me. "I used to read a lot of this stuff as a kid before I found Look Homeward Angel,” I mumbled. "If these folks can do it, maybe I can do it too." Two months later, renewing my acquaintance with the magazines, I found "Laugh Along With Franz". I have parsed all of this at greater length in various venues over the years.

What Fred Pohl (who always treated me like a pro, years before I was one) gave me for the first time was sight of a road to publication. It was not a golden road and its destination was surely not the Land of Smiles (I had all of those clients' income figures and troubled correspondence in front of me) but a road it was nonetheless, and for the first time I found myself able to look forward, not through a rancid haze of desire but in a practical fashion. Fifty years later, no stout Cortez, no precipice, no eternity at which to stare, but I was able after a fashion to trudge the terrain. Knowledge may – until and unless the brain freezes – be a mean series of acquisitions, but it is still better to have than stupid.

* * *

Alfred Bester could tell you that. His characters do so over and again in the hundred mocking guises of his interstellar remittance man, old liver and onions himself. “You can't go back, old ami, you cannot change the past because it is only your past, you can send a thousand prayers into thin air but they are only your prayers and they will come back only to yourself. The 5,271,009 choices you face in a lifetime, my pesky, insidious, ignorant friend, and you will make first one and then the other as if you were thinking, but you are only responding.” Another wink, a shaky gesture. “There is only that eternal loneliness but, hic!, you try to fill it with the illusion of change.” The Men Who Murdered Muhammed could only murder themselves, but even then the past could not be killed, the past was always there lurking, and in the end your Common Book was the Bible of your fall. All of this is in J.D. Smith's new critical study of our boy Alfie (1913-1987), Grand Master and Holy Fool, perhaps the only true genius who ever wandered (by mistake) into our garden and in the end he could not get out. Maybe Annie Proulx or Thom Jones could sneak away from the Venus flytrap of the markets but Alfie, in thrall, could not escape ingestion by the world snake.

Smith, an Illinois University Professor, has laid out the work with synoptically surgical precision, trapped the man from his playful beginnings to half-incipient career and then the two desertions, the first in the ’40s to comics, radio, drama, the second and longer from the late ’50s to the early ’70s when Holiday dissolved underneath and he made a forced return. The two astonishing novels, the dozen and a half even more astonishing short stories, which ended in 1963 with “They Don't Make Life Like They Used To”, and then the long, long goodbye after the second return in 1971. The weak, weaker and weakest novels in succession, the flailing at conventions, the awful decampment and disintegration to Bucks County in the last half decade. The greatest science fiction writer who ever lived dissolving in silence at a bar in the backwoods, listening to the Eastern rednecks mock the Blacks and the Jews. (These were not the words that were actually used.) Getting home by automobile through prayer or luck, Charles Platt once accompanying him through these rambles. "Alfie, do they know you are Jewish?" Platt wrote he asked Bester. J.D. Smith has no answers, but he has suggestions, some florid (he sees The Demolished Man as a grotesque, consciously monstrous extension of Freud, Sigmund the man-eating plant in the Little Shop of Horrors), others merely suggestive (Gold exacerbated the Freudianism of the first novel, sulked when he was not offered The Stars My Destination, and then verged on ugliness.) Joe Ferman shrugged in contempt and gave it back. His son and I had a similar experience two decades later with the first third of The Computer Connection. Bester's odyssey was perhaps no more paradigmatic or disastrous than Henry Kuttner's or Alice Sheldon's, but unlike theirs it was instructive. Many young writers were changed by close observation of Bester's life and fate. Kuttner had little to teach beyond the obvious dangers of overwork, and Sheldon, not quite the only other true genius who ever wandered into the field, was too sui generis to leave anything other than her body of work and a false lead. No Land of Smiles for that lady.

Smith's work is remarkable and irreplaceable, a mark of transition toward the great biography of Alfred Bester which would explain science fiction to itself and Bester to the world. That biography would be Mahler's Tenth Symphony; like Deryck Cooke with Mahler, J.D. Smith has given as much as possibility would grant.

* * *

My novel The Men Inside (Lancer, 1973) is a first-person work disguised as third person. I noted this again while reading Smith's synopsis and commentary on "Fondly Fahrenheit" from which The Men Inside was clearly derived.

Bester was shrewder than Nabokov, shrewder than anybody. "Fondly Fahrenheit" was published a year before Lolita.

 

14 January 2017: New Jersey

Copyright © 2017 by Barry N. Malzberg

 

 

TABLE OF CONTENTS

HOME

The Editor's Word

FICTION
BRAGGING RITES
by Samantha Murray

THE TRAGEDY OF THE DEAD
IS THAT THEY CANNOT CRY

by Sunil Patel

THE LOYAL ORDER OF BEASTS
by Kay Kenyon
YOU CAN ALWAYS
CHANGE THE PAST
by George Nikolopoulos
IT TAKES A SPECIAL-
SPECIAL PERSON

by Andrea G. Stewart

LOCKED ROOM
by Kevin J. Anderson

GOLF TO THE DEATH
by Alex Shvartsman

MY MONSTER CAN BEAT
UP YOUR MONSTER
by Brennan Harvey
THE OBSERVER
by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
YOUR GRIEF IS
IMPORTANT TO US
by Yaroslav Barsukov
DO NOT CALL ME BENTO
by Tina Gower

IN THE GROUP
by Robert Silverberg

INTERVIEW
Mike Resnick
by Joy Ward

SERIALIZATION
Double Star (Part 2)
Heinlein's First Hugo Winner
by Robert A. Heinlein

COLUMNS
From the Heart's Basement
by Barry N. Malzberg
Science Column
by Gregory Benford
Recommended Books
by Bill Fawcett & Jody Lynn Nye

 

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 

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