Apple-pie surrealism

movie set

Ray Bradbury
We’ll Always Have Paris

Harper Voyager 2009

An abiding image for me comes in the short story called ‘Remembrance, Ohio’. A couple apparently find themselves in a hot dusty town, uninhabited. They can’t agree on its name — is it Remembrance? Coldwater? Inclement? — or which state they’re in — Ohio? California? Nebraska? All they know is that they have found a familiar-looking porch on which to sit and reminisce, although they can’t quite recall precise details. Their confusion is heightened by half a dozen strangers who are searching for them. To escape they burst through the front door of the house, and slam it, and turn.

“There was nothing behind the front wall of the house except strutworks, canvas, boards, a small meadow, and a creek. A few arc-lights stood to each side. Stenciled on a papier-mâché inner wall was STUDIO #12.”

It’s all a façade,  part of a movie set built on some Californian backlot, we assume. For me this fleeting image encapsulates the spirit of this collection of around a score of short stories: ordinary people adrift from their familiar world, often a small mid-American town, thrown or eased into unfamiliar situations, trying to retreat back to what they know. Eccentric Pietro makes his peace with conformity but loses his independence in the process. A mother visits a man who has had her son’s heart transplanted into him, hoping to recognise some aspect of her lost child. Astronauts on a mission to Mars feel alienation and a deep sense of loss until the Main Street of a typical US town, complete with facilities, is recreated in the Martian desert. Couples come together or face separation, find solace in each other or precipitate rupture.

Bradbury had a touching faith in America, as his concluding short poem indicates: “We are the dream that other people dream.” Brought up in Waukegan, Illinois but moving to California in his early teens, he retained an apple-pie nostalgia for his childhood despite transplantation to the dream world that was Los Angeles; much of the surrealism surrounded these short stories comes, I feel, from the mixed marriage of contrasting milieus.

He long resisted being labelled as a science fiction writer, preferring to be seen as a fantasy author. In these short but haunting tales he takes us down unexpected paths, revealing the false fronts that many of us erect in order to hide our true interiors, not just from others but also from ourselves.

2015 Reading Challenge
Slightly cheating here: this should strictly speaking be a book which is a Pulitzer Prize winner, but instead I’ve gone for the late author himself, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize Special Citation, who died in 2012. His citation noted his “distinguished, prolific and deeply influential career as an unmatched author of science fiction and fantasy”

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7 thoughts on “Apple-pie surrealism

  1. “We are the dream that other people dream” is very touching yet has a bite to it. America is, or was seen, as the place where dreams come true, if you work hard enough. Now we know better.
    Coincidentally, I was watching a show last night, in which two men are standing in a parking lot of a boarded up strip-mall. One looks around and says, “this looks like someone’s memory of an American town, but now the memory is fading”.
    I have to wonder if Bradbury would have the same faith today?

    Loved the review Chris. I may just have to add the works to my list of short stories to read.

    1. I think you may like it, Sari, especially more than an outsider like me with a view of smalltown America conditioned by the media rather than experience. And of course a lot of the gleam on the American dream was tarnished by the recession of a decade ago, the echoes of it still resonating today. Bradbury would have lived through all that before his relatively recent death.

      His stories — some of which must have been written, what, half a century ago? — have a kind of Truman Show feel about them, very disconcerting for their evocation of the ordinary somehow seeming out-of-kilter with reality. Do read them, and tell me whether or not you agree!

  2. They do sound fascinating, Chris. The only Bradbury I’ve read is Farenheit 451 and I really can’t think why I haven’t read any more. I love the sound of these stories, the slip between reality and fantasy. Just my kind of thing.

    1. This was only my second completed Bradbury, Lynn — like you I’d read Fahrenheit 451 but then stalled on Something Wicked This Way Comes. I’ll give it another go in 2016, I think! This collection is a fine masterclass on the art of short story writing, appropriate as we’re ‘doing’ the short story in creative writing classes this term.

      1. Sounds like an interesting class – and great to be reading Bradbury’s short stories at the same time. Will you consider posting some of your own creative writing on calmgrove? Or would you be uncomfortable with that?

        1. Another example of that writing (I’ve posted some last year) coming up imminently, Lynn, totally by coincidence! Appropriate for the season I’m expecting it may send a few shivers down spines …

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