I just finished Howard Who? on Tuesday night, though I first read “The Ugly Chickens” a couple of years ago, and loved it. (My edition is the Peapod Classics one put out by Small Beer Press, pictured at the right.) So of the “slipstream” books I’ve read from Small Beer aren’t really my thing, but this collection was overall really, really good.
It’s worth noting, by the way, that this is a Small Beer reprint: the collection was Waldrop’s first, and originally was put out by Doubleday in 1986. It seems so obvious to me that a smaller press could fruitfully reprint collections of this quality that fall out of print, and I hope that the idea catches on–both for print books and ebooks–because there’s just too much great stuff out of print these days.
In any case, I really liked the collection overall. There isn’t a title story, but the cover illustration is a clear reference to the first piece in the book, and what I think might be Waldrop’s most famous tale, “The Ugly Chickens,” which won both the World Fantasy award for Short Fiction and the Nebula for best novelette, in the years when it was eligible for each–in 1981 and 1980, respectively. “The Ugly Chickens” is a pretty good example of the man’s sense of humor, or, at least, the kind of humor that dominated in Waldrop’s short fiction of the era. (The stories all originally came out between 1976 and 1985, many of them in Shayol, a short-run semiprozine edited by Pat Cadigan that I’ve never actually seen a copy of before, though some scans of covers are viewable online.)
Smarter people than me have struggled with the question of why human beings would have evolved a capacity for humor: why do we joke? The most credible of explanations for me are that humor is simply a non-maladaptive side effect of intelligence (we joke because creatures with our sorts of brains happen to joke), or that the demonstration of a sense of humor is adaptive in that it suggests reproductive fitness (that people with a good sense of humor look smart to potential mates, and thus are assumed to offer genes that’ll produce smart–evolutionarily fit–babies). Which sort of makes it clear for me what I dislike about a lot of humorous fiction: it’s just not half so smart as it wishes it was, or thinks it is, or pretends to be. It ends up having to nudge-nudge, wink-wink to get you laugh. Too much humor writing is just not fundamentally intelligent, or, at least, refuses to assume the reader is intelligent. Waldrop, though? His comedy is often downright erudite.
Then there’s the other thing I usually don’t enjoy: that “slipstream” thing. I’m talking about a kind of surrealism that’s come into vogue in the last, oh, decade and a half, and which often strikes me as, well… less in service of story, and more in service of showing off how surreal one’s writing is. (As my wife commented on one such prominent author, “It’s like reading those bad Japanese novels, where it’s all, ‘Oooh, look how weird and surreal I am!’ But it all ends up feeling pointless.”) Waldrop’s stories do employ surrealism of a kind I see echoing through the later work, but the surrealism in his stories always serves a definite story. Waldrop’s stories meander, but it’s rather a purposeful, thoughtful, and pointful meandering; there’s few to no empty calories in the weirdness they offer.
Waldrop doesn’t make you feel smart, he reminds you of what smart fiction looks like. He doesn’t do weird for weird’s sake, he does weird for the story’s sake. His gags are usually very, very intelligent but also very much reliant on historical awareness of an almost-polymathic type. While he’s nowhere near as obscurantist as some writers (including me, in my most opaque moments) he also doesn’t assume his readers are ignorant. There’s a certain amount of comedy that is only really transparent if you know enough about history to get the jokes. It is readily apparent–for those who take note of such things–the amount of research Waldrop does for some of his stories. I mean, a lot: “God’s Hooks!” is Waldrop’s version of a fisherman’s tall tale… and it’s a satire featuring the Great Fire of London (in 1666), John Bunyan (and the religious extremisms of 17th century England), and the author The Compleat Angler, because who else suffices for the protagonist of a tall tale about a fish this big? (The notes for that story are bananas, to the tune of building 17th-century styled fishing rods by hand.) In his notes for “… The World, as We Know’t,” he discusses a degree of research about failed science that shines through the story with astonishing clarity… a story about, well, how experimenting with phlogiston could have gone really, really wrong, if such a thing had really existed. And it’s a great story.
A couple of stories appealed to me less, probably just because of their subject matter: “Save a Place in the Lifeboat for Me” is sort of a mix of all the things American men of Waldrop’s generation seem to love (The Three Stooges and Buddy Holly are prominent, and neither of them mean are such touchstones for me… especially since, for me, “the day the music died” was long before I was born, on 17 July, 1967). Likewise, though parts of it were brilliant (especially robots’ long sleep, and the far-future humans), “Heirs of the Perisphere,” sort of got a little nudge-nudge-winky in parts. “Man-Mountain Gentian,” likewise, was fun, but, you know, when it was over, I didn’t find myself looking back over my shoulder at it. (Perhaps I likewise lack that prerequisite American fascination with Japan? I’m not sure.)
