By Michael Zapata
I first found Ray Bradbury in a labyrinth, a place for wanderers, ghosts and parallel universes, a place for those facing detention (which is, itself, a form of exile for adolescents…I was often exiled); I first found him in my junior high library.
It was a place that smelled like dust – the best smell in the world according to Mr. Bradbury, as if there are no other smells, as if in a billion years there will be no other smells. It was in that library, in exile, that Ray Bradbury first introduced me to literature. Once that happens to an adolescent, it is the beginning of the end, which is to say there’s no going back.
By way of The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, andSomething Wicked This Way Comes, Ray Bradbury introduced me to H.G. Wells, Melville, and Poe. Even Kafka. He prepared me to daydream – about literature – for the rest of my life. He prepared me for the horrors of Stephen King, the unreality of Borges, and the insanely perfect science fiction novel The Invention of Morel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, published in Buenos Aires in 1940, two years after Ray Bradbury published his first short story, but not translated into English until 1964. In fact, Ray Bradbury was our greatest champion and defender of literature. In his hands, literature was imagination without boundaries. His short story, “The Veldt,” in which two children use a type of virtual-reality machine to murder their parents, still haunts me twenty years later. “The Veldt” is Poe and H.G. Wells and Rousseau in a knife fight. Or take this first paragraph, from “The City,” in which a city takes revenge upon humanity for destroying its civilization ages ago:
The city waited twenty thousand years.
The planet moved through space and the flowers of the fields grew up and fell away, and still the city waited; and the rivers of the planet rose and waned and turned to dust. Still the city waited. The winds that had been young and wild grew old and serene, and the clouds of the sky that had been ripped and torn were left alone to drift in idle whitenesses. Still the city waited.
If John Steinbeck had been a visiting alien, he might have written like this. These are voices from outer space. Voices acting as echoes of vengeful, alien ghosts.
Ray Bradbury also warned me to never grow up. He knew that adults burn books, turn politics into perpetual war, and give up their dreams for flat screen TVs. He knew that adults, faced with the instability and fear of the world, suffocate their own childhood. They force their younger selves underwater, great stretches of Prussian-blue water, until they drown. He knew that the only adults who make it out intact are those who face their nightmares head on and then pursue their childhood dreams. When I read (Bradbury, Asimov, Eco, Bolaño, any writer who makes me daydream), I am not only re-entering the labyrinth of my junior high library, but the entire labyrinth of my childhood. How do you thank a writer for that?
By reading more. That’s how. And by listening to Bradbury’s advice to do what you love and love what you do.
Ray Bradbury died on June 5th, 2012, the same day there was a transit of Venus. The next transit of Venus will occur in 2117, a year Bradbury is more familiar with than the rest of us. I re-read his story “The Long Rain,” which takes place on Venus and which is unforgiving. I can’t help but think of coincidences, although, I don’t believe in fated coincidences. Let’s just say then that I believe in literature, which desperately tries to make sense out of coincidences.
Ray Bradbury was extraordinarily prolific and, as only the masters can do, he wrote about the greatest themes in life, what Dostoevsky called the Abyss of Heaven and the Abyss of Hell. Bradbury understood that the abyss, whether found in the poetic vastness of outer space or in the scientific formulas of the atomic bomb, would inevitably and lovingly destroy mankind. Yes, lovingly! His writing encompassed crystalized landscapes, Martian cities, and the curious child who lives or dies in us all. He knew that nothing of mankind would remain but books, or rather, the written memory of fear and love. He faced the abyss smiling and he wrote down what he saw, which is to say Ray Bradbury was prepared to live forever, or the next thing to it. That is the only way to understand his work.
Michael Zapata is an educator and writer living in Chicago. He is a founding editor of MAKE: A Literary Magazine. He is also a 2008 Illinois Arts Council Fellowship recipient for prose. Currently, he has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and works as managing editor at ANTIBOOKCLUB.