Monthly Archives: June 2014

Maile Meloy, “Madame Lazarus”

CV1_TNY_06_23_14Booth.inddA man takes care of his little old dog while remembering past relationships.

(from The New Yorker, June 23, 2014)

I considered the dog, a blond female no bigger than a cat. She had long hair like whiskers over her eyes, so she seemed always to be raising her eyebrows. She sat down, as if she knew that would help her case. James is English and wanted to call her Cordelia, not for “Lear” but for an English novel. It was not the name I would have chosen, but it was not worth the argument. He did a ringmaster act with some toys—a knot of cloth, a ball, a round bed—to show me how good this would be. I had long associated terriers with the barking arts, but this one did not bark. She sniffed at the toys and the bed, waiting for my decision.

That description at the top is so stupid. But I’m tired. I only read this story to help me fall asleep, but it was too compelling for that, and I’m only writing this post now because that is what one does when one finishes reading a story. This is a sad little thing, with only a few sparks to make you feel something other than gorgeous hopelessness. Good for a reader. Bad for a sleeper.

Mavis Gallant, “When We Were Nearly Young”

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 2.03.59 AMAging youths scrape by in Madrid, waiting.

(from The New Yorker, Oct. 15, 1960)

I saw inside my eyelids at night the nine of clubs, which is an excellent card, and the ten of hearts, which is better, morally speaking, since it implies gain through effort.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 2.17.40 AMThe four young people around whom this story barely revolves — our passing-through narrator and three vaguely hopeless Spaniards — are not so much friends as similarly afflicted commiserators. The live near each other. They scrape up crappy meals together. They entertain each others’ delusions. The New Yorker‘s accompanying summary calls them “accidental friends,” united by poverty and the idea that money would soon be sent to rescue them. At the risk of sounding like Ben Rand, I did find myself wondering why these four felt so resigned to their poor prospects. “The Spaniards’ characteristic trait was a certain passiveness,” says the summary. Who wrote that, I wonder? Doesn’t matter. This story captures a specific kind of devoted twenty-something lethargy better than anything else I’ve ever read. I was nearly young once.

A friend had been trying to turn me onto Mavis Gallant but, after immersing myself in the moody suffering of Bolaño, I found no attraction to characters apparently concerned with affluent worry. Turns out I was digging in the wrong spot. Soon this story was printed for me and, finally, I believe I get it. Thank you for the recommendation, Pilar.

Roald Dahl, “The Sound Machine”

mcsweeneys-45A scientist named Klausner invents a machine that lets you hear sounds usually outside the range of human hearing.

(from McSweeney’s 45)

A flower probably didn’t feel pain. It felt something else which we didn’t know about — something called toin or spurl or plinuckment, or anything you like.

Things this hilarious, strange little story brought to mind:

1. A book Art Bell would occasionally pretend he bought into called The Secret Life of Plants. It was written by researchers who hooked plants up to polygraphs and found them to be somehow sentient. The plants were fearful of being cut and such. Needless to say, most scientists have a problem with the methodology, findings, etc. (P.S. There was a film version; Stevie Wonder did the soundtrack.)

2. Kurt Vonnegut’s short story called “Confido,” about a guy who invents a machine that tells you what you want to hear.

3. But moreso, Kurt Vonnegut’s short story “Thanasphere,” in which the first astronaut to leave Earth finds out space is the full of the disembodied souls of the dead, who keep talking to him over the radio.

Stevie+Wonder+-+Journey+Through+The+Secret+Life+Of+Plants+-+DOUBLE+LP-2854634. That line from The Simpsons: “I’m a level five vegan. I won’t eat anything that casts a shadow.” Klausner, after hearing flowers shriek upon being nipped by shears, theorizes that he’d never enjoy bread again if he used his machine while a wheat field was being harvested. Happily, he figures that apples are probably okay, since they fall off the tree naturally.

