There was a time, some ten or fifteen years ago, when the notion of “inner space,” usually associated with the writings of J.G. Ballard, threatened to change the direction of science fiction. The mind, it was suggested, was the genre’s true subject. Down here in the human head, away from the galaxies, was virgin land, Freud’s new frontier. Hamlet would no doubt have been surprised to learn that the mind was a fresh topic for literature, but the arriving slogan did bring an altered emphasis, since, effectively, it entangled certain fading symbolist doctrines with certain strands of contemporary psychology. Verlaine, so to speak, was revisited by R.D. Laing, and “every landscape is a state of mind” became “most states of mind can be depicted as eerie landscapes”: the objective correlative turned to nightmare. Surrealist painting also lurks somewhere in the background here.
Science fiction soon settled back into its old tracks and took to the stars again, but fantasy and dream, long outlawed by the more earnest practitioners, had found their way back into the form—at least in some of their more clinical aspects. The word terminal, for example, echoes mournfully through Ballard’s stories and novels. Visions of endings are everywhere: a world winding down, its inhabitants dropping off one by one into a collective final sleep; an all but abandoned earth, its oceans bleached dry, its surface a desert of sand and salt; a group of dead astronauts circling the planet like satellites, doomed to orbit for decades until their capsules cave in; Eniwetok, a cluster of disused concrete bunkers and runways and weapons ranges, littered with broken B-29s and Superfortresses, natural home of a missed apocalypse, “an ontological Garden of Eden,” as one of Ballard’s characters ironically says.
It is difficult, in these scenes, to separate the private terror from the public possibility, the personal nightmare from the nightmares of history. In all the stories the stress clearly falls on the mental conditions being shown, the inner spaces of psychosis and the approaches to psychosis. The historical places and imaginable historical disasters are figures; they are shapes and traces the psyche has found for the making of its own portrait. “This island is a state of mind,” a character says of Eniwetok, unconsciously (or perhaps even consciously) paraphrasing Verlaine. “The psychotic never escapes from anything,” a doctor says in another story. “He merely adjusts reality to suit himself. Quite a trick to learn, too.” And yet another character thinks, “If primitive man felt the need to assimilate events in the external world to his own psyche, twentieth-century man had reversed this process….”
But however much these stories point us toward the adjusting, projecting mind, the fact remains that our own history has provided all the adjusted material, has set the scene for every projection. It is the literal content of all these disturbed and disturbing metaphors. And indeed history skulks inside even the most insulated mind, infecting every privacy with its preferred varieties of madness; just as a number of famous private madnesses, loosed upon the world, have made up a good deal of modern history. In this context fantasy scarcely seems a mental or optional affair at all, since some of our worst dreams are identical with our worst realities.
The Best Short Stories of J.G. Ballard has a brief and handsome introduction by Anthony Burgess, and collects nineteeen stories, chosen by Ballard himself, and written over a period of twenty years or so. Ballard is a master of conventional science fiction, and shares its cherished worries about crowded city life, the domination of time, the encroachments of technology, and the ravening consumer society. Concentration City, in the story of that name, is an infinite cube of streets and avenues, an endless set of Manhattans piled up on top of and alongside each other—“The Gregsons lived up in the West millions on 985th Avenue….” In another story the city is so packed that there are pedestrian jams that sometimes last for days, and everyone lives cramped in tiny cubicles.
In “Chronopolis” the Time Police pursue everyone who is in possession of a watch or clock, because time was once so fiercely organized that programmers became the real rulers of the country. Three families, in “Thirteen for Centaurus,” are locked in a space ship for several lifetimes. Only the fourth generation will see the end of the voyage. It then turns out that even this dim prospect is an illusion, since the space ship is still firmly planted on earth, and the whole simulated trip is a heavily funded and now regretted experiment set up by the Space Department. The families cannot be brought out because no one believes they can be trained to live in the world again. In “The Subliminal Man” a society is saturated with consumer goods it cannot want or refuse. There are four television channels, but only the commercials are different. Telephone calls are free but are interrupted by commercial breaks which get longer as the distance of the call increases—“for long distance calls the ratio of commercial to conversation was as high as 10:1.”
