As promised, I return with more on John M. Ford's wonderful Heat of Fusion and other stories. The first part can be seen here.
I talked in Thursday's post about a concern with forgetting, remembrance, culpability and identity in the collection's opening story, 'The Persecutor's Tale'. This is seen again in the stunning but unsettling 'Erase/Record/Play' (and yes, every play on words you can spot in that title resonates through the piece...). Of all the stories in Heat of Fusion, this is the strangest, structurally: half the transcript of a recorded interview between two individuals, set out like a play, and half a prose third-person narration of the interactions between a group of people rehearsing a play (A Midsummer Night's Dream, the dialogue from which is likewise rendered as prose). The story cuts repeatedly between the two forms, each illuminating or (equally often) obscuring the other.
Like so many of Ford's stories, the setting is indeterminate - it might be near-future America, it might as easily be something entirely other - and the exact course of events being described is a nightmare to untangle, but the themes and the questions are razor sharp. Dr Gordon and his unnamed interviewer more or less fill in the backstory for us. Those working through the Shakespeare play are Dr Gordon's psychiatric patients; all of them (and Dr Gordon himself) are survivors from a now-liberated "Re-education" camp. It's never clear how these camps came into being in this country, but the happenings within them were horrific - and the boundaries between inmate and jailor became increasingly blurred.
We could say Guards and Prisoners, but some did more than guard. Torturers and Victims, but not all tortured and some fought back. Tyrants and Lovers... sometimes, perhaps. There are no word to mean what we want to say; so we say Group A, Group B. [...] Group B is the majority party. The ones who own the rope now.
(Dr Gordon's use of the terms 'Guards' and 'Prisoners' here put me in mind of a sort of larger-scale Stanford experiment, which makes a disturbing scenario still worse - what if this represents a psychological experiment gone drastically wrong?)
Several years into the lifespan of the camps, whether through fear of consequences if the camps were discovered or in accordance with an originally-intended plan, a programme of covering-up began. As Dr Gordon puts it:
The camps were about two things only: the systematic degredation of human beings and the systematic destruction of the evidence thereof. Burying Group A within Group B, shuffling the deck so that the kings and queens [...] would be lost among the faceless numbers.
Records were destroyed or altered, inmates' identities (both A and B) were hidden and manipulated, and Group B were given monthly doses of LX, a drug inducing memory loss. Group A, meanwhile, faked signs of their own physical abuse, to make themselves appear to be among the prisoners. And gradually the boundaries between the two groups broke down.
There is a wonderful passage in the plan documents, section four, paragraph eight. 'Because the subjects have no memory of events, some of them can usefully be employed to confuse the evidence, particularly body evidence.'
(He holds up his hands.) Isn't that amazing? It's iambic pentameter. [...]
You mean that some of the prisoners - tortured their guards?
Supply the tools, give the order with authority, and the job will be done.
Prior to the liberation of the camps, the members of Group A themselves took LX. In the aftermath, some remaining documents were found, and those who believed themselves to be of Group B sought retribution based on what faulty evidence remained. But of course it was impossible, any longer, to be certain whether the people accused were really A or B, or whether those who had once been B had become the abusers, and those who had once been A had themselves been abused. In taking away memory, those administering the drug have also taken away any possibility of justice:
Once, before LX, before us, the victims knew the torturers' faces - and the torturers knew themselves; if they hid, they felt guilt that would punish and betray them, and if they felt no guilt, they could not truly hide.
But all we know is that some of us did what was done. And so we are all in hiding, and we are all guilty.
Or, as the play-within-a-play of A Midsummer Night's Dream - which is, of course, all about identity loss and confusion - has it,
"And this same progeny of evils comes," Titania said, "from our debate - from our dissension: we are their parents and original."
The only safe assumptions are that any or all were responsible for the crimes, that none can be held culpable - and that all were, at the least, capable.
'Dateline: Colonus' shifts the action of Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus to rural America, with an eyeless father and his daughters out on a cross between a road trip and a desperate flight from the authorities. The characters are never named; instead, their identities are revealed by association, through glancing references to their relationships and their pasts. The narrator is, again, an outside observer - this time a journalist - who has an innate but largely unspoken interest in how the tale is presented. Likewise, the details of this alternate America, where the Greek gods are active in the lives of men, are allowed to accumulate rather than being directly addressed; I found the whole thing very effective, particularly how the fatalism of Greek tragedy finds a resonance in the worn-down diner waitress and the laconic local law enforcer:
The sheriff, still watching the clouds, said, "I see the gods in this."
"So," said the blind man, "in my own fashion, do I."
