Thursday, October 7, 2010

Sipping from a fresh draught of Dandelion Wine

I’ve mentioned before that I find genre categories useful. They help me to frame discussions about books and are a handy tool when I want to make a recommendation. But I also love the fact that there are authors like Ray Bradbury which defy their easy application. Though it may be the subject of a catchy song, to call Bradbury “the greatest sci-fi writer in history” isn’t particularly accurate. Dark fantasy, horror, soft sci-fi—Bradbury has written in them all, and sometimes all at once. He is in many ways genre-defying.

That’s about the only way I can categorize Dandelion Wine, a loosely autobiographical novel about a boy’s coming of age (or rather, his becoming) at age 12 in the summer of 1928. On the first morning of that magical summer Douglas Spaulding realizes that he’s alive. Consequently, he realizes that he will also die one day. The rest of the book is an episodic journey through the summer, with Bradbury switching the focus between Spaulding and a cast of other memorable characters in Green Town, Illinois. Green Town is a pseudonym for Bradbury’s real home of Waukeagan, IL, where one summer as a boy of 12 he made the decision to become a writer.

Bradbury’s books aren’t really about plot as much as they are about places and people and things. I recall an interview with Bradbury in which he described beginning his stories using a process of word-association, thinking of a word or series of words and building a story from that. This technique plays out wonderfully in Dandelion Wine, whose wonderful images become burned into your memory as if you lived them yourself. The old arcade and the coin-operated gypsy fortune teller. The ravine. Mr. Jones’ traveling junk wagon.

Bradbury treats us to several beautiful, stirring vignettes throughout Dandelion Wine. One of my favorites is the story of an unlikely couple: 31-year-old William Forrester and a 95 year old Helen Loomis. It’s not a love story but something just as moving, a genuine melding of two lost souls, which finally find comfort in one another’s company. Mixed with the friendship is the cosmic tragedy that they were born in different ages and so cannot consummate a physical love. Another favorite is the story of Leo Auffman, a man who tries to build a Happiness Machine and is mortified when his wife Lena breaks down in tears after using it:

Sunsets we always liked because they only happen once and go away.

But Lena, that’s sad.

No, if the sunset stayed and we got bored, that would be a real sadness.

Bradbury’s moral? Joy cannot exist without sadness. Without a contrast or a break, joy becomes routine and expected, and therefore paradoxically joyless. Permanent happiness is not our lot in life, but that’s the way things are meant to be.

Douglas’ becoming is not without its hardships, as he experiences death of some friends and relatives and the displacement of his best friend John Huff, who moves away after his father takes a job in Milwaukee. But although Dandelion Wine is tinged with tragedy and even takes us to the edge of despair, Douglas does not take the final leap into the ravine: Bradbury’s message is that life is ultimately worth living, even though we all must leave it and our loved ones someday. Dandelion Wine exalts the simple pleasures we take for granted—good food, wine, and the pleasant rituals of summer, sitting on the porch at night for a smoke and good conversation under the stars (this was before the age of television, of course, reminding us that change does not always equal progress).

But back to genre. One of Dandelion Wine’s central themes is that the world needs magic. When we try to classify and explain and categorize too much, the magic is drained away. Human beings operate in the realms of faith and mystery, not just cold, clinical materialism. One of my favorite scenes in the book is when an unhelpful aunt arrives in the Spaulding household and immediately sets to work “helping” the grandmother, a wondrous cook, by cleaning up her messy kitchen and neatly setting to order all her mysterious, unlabelled spices and ingredients. The result? Lousy food. When the family sends the aunt packing and returns the kitchen to its natural state of disorder and mystique, her cooking is again rendered exquisite.

You can say the same for Dandelion Wine. Experience it, savor its depths and symbolism, but don’t try to vivisect it under a cold, clinical light. Let it sweep you back to one summer of 1928 and enjoy the nostalgia and the journey. It’s a good one.


Atom Kid said...

Bradbury is my favorite author. I spent a lot of my childhood in Illinois, so I guess I have that connection with his writing.
I had read in his biography "The Bradbury Chronicles" that he prefers to be referred to as a fantasy author (not in the swords & sorcery sort of way.)
I like that he's not afraid of sentimentality, it permeates almost all of his writings.

Falze said...

I should probably reread this - I read it in HS and recognized that it was amazing, but also realized that I was probably missing something, like it had more to offer than I was 'getting'. That seems likely.

Eric D. Lehman said...

My list from the Silver Key is getting longer...

From the description it sounds as if I'll love it. These coming-of-age stories appeal to me no matter how old I get.

Brian Murphy said...

Atom Kid: He's up there for me, too. I know there are some critics who scoff at sentimentality and think that any work that looks back instead of on some progressive, forward agenda should be ridiculed, but I ain't among them.

Falze: It is a great book. This is my first experience with it and I loved it. Don't expect a wild ride, just a thoughtful, moving one.

Eric: My pleasure!

Fred said...

Many of Bradbury's works are like this. They are like music--to be absorbed, experienced, and enjoyed, but not to be looked at too coldly and analytically, for they will then dissipate, leaving one with empty hands.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Fred, thanks for the comment. I'm not always sure how Bradbury's stuff works, I just know that it rarely fails to move me.

Eric D. Lehman said...

Got it out of the library yesterday and read the introduction. So far, so good!

Eric D. Lehman said...

Finished Dandelion Wine. Elegaic, bittersweet, and at first glance completely different from, say, The Martian Chronicles. But upon reflection, there are many points of similarity, and really there is no more difference than in one of Stephen King's "realistic" pieces of fiction (Shawshank) vs. his "horror" fiction (IT). Themes and even phrasing and tone meld and flow, until we realize these genre distinctions we make are insufficient.

Brian Murphy said...

Rock on Eric, I'm glad you liked it!

I agree with your observation--I think Bradbury's heart and underlying themes resonate in both books (Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine). I also think the Martian Chronicles is equally hard to classify. At first glance it seems to be sci-fi due its rocket ships and interplanetary setting. But these are really only the trappings of the story. It's really about myth-making, and the human condition.