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Wednesday, 22 April 2009 16:45

Bradbury succeeds again with new novel

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We’ll Always Have Paris by Ray Bradbury. William Morrow, 2009. 224 pages

Ray Bradbury was born in Waukegan, Ill., — the town became Greentown in Dandelion Wine and many of his short stories — in 1920. He published his first short story in 1938, married in 1946 — he and his wife Maggie raised four daughters — and continued for the next 60 years to write: short stories, novels, poetry, essays, even a space opera. In addition, he worked as a creative consultant on the 1964 New York World’s Fair, at Disney World and the Epcot Center, and for the design of malls, where he tried to bring his ideas of small town setting into urban setting.

In the last 25 years, many found Bradbury’s stories weaker than those he had written in The Martian Chronicles or The Illustrated Man. The style remained the same, perhaps too much so; the repeated one-sentence paragraphs seemed more a self-parody than good storytelling. The broad sentimentality found in all of Bradbury’s books was often given too much sail; the plots and characters of his stories seemed awash in emotion dishonestly earned. Bradbury’s name and not his talent found publishers for novels like Death Is A Lonely Business and Let’s All Kill Constance. Bradbury was like an old championship fighter who, despite the fact that his reflexes have slowed and his legs are gone, keeps climbing back into the ring to take another pummeling.

But even old fighters sometimes have a few good punches left. In We’ll Always Have Paris (William Morrow, ISBN 978-0-06-167013-8, $24.99), the 89-year-old Bradbury again shows himself as a master of the short story.

“Masinello Pietro,” the first story in the collection and the one which Bradbury in the introduction to the book cites as his favorite, follows Massinello Pietro in his struggles against the neighbors and then the police. Pietro, who was once rich but gave his money away to the poor, now leads the life of an eccentric whose antics have annoyed those living near him:

“I invested what little I had left in dogs, geese, mice, parrots, who do not change their minds, who are always friends forever and forever. I bought my phonograph, which never is sad, which never stops singing!”

“That’s another thing,’ said Tiffany, wincing. “The neighborhood says at four in the morning, um, you and the phonograph ...”

“Music is better than soap and water!”

Although most readers wouldn’t want Pietro as a neighbor — his property is filthy from the animals, and loud music, even the classics, played at four in the morning would drive everyone but an insomniac nuts — the story makes a case for liberty and eccentricity, and serves as a warning against the forces acting against those two great goods. In this passage Bradbury clearly puts the case:

“His house, ablaze with votive candles and pictures of rising — flying — saints, the glint of medallions. His phonograph circling at midnight, two, three, four in the morning, himself singing, mouth wide, heart open, eyes tight, world shut out; nothing but sound. And here he was now among the houses that locked at nine, slept at 10, wakened only from long silenced hours of slumber in the morn. People in houses, lacking only black wreaths on door fronts.”

Bradbury was always particularly adept at short-short stories, tales of modern life that read like fables. In “When the Bough Breaks,” he writes a beautiful story of a couple waking in their bed to a storm and the sound of a baby crying in the nearby forest. Slowly they realize that though they had talked of having no children, they are meant to be the parents of this weeping spirit-baby. They make love — here Bradbury, always the master of discretion, leaves this part to the reader’s imagination — and the child ceases its weeping. Describing the story makes it sound trite or silly; Bradbury’s story, however, has the power of the professional behind it.

The title story, “We’ll Always Have Paris,” tells of an American who leaves his wife in the hotel to go for an evening walk in Paris. He encounters “a strange young man” who takes the American silently to a gym, removes his shirt, removes his own clothes, and kisses him on the forehead. They do not become lovers, promising only “next time.” The man returns to his wife and promises her that they will return to Paris the following year.

This story reflects some of the weaknesses of Bradbury’s spartan descriptions and terse dialogue. We’d like to know why the American followed the young man, why he allowed himself to be undressed in the dark gym, why he then refused the young man’s advances. Hemingway once said that writing is like an iceberg, that “there is seven-eighths of it under water for every part that does not show.” Here, and in other earlier stories of the last two decades, Bradbury sometimes carries this theory too far; too little shows, and the story then seems as if he was himself uncertain of his own characters and their motivations.

“Fly Away Home” returns to Bradbury’s love of the idea of space travel (For years, Bradbury disliked flying and didn’t have a driver’s license, one of the things which made him an object of ridicule from John Huston when they were working together on the film “Moby Dick”). Here a captain and crew land on Mars, only to find themselves terrified at being so far from all that was familiar on earth. One of the men suffers a mental breakdown, and the others appear close to the edge, when a supply ship from Earth brings a pre-fabricated town to them: a barber shop, a drugstore, a church, a library, a hotel, a pool hall, a bar. This town reassures and relaxes the crew, all of whom were chosen from small towns. Here Bradbury provides not only insight into the human psyche, but also tells us once again that these “stereotypes” may make downtowns and shopping malls more attractive to consumers.

Bradbury ends his book with a poem “America.” The last lines from a man who has loved his country for so many years read:

“You be the hoped-for thing a hopeless world would be.

In tides of immigrants that this year flow

You still remain the beckoning hearth they’d know.

In midnight beds with blueprint, plan and scheme

You are the dream that other people dream.”

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