But in spite of the skill and the invention that go into these pieces, Ballard’s heart, or his head, is elsewhere. He is not primarily interested in the narrative line of his stories, or in the people caught up in the situations he has devised for them. He is interested mainly in images of the kind I have mentioned, an abandoned Eniwetok, an earth without oceans, a universe of sand or coral or salt or concrete. He hints, in two stories, at the horrors of life without sleep—operations are performed to allow men to stay awake all the time. He has characters collect, again in two different stories, what he calls “terminal documents”: Beethoven’s final quartets, a transcript of the Nuremberg Trials, the fusing sequences for the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. In one story a man discovers he can convert the physical world and ultimately his wife into a simple set of geometrical forms, cut loose from all human meanings and associations. In another, the protagonist is planning a psychic version of World War III in order to blast us all back to a lost sense of symmetry. And in still another, a mock-scientific report proposes correlations between erotic fantasies, Kennedy’s death, and certain makes of automobile.
As these instances suggest, I think, this is writing which is often obsessive, and frequently in energetic bad taste. It evokes a mind, or a series of minds, haunted by dreams of emptiness and annihilation. We may not share these dreams at all—I don’t—but the best of Ballard’s remarkable stories—“The Voices of Time,” “The Cage of Sand,” “The Terminal Beach,” “The Atrocity Exhibition”—confront us with landscapes we can neither disown nor forget. Even the most cheerful and least speculative of us will remember moments when this burned and ending world might have been ours.
The Best American Short Stories, an annual volume, was edited for thirty-six years by Martha Foley, who died in the autumn of 1977. The policy now, we are told, is that each new book will have a different editor, so that the series will be sustained by “a variety of fresh points of view.” This year’s selection was made by Ted Solotaroff, for ten years the tireless and generous editor of American Review. Solotaroff, following and correcting Walter Benjamin in one of his more willful and sentimental moments, suggests that the short story can help keep together what society is furiously setting asunder; can “locate the possibilities of coherence” in the broken motions of change; can fight for “the human scale of experience and its communication against the forces that seek to diminish and trivialize it.”
In the sense that it may focus our ills for us, of course any piece of good writing will do something of this. But Solotaroff means rather more than that. He means conscientiously to overlook the loneliness which is central to so many short stories, both inside and outside this anthology; to ignore the immaculate cruelties of the stories of Maupassant and Maugham, the chilly alienation depicted in Dubliners, and the ferocious disorders of the stories of Lawrence; above all, he means to forget that literature of all sorts can only tell us the truth it has to tell—harsh, strange, noble, endearing, or whatever it is—and that the fights we then choose to fight are our own.
Solotaroff is a very good judge of the most varied kinds of fiction, and confronted with the task of choosing the best short stories of the year, he felt, he says, “rather like a polymorphous perverse sensualist whose new bedmate practices only the missionary position.” This is splendid, but what seems to have happened is that somewhere between Benjamin and the material he was looking at, Solotaroff actually converted, let us hope temporarily, to the missionary position. A few pages after that disarming joke, he is offering a list of literary dislikes that might make even a missionary blanch. No fuss, no antics, no cleverness or indirection. “I am disposed toward stories with a strong narrative movement that clearly gets somewhere….” Solotaroff’s principle is sound—truths are better than tricks—but the formulation is oppressive, and one begins to wonder whether Chekhov would have got into the book on these terms.
Still, the six or seven really outstanding stories in the volume do lend some support to Solotaroff’s argument. They don’t offer coherence in quite the sense he is after—their acts of salvage are too secret and too particular for that—but they do show us people facing loss and disruption with courage and wit and an authentic gift for moral survival. In this sense these sober tales are not all that distant from Ballard’s nightmares. It is true that a concern for survival is quite different from a compulsive curiosity about the ways in which we may not survive. But survival remains the subject, and survival, if it is not to be simply a matter of luck, must count the cost, must know just which things ended so that others could go on.
The stories I am thinking of here are Joyce Carol Oates’s account of the despair of an American editor and publisher visiting an East European country, and falling in love across a daunting language barrier, only to discover that what he really loved was the translation, or the translator; Elizabeth Cullinan’s evocation of an unmarried woman who meets an old boyfriend, now happily married and settled, and concludes that his happiness, while genuine enough, is far more fragile than her sorrow; Peter Taylor’s marvelous study of the way in which a teenage boy in old Nashville unwittingly conspires with his parents to turn his wild old grandfather into a mere “character,” a decorous Southern soldier, a tame peacock—“In those days in Nashville, having a Confederate veteran around the place was comparable to having a peacock on the lawn….”
