Wednesday, January 13, 2021

SHORT STORY WEDNESDAY: Doris Pitkin Buck: "Why They Mobbed the White House"; Kate Wilhelm: "The Planners" (ORBIT 3, edited by Damon Knight, G. P. Putnam 1968); Donald Barthelme: "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning"; Leonard Michaels: "Crossbones" (NEW AMERICAN REVIEW #3, edited by Theodore Solotaroff, Signet/New American Library 1968); Rod Serling: "The Escape Route" ('TIS THE SEASON TO BE WARY by Serling, Little, Brown 1967)


Doris Pitkin Buck is probably the most obscure writer, these years, in the third volume of Damon Knight's new-fiction anthology series Orbit...a former actor and eventually on the English faculty at Ohio State, she was among the earliest of the women writers recruited as contributors by Anthony Boucher and Mick McComas at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and made a name for herself as much for her light verse  as her fiction for that magazine and elsewhere. I knew her granddaughter Laurel Buck slightly, when we were students at the University of Hawaii, and LB recalled DPB gathering the kids and letting them know, I hope tongue in cheek, that the flying saucers/UFOs were actually alien visitors come to help us out..."Why They Mobbed the White House" is a jovial story (distinct from certain recent events), taking the tack of the newly complex tax forms of the mid-'60s, and the increasing use of computers at the IRS and elsewhere, as jumping-off point for something a bit gentler than the typical "comic inferno" sf stories associated with Galaxy magazine and other markets in the '50s and '60s; told as a DC tour-guide's patter, it details how a certain couple found their way into the White House on the platform of having computers actually fill in rather than simply check tax forms. 

Kate Wilhelm's "The Planners" (which w0n the 1969 Nebula Award for best short story) digs a bit deeper and reads a bit heavier, while demonstrating a darker sort of wit. The planners in question include both biochemists and psychologists who use monkeys and apes (the latter including humans) as their test subjects, in seeing how injections of strains of RNA into their bodies enable...and disable...intellectual abilities...and eventually some of the subjects become planners as well. The protagonist, one of the primary researchers and a psychologist, is also consistently suffering...if that's the right word...a series of hallucinations that interact with his actual life, some seemingly simply reveries of sexual dalliance with various women, others rather more extended fantasias...he seems most grounded when exploring the nature of his relatively unhappy marriage.  The narrative slides through the various sorts of experience he has without too many indicators as to where he is departing from reality, but Wilhelm nonetheless makes it fairly clear where she wants to indicate consensus reality in the story, and where not. This story, even more than the Buck story, is indicative of the kind of literary grace the Orbit series would become famous for in its early years, in its relative departure from "realistic" prose form part of what had a number of more conservative writers and readers grumbling over its incomprehensibility...and a Nebula Awards ballot driven by the mutual admiration of a "Milford Mafia" (after the Milford Writer's Conferences Wilhelm and Knight, a married couple, were hosting by the latter '60s). 

Leonard Michaels also deals with a certain retreat from the reality of his characters', a tempestuous romantic couple's, situation, in the vignette "Crossbones"...
which might well've been inspired at least in part by his troubled first marriage, to the eventually suicidal Sylvia Bloch (Michaels is quoted in one online source as referring to her seeming at times "like a madwoman imitating a college student")...the first sentence in this very short story is a long paragraph (a man after my own heart thus). There are about seven or possibly ten sentences in the entirety, about the surreal abuse they subject each other to, and about the probable progress of the woman's father (possibly) on his machismic way over for a visit.  It's funnier if one isn't as aware of Bloch's eventual fate.

Sad fate also plays a role in "Robert Kennedy Saved from Drowning", but mostly in the string of events that led, not too long after publication, to RFK's death and, a couple of years later, to Edward Kennedy's near drowning (and not so near for Ms. Kopechne). Donald Barthelme's story apparently would've been accepted by William Shawn at The New Yorker if Barthelme was willing to change the title-character's name to something fictional, but Barthelme simply took it back and sold it to New American Review instead...I'd suggest correctly, seeing that this is, essentially, a piece of parodic fiction about how "sophisticated" magazine profiles of (particularly) political figures of RFK's position are all too often inane examples of marketing, hoping to convince the incautious or uninformed reader that every action on the part of their subject is heroic, every utterance sagacious (the one non-fictional anecdote in this "profile" occurred at a gallery, where RFK made a condescending joke about a certain painting, in the presence of the artist; Barthelme, a visual arts museum curator and journalist previous to his fiction-writing, wasn't favorably impressed). 

So...what all four of these stories are about, to one degree or another, is delusion, of the self and others. to some extent voluntarily accepted but mostly not so much. Can't imagine how they might've seemed appropriate to the times, nor that they might've found their way to reasonably avant-garde magazines in book form in 1968.

The fifth story, Rod Serling's "The Escape Route", was one of the three newly-published novellas in his first (legitimate, not ghost-written) collection, The Season to be Wary, in 1967. Serling hoped to launch a career as a novelist, apparently (his brother, Robert Serling, had one, after all), and it, too, is about self-delusion...the fugitive concentration-camp second-in-command's delusions about his service to the Nazi regime, and his relative lack of self-delusion about his circumstances as the Nazi hunters of the 1960s are after him, in his unpleasant circumstances in Buenos Aires. Also about Serling's self-delusion that this novella (I've managed to get 20 pages in, about a third of the way through, as it was reprinted in Rod Serling's Night Gallery Reader, edited by widow Carol Serling, RS's old campus colleague Charles Waugh, and Waugh's typical editing partner Martin H. Greenberg; this trio presumably decided this novella was the least worst of the three. Sadly, while "The Escape Route" made for a decent if unsurprising segment of the Night Gallery pilot film (as I remember it from some 45 years ago), the prose of the novella can be described as passable treatment writing...clumsy, overstated, using poor word choices in the narrative passages...while the dialog, given Serling was not a novice as a playwright, isn't too shabby at all, and at times has a nice snap to it--when the preaching isn't getting a bit thick...another Serling flaw).

If not for the hour, or the nature of this day, I'd probably transcribe the first paragraph of the story...perhaps tomorrow...

For more Short Story Wednesday reviews, please see Patti Abbott's blog.  


Neeru said...

Happy 2021, Todd. Here's my contribution for the FFB: A clubbable Woman by Reginald Hill

Todd Mason said...

And a happy year for you as well, Neeru! Thanks for the link.