Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Bradbury goes home
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At 91, Ray Bradbury was five years older than my father-in-law, who died five days earlier. In a stroke of creepy prescience, the current science fiction issue of The New Yorker includes a personal essay, which will now be the last piece Bradbury published during his lifetime.
It's short, but I skimmed only the first half while flipping through the mail on my kitchen counter, surprised the author was still alive and writing. It's called "Take Me Home," and the editors included an illustration of a red flaming skull, a choice they are probably regretting. I got as far as Bradbury's 8-year-old self shouting the title at the tiny red speck of Mars from his grandparents' front lawn.
That would have been 1928, just months before the name "science fiction" was coined. English professors and New York Times book reviewers prefer to call it "speculative fiction" now, and though Bradbury labeled most of his work "fantasy," the genre and our larger culture would be worlds emptier without him. Like most of us, I can track my life in relation to Bradbury's alternate realities.
"Fahrenheit 451," the only one of his 11 novels he was willing to term science fiction, was adapted for film in 1966, the year I was born. NBC turned "The Martian Chronicles" into a miniseries in 1980, the year I started high school. I hear Bradbury wasn't much of a fan, but I enjoyed it enough to find a copy of the 1953 novel in my school library.
Although I had a shelf of Heinlein in my bedroom, and my adolescent psyche was poised for a Vonnegut conversion, I flipped a few pages but didn't carry "Chronicles" to the circulation desk. I still remember the line that turned me off. After a description of the first men to colonize Mars, those brave and lonely frontiersmen, a single sentence floated between paragraphs: "Everyone knew who the first women would be." It took my 14-year-old, proto-feminist brain a moment to click. Oh. He means prostitutes. I wasn't offended, just uninterested, vaguely aware that I was listening to the vaguely embarrassing chatter of a displaced time traveler. I closed the book and slid it back onto its shelf.
Bradbury adapted "Something Wicked This Way Comes" for the screen himself. I saw it in 1983, before starting my senior year of high school. I understand the Jason Robards character now, an aging father who almost but not quite sells his soul for a few more years with his still school-aged son. I can still see the demonic Mr. Dark ripping pages from a magical library book, each shimmering with a lost chance. My son is careening toward 12 — I try to play a couple of games of chess with him every day, jog a mile together, chat about whatever he's willing to chat with me about. My daughter turned 15 this year, a little more than a year older than the children in the novel. She spends her time with her friends.
I used to read to them over the breakfast table. The computer-generated yet parent-chomping lions of "The Veldt" sent them both into wide-eyed horror. But Bradbury's most poignant story is "All Summer in a Day." I've never taught it, but Junot Diaz — he's in The New Yorker's science fiction issue too — alludes to it in "The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao," a novel on my syllabus last winter: "Sucks a lot to be left out of adolescence, sort of like getting locked in the closet on Venus when the sun appears for the first time in a hundred years." Bradbury worms into my own allusions, too.
The day he died, I was working on a scene in my current novel-in-progress. I needed a quick description of a tattooed nude, and my brain churned up "The Illustrated Man," another book from my bedroom shelf. A bedroom boxed up decades ago. When did I become the displaced time traveler?
It doesn't matter if he's dead or not. Bradbury is permanently with us. "Take Me Home," it turns out, isn't about Mars — it's about his dead grandfather. "Even at that age," writes Bradbury, "I was beginning to perceive the endings of things." He remembers how they lit a paper balloon together and watched it float away in flames before slowly vanishing, leaving Bradbury's boyish self in silent tears, ready to dream its return all night. I wish the same dreams upon my children after their grandfather's funeral.