Ray Bradbury is dead at 91, as full of years as his writing life was of words typed and seen into print. It’s impossible to mourn such a death, or such a life, as seemingly fulfilled as any mortal could aspire to. What remains are the books and stories and our memory of them and our encounters with them, and thus with him: the shared wake accorded not to a body but to a body of work.
The critic Leslie Fiedler pointed out how many of the classic American fictions have spent some part of their careers as books for boys: Huckleberry Finn, Moby Dick, The Last of the Mohicans, The Call of the Wild. Fiedler opined that books failing to pass through that limbo could end up as books for adolescents; Thomas Wolfe was his example. Fiedler might have felt the same about Bradbury, though he loved the weird reaches of American popular literature, including science fiction. But he likely would have been surprised to find that the ongoing and ramifying Library of America series, the American Pléiade, has come to include the likes of Philip K. Dick, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and H.P. Lovecraft—the lower orders getting above themselves, rather than the greats coming out of exile. Now that Bradbury is with them in Elysium the Library will probably be publishing something of his, though he isn’t much like those others, nor like the other pop icons and specialists who are being named beside him in the obituaries: less peculiar in all senses, more agreeable, with a wide if shallow appeal.
Who hasn’t read him? What boy? My first encounter was with The October Country(1955), which I began reading believing it to be a novel—the first tale, of circus dwarfs and a hall of mirrors, was followed by the one about the couple in Mexico, mummified corpses, and the fate of the dead spouse left among them. I was spellbound. How would he bring those concepts into one story? I have always regretted that it wasn’t a novel, but the stories in the book are (in one sense) deathless. You know the one—either through reading it or hearing it told, like a folk tale, as many of Bradbury’s are—about the man whose skeleton is plotting against him, and who has it dealt with by a weird practitioner. The last moment has the wife arriving home to find him:
It was not so bad, finding an intact, gelatin-skinned jellyfish in one’s living room. One could step back from it.
It was when the jellyfish called you by name . . .
The three dots are Bradbury’s own, and typical of the mode and the time. There was a nice illustration by Joseph Mugnaini.
Bradbury began, and basically continued, as a pulp writer of horror and fantasy stories, set mostly in contemporary America. He wrote a string of science fiction stories because science fiction was the fantasy mode of his time. He wrote about the prospect of nuclear destruction and the possibilities and dangers of the future, but though he was asked to “conceptualize” the future for the US Pavilion at the 1964 World’s fair, he wasn’t much interested in science or in the prognostication business. He was at bottom a churner, an opportunist, a typist (he famously wrote the novella “The Fireman,” which would evolve into Fahrenheit 451, in nine days on a typewriter he rented for 10 cents per half hour), who could write anything, whose stories could be (and were) effectively adapted to EC Comics as well as to movies (Truffaut’s film of Fahrenheit 451exists on a different plane from the somewhat programmatic novel).
The works of his I remember best, from when I read him more or less constantly, were the stories and books that were the least fantastical: “The Wonderful Ice-Cream Suit,” “A Medicine for Melancholy,” “The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse”—even the effusively sentimental Dandelion Wine. I am reluctant to re-read these; I am afraid the eternal literary adolescent in Bradbury chimed too well with the temporary adolescent I was.
And yet The Martian Chronicles, his best book, despite its moments of sentimentality and obviousness—qualities that can destroy self-conscious literary endeavors even as they give power to willful pulp—deserves the Library of America’s glossy black covers and ribbon bookmark. Not so much for the cheesily effective opening tale, in which the first space travelers are fooled by cunning Martians into thinking Mars is really an Edenic afterlife where Gram and Gramps are still on the front porch and pie is cooling on the sill, only to be destroyed by the illusion; but for the later, ineffably melancholic brief recountings of desolation and dust and compromised hopes on the real Mars. Of course Bradbury’s Mars is no more real than Burroughs’s, and is nothing like Kim Stanley Robinson’s carefully accurate depictions of colonization and terraforming. It’s an American counterworld where the facts of physical life are not so much transcended as ignored, so that a dream derived not from folklore or myth or pulp fantasizing but from the shared life of its readers can play out. Bradbury’s own longings for home, for goodness, for family love, for American innocence, are at once expressed and confounded, fulfilled and defeated. Not a fable, or a lesson, or a trick, or a joke—not a story-spinner’s story—it is unique in his huge pile of work, and in American letters.