Other outstanding stories are Ian McEwan’s witty description of an Englishman’s edgy encounter with California craziness, and L. Hluchan Sintetos’s story of a country woman’s love affair with a sociology professor from the local college—he is the most exotic creature she has ever seen, but she realizes that for all his differences, he is “a lot like other men”:
When he said he loved me, he was lying; that made me sad as I saw it and he didn’t. He really loved someone else. I could look into his eyes and see him moving me around inside his head the way I’ve seen them moving dummies in store windows—trying to make them look lifelike….
So she lets him go, although she knows that he was “the best and the last thing” that would ever happen to her.
The book also has two delicate sketches by Jane Bowles, and a fine story by James Kaplan about the painful gap that separates talent from genius in chess. There is a remarkable first story by Peter Marsh, and a very funny story by Gilbert Sorrentino. But most of the other pieces—there are twenty-two in the volume in all—fail to put any people in their well-meaning runs at the old topics of love, death, birth, and parents. They are workmanlike jobs and they concern what Solotaroff calls “the human situation.” But the only figures in the situation are the predictable ones, the ones that go with the problem, are part of the package. One looks in vain for a real individuation of styles of thought and habits of feeling.
The quality of the writing makes all the difference here, of course, but I suspect that a particular view of fiction is nudging me toward these distinctions. Solotaroff suggests that a story by Susan Sontag called “Unguided Tour,” and now the last piece in I, etcetera, fails to convey “the force of the experience for the writer,” and is therefore “psychologically unsigned”—and so he did not include it. I think myself there is something hesitant and unresolved about the story, for all its considerable virtues, but its psychological signature seems to me very vivid, as does that of all Sontag’s, and all Ballard’s, stories. What more than half the items in The Best American Short Stories 1978 lack, in spite of their painstaking fidelity to the world of common experience, is precisely this signature—my point being, I suppose, that landscapes and lists and monologues and almost anything may be signed, may maintain a “human scale”; while conventional characters in plausible contexts can easily be quite anonymous, simple tokens in an algebra of readymade dilemmas.
There is nothing ready-made about the eight stories in I, etcetera. Indeed the question of signature, of putting together an identity, is explicitly raised, and even when the characters worry about their facelessness, this preoccupation itself, and the writing which displays it, clearly wear the faces Sontag has chosen to give them. A man in one of the stories hands over his life to a dummy because he is “tired of being a person”: “Not just tired of being the person I was, but any person at all.” Simone Weil is quoted as saying that the only thing more hateful than a “we” is an “I”; and at another point this savage old question is fired off: “Who has the right to say ‘I’?” The assertion of self is an ugly and dangerous habit, but the suppression of self is a feeble-hearted error. On this shifting terrain we have to learn to say “I” in the right tone of voice, and this, I take it, is the implication of the wry joke in the book’s title. Once we have said “I” in the proper way, everything else we might say can be summarized as “etcetera.”
In one sense this is a curiously American problem, individualism with a bad conscience. It is more American, even Jamesian, when it is linked to the theme of the unlived life—as if a life which is not aggressively asserted will simply not be there. Thus Dr. Jekyll, in Sontag’s agile and funny rewriting of the famous tale, becomes a kind of cousin of the pale hero of James’s “Beast in the Jungle”: “Nothing is going to happen to me,” he says. “I mean, I know what’s going to happen to me…. I could already write my obituary.” This Jekyll envies Hyde his freedom and his violence, what he sees as his life. Jekyll himself can only think of “all the imaginary crimes he has committed, and of all the real crimes he has never imagined.” In another story a sensible Mrs. Johnson, “proud wife and mother of three,” “renowned for having the cleanest garbage on the block,” sets out in search of a randy liberation and is counseled and bewitched by a variety of “American spirits,” including those of Tom Paine, Betsy Ross, Ethel Rosenberg, Leland Stanford, Margaret Fuller, and Errol Flynn.
“Old Complaints Revisited” shows us a narrator who wishes to leave what he or she—nothing in the language or the names used indicates his or her sex—calls the movement or the organization, but can’t. The movement resembles Catholicism or Judaism or Communism in certain ways—it has martyrs, high ideals, traditions of fidelity. But it is not religious and doesn’t appear to be politically active. No one is born into it, and for some it is simply a variety of freemasonry, a means of making business contacts or finding a wife or husband. But for the narrator of the anguished memorandum which makes up the story it is an extravagant moral commitment which bleeds him/her of life. “I accuse the organization of depriving me of my innocence. Of complicating my will.” It is the opposite of liberty, it is a morbid loyalty to things beyond the self which means that the self is entirely starved. And it entails a heartbreaking linguistic modesty:
If I could be lyrical! Unpredictable! Concise! In love with things as they are! But, alas, this thin, overscrupulous voice is mine….