"It would be just like Phoebus Apollo," the sheriff said, in a voice as flat and even and calm as the waving grain, "to lead on a man who cannot see the sun."
"That," the blind man said," "has been my reasoning in the matter."
'Preflash' imagines a professional photographer, Griffin, whose involvement in a car accident has left him with skull and brain damage such that he is prone to attacks of double vision. Distinctly voyeuristic double vision, that is, in which his vision splits - on the right, he sees people as they are, and down the left he sees film noir-ish footage of their (often violent) deaths:
Down the left she appears in grainy black and white, lying on a bed, wearing a bathrobe over underwear. There are dark stains on her skin and clothing, and something blurred. Griffin thinks that if he were editing this film he would slow it down for a better look, and it slows down. The blurred object is a crowbar. A man dark against vertical strips of light is swinging it. There is a barely discernible line between the color frame and the monochrome that wobbles when Griffin tries to focus on it.
As in his everyday life, Griffin experiences these visions from a distance, from behind a lens - and it is probably no coincidence here that the figurative language used to describe his camera returns again and again to the imagery of firearms. The ending is, as ever, confounding in the extreme.
On a lighter note, 'The Hemstitch Notebooks' pastiches Hemingway (I owe this observation to Graham, since I've yet to read Hemingway; mostly I just found it funny without needing to get the context), starting with a potted bio of fictional author Hemstitch:
Elliot Hemstitch (1896?-1954?!?) occupies a place in the literary firmament somewhere between the discount gun shop and the all-night liquor store. An unshakable believer in the principle that there are certain things a man is required to do, and after doing them throw up, he distilled the products of his experience, particularly his experience of the products of distilleries, into a series of writings that will endure forever, not least because they are not very long, use no big words, and contain a great deal of sex and shooting things.
And continuing to three short pastiche pieces: 'For Whom The Bird Beeps' (po-faced, portentous discussion of the eternal contest between Road Runner and Wile E Coyote), 'The Banana Also Rises' (war story without the battles, since there are no words to describe them, or at any rate "no words worth the rate this magazine pays"), and 'Glitz in the Afternoon', which manages to frame a man going shopping in the mall as if he is a big game hunter on the savannah:
The sales one shoved my card of platinum in the machine, and then began what true shoppers call the moment of truth. Either the machine will make the good beep that means your purchase is approved, or the bad beep that means you have shopped more than a man may shop. [...]
The machine made the good beep. The sales one put the bought thing in a shopping bag, a big one with the name of the store on the outside, so that all the other men in the mall would know that I had made my buy.
[...] There must be many reasons why a man will not go into the mall, alone as a man should with only his card of platinum and the sizes of his women.
Obviously there are also some misfires. A few of the poems are deeply clever without being particularly memorable - 'Dark Sea' is a great idea that never quite comes off, and I liked 'The Lost Dialogue', about Daedalus and Icarus, but I think more for its potential than for what it ends up being; ditto 'Windows on an Empty Throne', a fantasy saga told through tarot card-based stanzas. 'Shelter from the Storm' is an overly long tale of interplanetary invasion with an oddly conventional plot. Finally, 'Tales from the Original Gothic' is funny but flimsy, send-up of slasher films and the old Universal fright-fests that is frequently hilarious but tonally just too flippant for its own good; it feels, like some of the poems, like a writing exercise taken only half-seriously. Still, worth it for flights of silliness like this:
In this version of the story, you see, her scientist (biologist? physicist? TV repairman?) husband has been making these things out of, well, the essences of matter and spirit, right? You get the idea? (Okay. Jizz and voltage.) Only, instead of potential Notre Dame quarterbacks, he gets these Pekingese from Hell. Finally, having mixed up Scientific Specialities Man Was Not Meant to Interface, the interdisciplinary idiot wakes up one morning, smacks his forehead (quite painful that, because his researches have given him an immensely strong and furry right hand), and says, "Of course! Ova!" [...] Following a few comic-relief episodes of trying to buy the finished product, he decides he ought to go to the source, and dines and weds and beds (once, experimentally) a goose of his very own. Warning her. Never. To go. In. The. Lab.
It would be remiss of me to end this pair of posts without noting, sadly, that Ford died in 2006 after a long history of illness. This thread at Making Light, where he was a much-loved regular poster and commenter, contains links to a lot more of his online material, plus a number of tributes from fans and peers.
But I shall finish with an excerpt from 'The Lost Dialogue', which seems to sum up the gleefully irreverent approach Ford took to his work:
It is in the mystery of priests to muddy what they say,
In the speech of statemen to prove things their way,
In the way of engineers to twist nature's forces,
It is in the nature of poets to misuse their sources.