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Friday, 16 January 2015

FFB - Far From Home

The thirteen stories in this 1983 collection by Walter Tevis are split into two sections; though they’re not arranged in date order, I decided to tackle them that way, and I’m glad I did, for this enabled me to see him mastering his art (which is presumptuous of me, considering he was a professor of English!) Four of the first section I consider as being ‘pre-novel’, dating from 1957-1961; the second section is further differentiated in that three of them do not have any printing history.

Part One comprises six previously published pieces. Two feature a creator of zany inventions, Farnsworth, a typical character and plot device for the 1950s period: inventions, or accidental discoveries, are a ball whose bounce increases exponentially, and a five-dimensional cube. ‘The Big Bounce’ points to the danger of inventing things without considering the consequences. ‘The Ofth of Oofth’ has a neat twist and some humour.

The collection takes its title from a story which displays the glimmerings of style and concern for humanity that surface in Tevis’ later work. It’s fantasy, and contains some memorable passages; long after I finished the tale, its central image persisted. It could be interpreted as being about senses atrophying, about memories, some unshaped, and about harmless wish-fulfilment.

‘The Scholar’s Disciple’ is handled with verve. Webley calls upon a demon to ghost-write for him a dissertation and some publishable scholarly articles. In return, he will be damned. Apparently, damnation isn’t all that bad: ‘Webley had with him a razor blade to open a vein for signing the contract; he was mildly piqued when the demon brought out a ball-point pen, even though the ink was bright red. It dried brown, however.’ Touches like that raise a smile. And: ‘The dissertation, upon acceptance and publication by the University press, created a stir among a great many academic people, few of whom read it.’ Poking fun at academia, with an agreeable, amusing payoff.

‘Rent Control’ is quite fascinating. A couple discover that when they are in bed together they can literally make time stop. A slant on the romantic cliché, no doubt. A carefully crafted story; the couple become the ultimate lotus-eaters.

‘The Apotheosis of Myra’ takes place on the planet Belsin, which is noted for its medicinal plant life. Edward’s wife Myra, a lifelong sufferer of pain, learns that she is getting better. Yet all Edward wanted was to be rid of her, to inherit her fortune. Meanwhile, the grass is singing (with apologies to Doris Lessing). The transformation of Myra is calculated to chill, and it does.

‘Echo’ is one of the best stories in the book. In the far future, Arthur awoke to ‘a world askew and furred’. His mind had been taped by paraphysicists and now inhabited an artificial body. A time of immortality, where the escape from boredom was immolation (echoed in Tevis’ Mockingbird, one of my many favourite books). Here, Arthur met another reawakened person suffering from amnesia, Annabel. There’s a sexual attraction, with moments of puzzlement and mystery, and it poses an interesting psychological dilemma.
The remaining three tales are linked by death and a kind of haunting afterlife. The characters in ‘A Visit from Mother’ and ‘Daddy’ are the same. Although the emotions in these stories are the strongest in the book, and deeply felt, they probably weren’t considered suitable in the commercial magazine world (now, Tevis would simply publish them as an e-book!) They say a great deal about guilt, love, hidden desires and fears. They are at once sad and moving. But most of all, they possess characters of depth. Barney’s dead parents visit him in his NY apartment, as ghosts. Past annoyances and foibles are dredged up. In ‘Daddy’ Barney hears his father saying that he saw Barney as a real rival for his wife’s affections. We’re privy to a conscience-disturbing reappraisal of their lives. It’s almost a catharsis, and seems so necessary, before the healing can begin.
Finally, ‘Sitting in Limbo’ is about Billy, embarrassments of his past. We feel sorry for him, as he tries to thrust away an image that has haunted his psyche all his life, while deeply truly he couldn’t, for it was a part of him.

A few themes seem to be subliminal in some of Walter Tevis’ work. Newton in The Man Who Fell to Earth is different, sexually, being an Anthean; Spofforth, the sad wise robot in Mockingbird is sexless; in ‘Echo’ the two characters experience an unusual sexual affinity; in ‘Rent Control’ the characters sink into a state where they more resemble sexless automata than human beings; and in ‘Sitting in Limbo’ the male narrator was drawn to reincarnation as a girl. The strongest thread is one of bisexuality, identification with the potentials within the personality. This conflict is only hinted at, but such excursions may be healing, giving acceptance of the latent masculinity or femininity in all of us.
An interesting and sometimes thought-provoking collection; well worth tackling, providing as it does an insight into the maturing process of a writer.

Walter Tevis died in 1984, aged 56.




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