But obviously my being underwhelmed by those particular stories has a clear (to me) idiosyncratic component, and do not at all detract from my enjoyment of the book as a whole. Especially memorable for me, besides “The Ugly Chickens” and “God’s Hooks!”, were “Ike at the Mike” (an alternate history Elvis who went into politics, and dreams of being a great musician like jazzer President Eisenhower and his Vice President Louis Armstrong… a brilliant kick for me, casting Elvis as a jazz fan, because why not?) and “Dr. Hudson’s Secret Gorilla” (which is twisted and hilarious and a little terrifying all at once). I also admired “Green Brother” a lot (a story about what seems to be a 19th century Native American who has a vision of a very unusual totem animal) and “Der Untergang des Abendlandesmenschen” (basically, German Expressionist cowboys vs. vampires).
Not everything is so easy to talk about, of course. “Horror, We Got” is a bizarre story, which… well, here’s the art from its original appearance in Shayol in 1979 (I found it here):
It’s basically a story about a group who, yes, take the name “The Learned Elders of Zion”, and, well, here’s a nice terse summary from an old version of the Alternative History List:
Time travel is discovered in Israel and the new Elders of Zion decide to do or arrange to have done everything the Jews were accused of.
Which is to say, it’s a revenge story, and really twisted, and at least for me, it was also darkly funny and horrifying at the same time–a very weird satire of a ridiculous and vicious hoax–The Protocols of the Elders of Zion–at which, I imagine, some people took grave offense. I can’t blame them much, either: it’s not my own people’s history and suffering and partial genocide that’s used as a springboard for satire here, after all… and I think Waldrop’s notes suggest he was aware of what a risk it was to write it. The story ran in Shayol mainly because Cadigan and Arnie Fenner (the editor and the publisher respectively) pre-emptively suggested Waldrop sell it to them instead of wasting three or four years trying to sell it to people who couldn’t buy it even if they wanted to.
Read in the context of a collection like Howard Who? it’s a little hard to imagine this story coming from anything besides disgust for all the crap inflicted on Jews throughout history, and a desire to mock and lay bare the stupid gullibility of people who believed all those horrible slanders… it feels like he’s highlighting how ridiculous and histrionic the slander that millions believed was, by attempting to make it even more ridiculous and histrionic. Surely, I imagine him thinking, nobody is stupid enough to believe this…
Whether the story works is harder to say. In the rest of the book, Waldrop comes across as a genuinely humane writer, a sort of jovial brainiac with a sharp wit… yet even in that context, I simultaneously enjoyed what I think Waldrop was trying to do–to satirize the idiocy of bigots–and discomfited by the story… though, you know, I thought that discomfort, too, was part of the point. I can’t help but feel curious what people thought when they ran across it in the magazine, and frankly, it’s hard to be confused about why. Which is to say: it’s a very funny, and a very disturbing story, and part of what’s disturbing about it is that it’s funny. One can intellectualize it, but one some level one wonders: isn’t this a bit like watching someone do an angry, fuck-the-anti-Semites slam-poetry-ish comedy routine in a krema at Bergen-Belsen or something? But then, Never Again is sort of predicated on keeping the story alive, and, well… not every version of that story can or necessarily should be a Schindler’s List or Shoah… I certainly don’t feel like I’m in a position to judge for or against it, really. The story did made me think about narrative sympathy, about the limits of satire, about writing about historical oppressions of groups one isn’t a member of (something I do a fair bit), and it also brought me back to thinking about time travel stories whether the time traveler isn’t your default WASP American male. I think I’ll have to return to it to figure out what I really think about it, though, and I may never come to a comfortable resting place in terms of my reaction. Which in itself is interesting: I haven’t felt this weirdly conflicted about a (modern) story in a very long time.
Anyway, all in all, I found this collection very much worth the time and effort. And, joy, my copy is autographed. (I got it that way straight from Small Beer, years ago.)
If you want to read more about Waldrop, here’s a good, if very incomplete, profile of his work at the new-defunct iROSF. I agree that it’s unfortunate Waldrop hasn’t gotten more attention, since his work is really great, and, I think, is of lasting literary value as well. (I think several of the stories in this collection could easily continue to be read for a long time to come, if only they got noticed enough by mainstream anthologists, once the current thaw between genre and “mainstream” fiction proceeds far enough.)
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