I’ve been wanting to post about this for some time, but for better or worse I just couldn’t get to it. Part of it was time, and part of it was that despite the fact that I didn’t know him, this came as a shock. As many know, a few weeks ago we lost a powerful force in the world of genre fiction – in the fiction world altogether. Ray Bradbury passed away at age 91. He was a visionary, a poet, and appreciator, and the original rocket man.
He’s also my very favorite author. While I never got the pleasure of meeting him, I always felt like I knew him fairly well – he put that much of himself in his stories. In fact his fictional loves didn’t differ that much from the things he wrote about in his essays: he loved dinosaurs and space, detested censorship, and was wary of technology. But he was more than that. I realize it’s probably a little odd to have a death of someone you don’t even know hit you hard, but it did. I devour his books. I can tell you how different editions of the same story differ ever-so-slightly. I’m even careful to notate which of his stories I haven’t read (and don’t intend to until I hit my twilight years or am locked in a coma or something) because I don’t want to run out of this glorious man’s words too soon. I don’t want to wake up one day and realize that I’ve gotten to it all and don’t have something new to discover (and believe me, I’m getting close to that point).
I was vaguely aware of Bradbury’s work in high school and college – I’d read The Halloween Tree and Something Wicked This Way Comes, but it wasn’t until I was working along the Outer Banks that the spark was ignited. I’d been recovering from a relationship that wasn’t so good for me and was trying to figure out my place in the world (to put it mildly). I was numb. Numb and on autopilot when I happened into a lovely little bookstore that could order almost anything and had a cozy reading room in the back complete with overstuffed chairs and birds in cages. It was there that I purchased The October Country and never came back from that strange new world. I can’t even describe the feeling of huddling in bed reading, assuming that there was a conveniently raging storm howling outside…until I realized that I was so captivated by his story The Wind that I imagined it. It was to be the first time that I plowed through a book in a single night.
It doesn’t matter what genre it technically is with Bradbury. His love and joy of story permeates all of it. I love his horror because it gets to the root of what it means to be human (Try reading Next in Line without shuddering!), his science fiction makes you think (Every time I read The Martian Chronicles I discover something new), and even his unclassifiable tales will send your mind in new and strange directions. To this day Medicine for Melancholy has to be one of the sweetest coming of age stories I’ve ever read, not just because of the situation but because I don’t think there’s a woman alive who won’t agree with the main character when the strange illness she has is diagnosed as being herself.
In short, he not only made me think. He made me feel again. It was okay to love spooky things and scary movies. It was okay to celebrate Halloween with abandon. It was just fine to love dinosaurs and comics and the other things that people gave me grief over. It was perfectly natural to glory in the things I love because I love them! I know that sounds obvious, but up until that point I hadn’t really given the notion much thought. He got me reading again and writing for myself again. His love for his work transported him to so many opportunities and let him become an innovator – and thank God for that because the world is a better place with his forward-thinking. A lot of his predictions also scarily came true (like most of the technology in Farenheit 451).
My personal favorite title of his is Dandelion Wine. I don’t know if it’s because I grew up in Illinois, myself, or because I just plain identify with celebrating the little aspects of life. But his passing brings to mind so many parts of that book I can barely stand it, so I’ll elaborate on the top three.
1. My favorite story in that book is titled The Swan when it’s in other collections. It’s the tale of an elderly woman and a young reporter who discover that they are emotionally in synch and have fallen in love with past versions of each other. The woman takes him around the world with her recounts of her own life until she mentions that she knew him in a past incarnation and they just couldn’t seem to get themselves together. By the end of the story she’s moved on and they’ve made the pact that in a future life they’ll find each other again. I love the analogy of getting older to being a swan stuck in a dragon’s body. I love the gentle emotional romance of this story and the true care that both characters take when dealing with each other. I love that it’s not the typical attraction-based romance. These two people get each other, yet are willing to live their current lives knowing that they have to let the other go. I love the solution of living your life but not hanging on too long because they have so much faith that they’ll be together at some point in time. By the end of this story I always bawl my eyes out…and that’s what also makes it so good. In the novel version there’s a last little bit spoken by one of the two Spaulding brothers as they’re recounting the whole incident. It’s the sad things in life that makes the happy things worthwhile. The situation is so sad it’s beautiful (and the beauty of that contradiction is classic Bradbury). With things like that the best prescription is to bawl your eyes out, eat a pint of chocolate ice cream, or a good night’s sleep – or all three (as per Tom Spaulding MD)
2. A few years ago I was having one of those life moments where everything seemed to be out-of-place again (mid-life crisis my foot – these things pop up all the time if you let them). And the tipping of the scales for me was a simple trip to the library. I had put a book on hold and checked it out…only to discover that it was a limited signed edition by the man himself. If you’ve read Dandelion Wine you know there’s a story about a happiness machine and how it nearly destroys its inventor’s life because it shows people all the things that should make them happy, but is awful because it really shows them everything they never realized they were without. And I never got how that truly felt until I was in my room late at night holding that book in my sweating palms with the full knowledge that I had to take it back. I’d never even thought about wanting something like that and there it suddenly was in front of me! It just brought up everything else that was wrong (a death in the family among other things) and before I knew it I was losing my mind crying over the fact that I couldn’t keep this thing that I didn’t even know I’d wanted. There’s more to the story, but the short ending was that not long after that a dear friend of mine found and sent me a signed copy of Dandelion Wine which now has a place of honor on my bookshelf. That moment is forever a reminder for me of how fragile we can be as people and how wonderful and awful something can be at the same time.
3. In Dandelion Wine great-grandmother ends up passing away and she gathers the family around with instructions. What always sticks in my mind is she is adamant that no one should replace the shingles on the roof each year unless they really love doing it. They have to find the person that finds joy in being up there in the sun and working on the repairs or not do it at all. And I can’t help but feel that that’s not only a great message for life, but a wonderful instruction for writers. So often we all get caught up in deadlines, promotions, comparing ourselves to the whole world…but if you’re not loving what you’re doing, then why do it? It’s obvious reading any of Bradbury’s work that he loved everything about stories and his subject matter. He was so passionate for things and in his defiance of things he thought were stupid. His romanticizing of little things and criticizing ignorance and prejudice was on a level all its own. It’s impossible not to get sucked into his worlds, not to feel something when you read his work.
So yeah…it’s a sad moment in the literary world. But…on the other hand…it intrigues me that he passed soon after the solar eclipse of Venus. In his universe Venus is a jungle planet where it always rains save one day ever century or so. I can’t help but think that day not so long ago must have been the single day of sun on Venus, because you know full well that once he was free from the world he took off straight for Mars. I didn’t know him yet I’ll miss him. Just the same…I can’t help but think that joy and energy like that don’t leave permanently. We may have lost one of the most phenomenal authors of our time, but in some roundabout way I think we’ve also gained a genre-fiction muse.