Back to the Future
Reviewed by Fred Chappell
Sunday, July 11, 2004; Page BW03
THE CAT'S PAJAMAS
By Ray Bradbury. Morrow. 234 pp. $24.95
The Cat's Pajamas, Ray Bradbury's new collection of stories written over more than half a century, contains one called "A Matter of Taste." It opens with this paragraph: "I was near the sky when the silver ship flew down to us. I drifted through the high trees on the great morning web and all my friends came with me. Our days were always the same and always good and we were happy. But we were also happy to see the silver carrier drop from space. For it meant a new but not unreasonable change in our tapestry, and we felt we could adjust to the pattern, even as we had adjusted to all the ravelings and unravelings of a million years."
This is prime Bradbury, written in 1952, during his best period, colorful and ebullient and intriguing, wonderfully strange. (The narrative voice belongs to a giant spider.) Sentences like these caused my friend Bill Anderson and me to keep a close eye on Stanley's News Stand on the main street of our small, grimy hometown in western North Carolina, eagerly awaiting new shipments of Thrilling Wonder Stories or Planet Stories. This latter pulp magazine we most keenly anticipated because it published Bradbury more often than the others did. We hoarded our nickels, hoping that the new issue would include a tale of Mars or Venus. ("I hope he goes back to Mars -- those crumbling towers and ancient voices." "I like Venus. I like the rain that never stops and drives men mad.") Sometimes we couldn't wait to reach home, so one of us would read the story aloud as we walked along.
How could 15-year-old boys resist? Bradbury's spaceships were always silver, and they landed on distant worlds with more grandeur and with no more fuss than passenger trains pulling into Union Station. They were manned with clean-shaven Americans who, though doughty, were no match for the alien presences and the bewildering environments they had rocketed into. Menace lurked in the exotic landscapes and in the circumscribed visions of the explorers themselves. Bill and I knew there would be dangers, quirky twists and resounding resolutions. We knew the images, the sounds, the very smells of a Bradbury story.
And if most of my fondness for The Cat's Pajamas stems from nostalgia, that seems only proper. Nostalgia has always been one of this writer's main attractions. Stories like "There Will Come Soft Rains" and "Ylla" from The Martian Chronicles (1950) had the odd effect of making readers homesick for the future. Are things really to be like that? we wondered. When we travel to alien worlds, when the future thunders open the doors of our houses, will we look and talk and feel as the characters in those stories do? We thought that we would. Scary as his futures might be, they seemed inevitable; they seemed right.
Science fiction, too, seemed the inevitable genre for Bradbury's favorite forms: cautionary tale, conte cruel, moral fable, social allegory, literary homage. He wrote other kinds of stories also, mostly horror and suspense, and they were sufficiently shuddersome, but it was the science fiction that stole the hearts of boys at mid-century, that steeled us to brave the disapproving stares of our elders when they spied the garish pulp covers with their familiar trios of BEM-bim-bum. (Bug-Eyed Monster; scantily clad, shrieking bimbo; lantern-jawed space hero.) We liked the stories because they were excitingly written and because we understood them.
His favored forms turn up in the present volume. "A Careful Man Dies" is a conte cruel in the manner of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Pit and the Pendulum"; "The Island" is an allegory about Cold War fears; "The Transformation" is a cautionary tale about one of Bradbury's well-traveled themes, racial injustice; "A Matter of Taste" and "Sixty-Six" are the strongest of the moral fables included here; "The Mafioso Cement-Mixing Machine" and the epilogue, a doggerel poem called "The R.B., G.K.C. and G.B.S. Forever Orient Express," are homages to some of his favorite writers -- F. Scott Fitzgerald, G.K. Chesterton, Bernard Shaw and, yes, Ray Bradbury.
But if his choice of forms has not changed, his writing style has. New stories like "The Cat's Pajamas" (2003) and "Hail to the Chief" (2003-04) are more sparely written than the older ones. There is a paucity of detail and little of the rhetorical appliqué we find in "The Ghosts" (1950-52) or "The Island" (1952). Bradbury's storylines have always been simple, but now they are tenuous. "The Completist" is but an anecdote; "Hail to the Chief" reads like a blueprint for a story.
I shall find space on my bulging, well-thumbed shelf of his work -- three dozen books! -- for The Cat's Pajamas, even though it is largely composed of bagatelles. If it is not the essential Bradbury, it still emits a whiff of that unmistakable essence. Here is how "The Ghosts" begins: "At night the ghosts floated like milkweed pod in the white meadows. Far off you could see their lantern eyes aglow, and a fitful flaring of fire when they knocked together, as if someone had shaken a brazier down and live coals were cascading from the jolt in a little fiery shower."
Well, go on, Bill. Keep reading the story to me. You can't stop now. We're almost home, anyway. •
Fred Chappell's new book of poems is called "Backsass."
© 2004 The Washington Post Company