Tag Archives: Ray Bradbury

‘A Terrifyingly Ordinary Man’

I picked up Ray Bradbury’s The October Country at the library some days ago. Originally published in 1955, “the Dubliners of American Gothic” is a story collection that leans into twilight subjects, potentially unsettling tales touching on darker matters. At least that’s how the book is billed, but I want to talk about a light-hearted story that might should be on all the college reading lists.

“I met the most astounding bore. You simply must see him! At Bill Timmins’ apartment house last night, a note said he’d return in an hour. In the hall this Garvey chap asked if I’d like to wait in his apartment. There we sat, Garvey, his wife, myself! Incredible! He’s a monstrous Ennui, produced by our material society. He knows a billion ways to paralyze you! Absolutely rococo with the talent to induce stupor, deep slumber, or stoppage of the heart! What a case study. Let’s all go visit!”

“The Watchful Poker Chip of H. Matisse” is a tale for a new generation. The in-crowd discovers Garvey, whom the narrator describes as “a terrifyingly ordinary man” who had lived alone with his wife for twenty years. Though she was a delightful woman, he was so boring no one would accompany them to anything. This group of seven would-be elitists think he’s a gas, and after a few weeks he comes to enjoy their attention. Their subtle mockery turns to genuine admiration, and Garvey takes steps to keep them enthralled.

The prejudices of the in-crowd are remarkably dated, but their attitude is contemporary. They see through everything; they love to be unimpressed as their tastes flit from fad to fad. They embrace common entertainment only ironically, unless they can spin it into a superior, sophisticated pleasure. “Beer’s intellectual. What a shame so many idiots drink it.”

Would Garvey or his wife be better off with or without the attention of this self-righteous crowd? Let the reader judge for himself and decide whether he has in-crowd attitudes that should look just a foolish today as the Garvey fan club does decades after their story was written.

‘Fahrenheit 451’ by Ray Bradbury

“I’m antisocial, they say. I don’t mix. It’s so strange. I’m very social indeed. It all depends on what you mean by social, doesn’t it? Social to me means talking to you about things like this.” She rattled some chestnuts that had fallen off the tree in the front yard. . . . “But I don’t think it’s social to get a bunch of people  together and then not let them talk, do you? An hour of TV class, an hour of basketball or baseball or running . . . but do you know, we never ask questions, or at least most don’t; they just run the answers at you, bing, bing, bing.”

The world of Fahrenheit 451 is one in which everyone has taken the easy route to learning, living, and contributing to society. We, the people, started it, neglecting books and thinking, choosing big screens and reality shows. After some years of that, state representatives began to outlaw these channels of deeper thought. They burned libraries,  and schools taught that books were filled with nonsense. You could call this censorship, but it’s the censorship the people want. They want a comfortable life spent in front of a wall-to-wall interactive screen (or three or four wall-to-wall screens, if they could afford them), their “families” yakking at them through broadcasts.

Books put crazy, false, and conflicting ideas in people’s heads. What’s on screen is real, current, and unified. There’s no mention of any churches, but why would there be? Only those that had morphed into social clubs would be left standing.

The houses in Fahrenheit 451 are complete fire-proof, so when a homeowner is found in possession of books and he won’t be taken into custody or removed to an asylum, he is torched within his offending home. They do it at dusk or after, so the neighborhood bonfire will make the most spectacle, a warning to anyone still harboring the printed word.

As you can tell from the quotation above, someone people won’t follow the crowd–probably homeschoolers. They have more curiosity than society wants them to have. They will suffer for it for a while, but after society has eaten itself they will rebuild, like they always do, taking life’s hard road because that’s the only one left.

Did Bradbury Foresee a Bright or Dark Future?

Ray Bradbury is well known in two differing ways, as one of the bards of the dystopia to come and as an advocate for a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Patrick West describes the difference.

We see the former in The Martian Chronicles.

‘We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things’, says one trooper in the story ‘And the Moon be Still as Bright’: ‘The only reason we didn’t set up hot-dog stands in the midst of the Egyptian temple of Karnak is because it was out of the way and served no large commercial purpose.’ Man can leave his own planet, but he can never escape himself.

We saw the latter in the newspapers.

In real life, however, Ray Bradbury was a well-known and vocal advocate of the liberating potential of space exploration. Alongside Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov, he has been hailed by NASA historians as a visionary without whom the space programme would not have been possible.

(via Prufrock)

space travel is boring.

What Did Ray Bradbury Believe?

Gregory Wolfe observes how many tributes to Ray Bradbury praise his humane vision of the world, and he asks, “In order to have a humane vision, do you have to have an understanding of what constitutes humanness?” He says he did. From one of Bradbury’s stories, “We lost our faith and went around wondering what life was for. If art was no more than a frustrated outflinging of desire, if religion was no more than self-delusion, what good was life? Faith had always given us answers to all things. But it all went down the drain with Freud and Darwin. We were and still are a lost people.” (via Prufrock)

I wonder what the author would have said about Faber’s book of loss and strange new things, in which a missionary to an alien world called Oasis discovers another missionary has preceded him. The Book of Strange New Things is World Magazine’s fiction book of the year.

Below is the Ray Bradbury Tree in Disneyland’s Frontierland, inspired by his novel, The Halloween Tree, and decorated for the season. Bradbury loved Disneyland and even helped design some of the attractions, notably Spaceship Earth in Epcot.

The Ray Bradbury Tree