It’s because I am the sort of person to whom only this language is available that I’m forced to plead for your help and sympathy. But it may be that this very language is not capable of evoking sympathy—at least, not in anyone I could respect.
At other times this exile from immediate experience is seen as an advantage, a chance to unpack the clutter of the mind. “Perhaps I will write the book about my trip to China before I go,” the narrator says at the end of the opening story, and it is a measure of Sontag’s achievement here that this casual-seeming gag carries the weight of a whole perfect portrait. “China,” a set of associations entertained by the narrator since childhood—jade, Buddha, Mao, Turandot, Myrna Loy, missionaries, Boxers, cruelty, delicacy, civilization, peaked cloth caps, a dead father, patience, wisdom, and much else—becomes the ground of an eloquent meditation, a vision of the writer lapsing into the charmed guesswork of literature.
I, etcetera is framed by two stories about journeys, one still to come, the other already made. “Whenever I travel,” a voice says, “it’s always to say goodbye.” And a good deal of the book has the flavor of an articulate, affectionate inventory, with its lucid listings of “What is wrong,” “What people are trying to do,” “What relieves, soothes, helps,” “What is upsetting,” “What I’m doing,” and its amused attention to the pathetic memories we tag onto words and phrases like remember and last time and because, murmured like magical spells that just might make our forlorn adventures come alive for us:
Remember. Those outsize bills, the kind they had until the devaluation. Last time. There weren’t as many cars last time, were there?….
Because. It’s because of the fumes from the petrochemical factories nearby. It’s because they don’t have enough guards for the museums.
Travel is the ideal metaphor for the unlived life, since all trips are overloaded with expectation, and visited places are scarcely ever quite real when they are actually seen. Experience is held off, sniffed at, toured. Or once in a while it is simply, overwhelmingly, suffered, and in either case it is missed, uncomprehended, over before we have grasped what it might have meant. This particular sense of exclusion remains American, I think. “Does every country have a tragic history except ours?” a voice asks in the book’s last story. The question is sarcastic, no doubt, but there is a pathos in the very possibility of its being asked. However, I don’t want to insist any further on the nationality of these worries, or I shall falsify my feeling about the work. I can’t imagine an English writer being so preoccupied with the self; but then I can’t think of another American writer with so delicate an awareness of the demands of others.
Sometimes the crackle of Sontag’s epigrams gets in the way of the compassion which has prompted the writing: “Literature tells us what is happening to words”; “Don’t take Mélisande to see Pelléas et Mélisande“; “No one is a devil if fully heard”; “Wisdom is a ruthless business”; “It’s not Paradise that’s lost.” Grand as these glittering things are, they tend to short-circuit the writing, and keep us at arm’s length, or even further away. In one or two of the stories, the determined execution doesn’t quite catch up with the initial bright idea—I’m thinking especially of “Baby,” which is the double monologue of two spoiled parents on the subject of their one spoiled child, as they tell a silent doctor their painful, self-excusing tales. The book in general, however, not only confronts and explores the life which is traveled rather than lived, it records a life fully lived in the face of all such doubts. No pain or horror is avoided, no occasion for despair is ducked. In “Debriefing,” the most moving story in the book and surely a small masterpiece, a depressed friend wants to “talk sadness,” and the narrator briskly responds like the sensible person she is:
On cue, like an old vaudevillian, I go into my routines of secular ethical charm. They seem to work. She promises to try.
They don’t work. Two days later the friend drowns herself in the Hudson, Mélisande falling into that broad, polluted version of Maeterlinck’s well. Confronting this death, and a whole precisely realized panorama of the ills of New York and, by extension, of all sorts of other places, the narrator still refuses to give up, rolls her stone up the hill like a dogged Sisyphus. This is not simply a “positive” message, a mere assertion. It is something won, an earned survival akin to that of the characters in the best stories in Ted Solotaroff’s anthology. “Only the greatest obstacle that can be contemplated without despair,” Yeats wrote, “rouses the will to full intensity.” And Susan Sontag, turning to yet another of those travelers’ phrases she notes so acutely, crisply echoes the thought, and incidentally refutes the terminal dreams of J.G. Ballard:
The end of the world. This is not the end of the world.
January 25, 1979