Something Unsatisfying This Way Comes
If you dream the proper dreams, and share the myths with people, they will want to grow up to be like you.
At one point in this glowing and uneven biography, the creator of The Twilight Zone unknowingly poaches “The Silent Towns,” a chapter from Ray Bradbury’s great book The Martian Chronicles. It’s an anecdote that anybody who first read the Bradbury tale “The Veldt” in seventh-grade language arts can understand. Ray Bradbury’s stories stick in the mind like myths, because they are so terrible and vehement in their plotting. This book tries to answer the question: Who was the man who wrote these diamond-like tales?
We can glean from this volume that Ray Bradbury lived an exemplary mid-20th century life, writing himself up the totem pole of fame by dint of unfailing effort and cheerfulness. Characters and Bradbury collaborators that appear include John Huston, Walt Disney, Alfred Hitchcock, and Gene Kelly. There is no way not to be fascinated by this assemblage, but there’s also a serious lack of critical judgment in the book. We’re left with the impression that Ray Bradbury is really nice, and his stories are good, and most people like him.
Certain tropes or pieces of information are repeated over and over and made too much of, like the fact that Bradbury didn’t fly on an airplane until very late in his life, or the idea that Bradbury was constantly searching for critical validation from a non-sci-fi or fantasy audience. Meanwhile, some interesting aspects of Bradbury’s life and his work are unsatisfactorily described.
Politically, Bradbury was once a leftist—one of the great and most thrilling moments of the book is the inclusion of a letter that Bradbury had published in Variety after the election of 1952, excoriating McCarthyites and promising “Every attempt you make to identify the Republican Party as the American Party, I will resist.” By the end of his life, he voted for Reagan. This change isn’t really explored.
Another unentered yet gapingly open door is the place of Bradbury’s work in the history of the public’s relationship to scientific advancement. Early on in the book, Weller mentions that Bradbury, though he writes science fiction, “was never very interested in the technological underpinnings.” Though the author shunts this fact to the side, and uses it to explain that Bradbury wasn’t interested in remaining in a genre (once again, the obligatory mention of Bradbury’s desire for mainstream acceptance), I think it could have been explored more fully as an indication of Bradbury’s place among Americans in the postwar era, who were touched by science but wanted to taste it in a more palatable Jell-O mold of technology and entertainment.
This is the central flaw of the book-a repetitive and simplistic understanding of Bradbury’s prose, and how it fits into the mid-century literary scene. Weller explains, again and again, that the genius of a Bradbury story is his pairing of Americana and otherworldliness, making for a twisty, creepy, pre-David Lynch Lynchian landscape. A valid interpretation, yes, but its repetition makes one think that there’s not really anything else to the stories but this.
Interesting or significant happenings in Bradbury’s personal life also seem glossed over, as is especially the case with Ray’s marriage to Marguerite McClure. Several times, Weller characterizes Maggie in the exact same way, effectively marginalizing and cardboardizing her: “She was the introvert, the quiet one, satisfied with staying behind and reading a book (and curling up with her cats when she was at home) and sipping wine.” Then, later: “She often retreated to the master bedroom during these costumed soirees, curling up with a cat and a good book.” Maggie doesn’t get much chance to speak her own piece, especially not when Weller mentions in passing that at one point in their lives, Maggie wanted a divorce—“‘I suppose she was tired of raising four children,’ Ray surmised, counting himself as the fourth child.” She claims to Weller that she doesn’t remember that incident. Ray does, however, and in interviews with Weller uses it, or so it seems to us, to justify his later infidelities (plural). “I couldn’t trust her again,” he moans. There’s such a general tone of hagiography about this book that it’s hard to reconcile Ray’s actions in his marriage with the narrative as a whole, and by neglecting to get Maggie’s side of the story, or perhaps by dropping these pieces of information of the marriage into the general tide of Ray Bradbury celebration, Weller makes it seem like he’s on Ray’s side. I found myself chafing for Maggie.
The book would also have benefited from more liberal quotations of the work itself. Weller does Bradbury the disfavor of printing one of his later poems, which is sort of astoundingly terrible, without going for quotations from the stories, which are what’s good in his oeuvre. (Moreover, Weller’s refusal to comment critically about the poem makes it seem like he’s even more under Bradbury’s spell and isn’t to be trusted.) Perhaps instead of quoting people who like Ray Bradbury at the beginning of each chapter (and they sometimes seem totally random anyway—Frank Black of the Pixies being one of them), Weller could have quoted the stories themselves. In the end, they’re Bradbury’s strongest advocates, not Sam Weller.
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