5. How there’s probably so much more Roald Dahl out there I haven’t gotten to yet. I’ve read all the kid stuff, but not nearly enough of his even-darker “Switch Bitch” adult material. I read “The Sound Machine” — first printed in the New Yorker in 1949 — in the Hitchcock and Bradbury Fistfight in Heaven McSweeney’s compilation issue, but you can find it a bunch of places (like here). Several filmmakers have made adaptations of it, by the way.

miamisoundmachinediscopiano1980-510x506-7869296. How brilliant inventors in certain kinds of stories are always fatally or near-fatally eccentric. This dude’s “sound machine” (respect to Gloria Estefan) would be a huuuge deal. Total game-changer. Once humanity finds out that broccoli whimpers and trees scream, it’s gonna have a lot to think about. But Klausner’s such a pale, awkward spaz, he can barely express himself to his neighbors or the doctor he tries to demonstrate the machine to. Today’s productive geeks and nerds seem better able to express themselves.

7. The way Dahl builds tension. As soon as we hear what the machine is supposed to do, well, we knows it’s going to work. So, dammit, let’s turn the thing on! But no, first we gotta read about Klausner lugging the thing up the stairs, and trying to open the door without putting it down. Purposefully, slyly maddening. Sometimes you want to punch an author because the writing’s that good.

Philip K. Dick, “The Preserving Machine”

images-albums-The_Preserving_Machine_-_20100122162416335.w_290.h_290.m_crop.a_center.v_topA scientist tries to guarantee the survival of classical music by inventing a machine that turns sheet music into animals.

(from Fantasy & Science Fiction, June 1953)

For a moment we saw nothing. Then a bush moved, and for the first time we made out its form. It must have been standing there watching us all the time. The creature was immense, thin and extended, with bright, intense eyes. To me, it looked something like a coyote, but much heavier. Its coat was matted and thick, its muzzle hung partly open as it gazed at us silently, studying us as if astonished to find us there.

“The Wagner animal,” Labyrinth said thickly. “But it’s changed. It’s changed. I hardly recognize it.”

The creature sniffed the air, its hackles up. Suddenly it moved hack, into the shadows, and a moment later it was gone.

We stood for a while, not saying anything. At last Labyrinth stirred. “So, that’s what it was,” he said. “I can hardly believe it. But why? What-”

“Adaptation,” I said. “When you toss an ordinary house cat out it becomes wild. Or a dog.”

“Yes.” He nodded. “A dog becomes a wolf again, to stay alive. The law of the forest. I should have expected it. It happens to everything.”

This is a slightly silly but enthralling little parable about creations getting away from their creators. Aspects of it reminded me of Jurassic Park, though “life uh finds a way” means that Doc Labyrinth’s little Bach bugs and Mozart birds evolve in unexpected ways. (Unlike Crichton’s dinosaurs, their designed inability to reproduce seems to be holding firm.) “The Preserving Machine” also brought to mind a recent episode of 99% Invisible called “Ten Thousand Years” which included a story about “ray cats” which were designed to change color when they were near radiation. Actually, I don’t think the cats were ever created or we’d all have them as pets by now. 

Hey check out this album by Argentinian composer Lanark, each track inspired by an animal from “The Preservation Machine.” Also, you can read the story here.

61bahG8xTILI found out about the Philip K. Dick short story while reading Jonathan Lethem’s NYT write-up on Roberto Bolaño’s magnificent 2666, which I just got finished reading and carrying around. It’s immense, and unforgettable, and ultimately satisfying, though trying at times, too. After closing the book, I wandered around Rittenhouse Square, then Barnes & Noble, but I didn’t quite know what to do with myself. A good book can do that, but it’s a momentary hopelessness and I don’t enjoy it much. I’ll probably read more Bolaño soon. I also plan on posting here more regularly. I’ve said this and seen this before, a peculiar enthusiasm for short stories stirred up by a behemoth novel.