Wednesday, November 30, 2022

SSW: "Bullet in the Brain" by Tobias Wolff; "Mary" (and "The Country of the Kind") by Damon Knight

 "The Country of the Kind" by Damon Knight, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, February 1956, edited by "Anthony Boucher" (William White); can be read here.

"Mary" by Damon Knight, Galaxy Magazine, June 1964, edited by Frederik Pohl (who for the magazine's purposes retitled the story "An Ancient Madness"); can be read here.

"Bullet in the Brain" by Tobias Wolff, The New Yorker, 25 September 1995, edited by Tina Brown; can be read here or here.

A few days ago, participants on the Rara-Avis hardboiled and noir crime fiction discussion list mentioned how much they enjoyed Wolff's rather short story, which moved me to (finally) read it; a day later, on the FictionMags discussion list, heavily but not exclusively devoted to fantastic fiction (among other sorts as published in, oddly enough, fiction magazines), mention was made of a Damon Knight story, "Mary" of which I had no memory (sadly, this is becoming increasingly common an occurrence as I enter my dotage); a devoted fan of Knight's work (and one who has read most but not all of that work), I refreshed the memory. And in doing so, I was reminded of Knight's brilliant story, "The Country of the Kind", which I have mentioned on the blog before, as one that was hugely influential on me upon reading it first as a child. It's a better story than the not-bad but somewhat more slight later Knight novelette, and in some ways prefigures the Wolff. You could spend worse afternoons than reading all three. You definitely might want to do so before reading the commentary below.

Somewhat perversely, this 1976 selection of his own work includes "Mary" but excludes "The Country of the Kind". His 1991 entry in the Author's Choice Monthly series, God's Nose, again choosing from his own work, actually averages a bit better, though is too slim a collection. Even though it slights his later work and some excellent novellas (and several good novels--finally--at the end of his career), this omnibus of his first four short-fiction collections (Far Out, In Deep, Off Center and Turning On) is the best one-volume introduction...though copies of the God's Nose volume and the Best of would be, even together, more portable!

Includes "Bullet in the Brain", first collected in Wolff's 1996 volume The Night in Question.

"The Country of the Kind" (the title as well as, to a lesser degree, core concept a riff on H. G. Wells's "The Country of the Blind", a challenge to the adage about the One-Eyed Man being King there) involves an essentially utopian society, in which a sociopath who has artistic impulses of a sort has been not so much imprisoned but allowed to wander freely in society, only with universal proviso that he not be interacted with (since he is prone almost exclusively to sadistic violence in his interactions), altered in a manner that will cause him to black out before he can actually physically hurt anyone, and given a permanent distinctive unpleasant scent (which he can't detect) which will tip off the more or less normal people to his presence (presumably almost no one in this society has lost their olfactory sense). By story's end, Knight has made the case that artists can tend to be disturbers of the peace, at very least, without actually advocating that sociopathy be condoned (too many have done so in the years before and since this story's publication, particularly if the behavior was from some sort of artistic genius), and suggests the protagonist's isolation is a cruelty that parallels any he attempts. The first-appearance headnote by Anthony Boucher, describing Knight's inspiration in writing the story, is useful reading (I first read the story in Robert Silverberg's SFWA anthology The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, V. 1, without any sort of introduction), and the story deftly makes every point Knight seeks to tick off.

Wolff's "Bullet in the Brain" in its even shorter focus deals instead with a literary critic, facing life with a critic's intellectual toolkit employed too much to his own detriment, which in a very unfortunate encounter with some bank robbers while making his irritated way through a tiresome day, can't stop mocking the lack of imagination or artistry of mundane reality and the bad behavior around him. As he is shot, even his last conscious thought is a memory of a fellow child on a baseball team with him, using improper grammar in a naturally colloquial way. That this man has allowed carping to shape his entire life, and to hasten his death, seems a bit facile but still makes for a compelling story not too much longer than a vignette. Both the Knight and Wolff stories limn a certain (necessary?) estrangement of the artist and (cousin) critic from the rhythms of what might be considered a regular life, for good and ill. 

Meanwhile, "Mary" is a lesser Knight story in large part because its critique is not delivered with as much brio, even as it's carefully constructed to make its point. Mary's society is post-disaster, not quite apocalypse, and to prevent genetic drift, everyone human is cloned rather carefully rather than allowed conventional breeding, and the society is likewise highly regulated, as people live communally in what amounts to barracks devoted to their jobs; Mary is one of a number of spinners, who manipulate a kind of gelatinous plastic into various sorts and shades of fabric and other similar material. The sexual relations of the various citizens are uncharged, and tend to be free-floating and temporary...Mary, however, is an atavistic creature, as it turns out, known as an oddball from the start for her moodiness (she was allowed to grow from a less than "perfect" ovum, you see) and eventually for her falling for a slightly less disaffected but similar oddball male, and wanting to have an ongoing monogamous relation on their own...they are allowed to do so, much to the dismay of Mary's sorority sisters, though it's unclear how well they might do in the slowly healing post-nuclear/similar-disaster world. In many ways a parody of those who have difficulty tolerating any "variant" lifestyle, the story relatively cleverly builds up its regimented and communal society, dominated by Elders and largely self-enforced, by its "proper" citizens, limitations, but unlike the casual, even bland well-adjustment of the utopian community's middle-class suburban cheer in "Country" or the inanity of much of what the hapless critic faces in "Bullet", the metaphor doesn't quite meet all the requirements for the critique in "Mary"; it has excellent details and even seems heartfelt, in a double-bottomed way, but feels like a more lifeless argument. Frederik Pohl, as Galaxy editor, certainly appreciated its virtues...the Knight story was cited first among the stories on the cover of the issue, and it led off the next best-of volume, The Ninth Galaxy Reader, for Doubleday in 1966.

Today's (or yesterday's!) more prompt entries for Short Story considerations actually posted on Wednesday in the author's timezone, can be found at Patti Abbott's blog here.

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