Sunday, July 24, 2011

Becoming Ray Bradbury

If you have a shelf full of Ray Bradbury's books, you may think you know his work well. You'd be wrong.

Professor Jonathan Eller of Indiana University has made it the work of a decade or so to pull off Bradbury's mask and find what's beneath. Some of this work has been done in studies of single works by Bradbury. Eller has edited, co-edited or contributed to volumes such as It Came From Outer Space, Moby Dick: a Screenplay, and The Halloween Tree. These have all revealed previously invisible aspects of Bradbury's work, by publishing intermediate aftefacts such as screen treatments, outlines and screenplays.

In his work with his Indiana colleague Prof William Touponce, Eller has substantially overturned our assumed wisdom about Bradbury's authorship. Their mammoth study Ray Bradbury: the Life of Fiction presented new readings of Bradbury's major works in light of archaeological diggings into Bradbury's typescripts and working papers. Before Eller and Touponce, we tended to assume that each book Bradbury put out was a reflection of his writing at the time of publication. After The Life of Fiction we can see that the vast majority of Bradbury's work stems from an extensive outpouring of creativity in the 1940s and early 1950s.

Eller and Touponce are continuing to "set the record straight" through their ongoing multi-volume critical edition of The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury. This series of books seeks to restore Bradbury's original texts and to establish the original compositional sequence and chronology of Bradbury's short stories. It's really quite stunning to discover how many of Bradbury's classic tales were conceived or written before 1950.

Now Eller has completed a volume which serves as an excellent companion to The Life of Fiction and The Collected Stories.

Becoming Ray Bradbury is a biography of Bradbury's early career, concentrating on his creative, literary and intellectual development. It goes up to the key turning point of Bradbury's professional life: his sojourn in Ireland working on Moby Dick for John Huston. The remainder of Bradbury's career is due to be covered in a sequel volume.

There have been Bradbury biographies before, of course, most notably Sam Weller's The Bradbury Chronicles. Why do we we need another?

The answer to that one is simple. Sam Weller writes about every facet of Bradbury. Not just Bradbury the writer, but Bradbury the young film fan who hung around studio gates waiting for an autograph from W.C.Fields. Bradbury the celebrity who walked out on David Frost on the night of the Moon landing. Bradbury the friend of the stars and honoree of presidents from around the globe. All of this makes The Bradbury Chronicles a rounded and fascinating read.

But what Eller does in Becoming Ray Bradbury is carefully examine the details of Bradbury's writerly development. Here we learn of exactly what Bradbury was reading and writing during his early attempts to become a writer; of the importance of mentors such as Jack Williamson, Edmond Hamilton and Leigh Brackett; of his encounters with the works of Steinbeck and Hemingway. Some of this is covered in Weller's book, but Jon Eller takes us deeply into Bradbury's reading and can tell us that, for example, in 1944 Bradbury read Charles Jackson's The Lost Weekend and E.B. White's One Man's Meat. In many cases, he is able to tell us how and why Bradbury came to each volume: perhaps a chance discovery in a bookshop; perhaps a recommendation from friend Henry Kuttner; perhaps a gift from his wife.

Why does any of this matter? Well, because Eller is trying to piece together factors that influenced Bradbury's writing, thinking and worldview. It is clear in the early chapters that Bradbury was quite susceptible to influence from others, as we discover through the account of Bradbury's aligning himself with the "Technocracy" movement. It is equally clear that the young Bradbury was astute in making up his own mind, and having explored an idea in depth would be quite prepared to toss it aside if it was found wanting.

Becoming Ray Bradbury is particularly good in covering Bradbury's early professional years, presumably in part because Bradbury himself kept good records. (He has a reputation, to this day, of never throwing anything away.) It also gives an excellent account of Bradbury's oscillation between optimism and pessimism in terms of his knowledge and understanding of the world. Many critics are confused over this, and find it hard to reconcile a perceived "anti-science" bias in some of Bradbury's work with a profound optimism found elsewhere.

At the heart of Becoming Ray Bradbury is a pair of chapters dealing with Bradbury's "miracle year", a twelve-month period in which he submitted three of his major works: The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man and "The Fireman" (the earliest published version of Fahrenheit 451.)

You can probably tell by now that I think highly of this book, but that doesn't mean I find it without its flaws and foibles, although they are really quite minor. Although it is far more detailed than The Bradbury Chronicles, it doesn't attempt to cover every aspect of Bradbury's life. For some readers - particularly those who haven't read The Bradbury Chronicles - that might make this seem an oddly-balanced volume. In fact, the book is probably best seen as complementary to The Bradbury Chronicles. I still think it will make perfect sense to anyone who hasn't read Weller.

The only other slight weakness emerges from the difficulty of trying to draw out themes from a literary career while still sticking to a broadly chronological telling of events. There are occasions where the narrative has to backtrack, and with a work as detailed as this it's easy for the reader (me, at least) to have forgotten a crucial detail from a previous chapter.

The book is very clearly written. Don't be put off that this is written by a professor, and is published by a university press. It is free of scholarly jargon and doesn't demand that you have a degree in Eng. Lit.

Becoming Ray Bradbury is a fine companion to The Life of Fiction and The Collected Stories of Ray Bradbury. Together, they round out a significant re-evaluation of Bradbury's life and work.

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