A REVERIE FOR MR RAY has travelled along a triangle of roads with me for the last month. I knew it was on my bedside to return to each evening, but I worried about the damage transport might do to this volume, because I received it inviolate and physically superb - from the dust jacket by Michael Bishop's son Jamie to the design and typesetting inside.
Michael Bishop, despite setting his best-known novel NO ENEMY BUT TIME in east Africa, is a regional author ("Pine Mountain, Georgia", his home, appears at the end or is mentioned in nearly all his writing) so he might not recognise the reference when I say that A REVERIE FOR MISTER RAY is a Tardis of a book, though it is. And it s also an Escher of a volume so that when I thought I was reading it sequentially I realised that I had no idea of how I had reached a section; when I read it thematically, following the index, I found that I was looping backwards and forwards through the different sections. This is partly Michael Hutchins' editing, it is partly because this volume collects his non-fiction from thirty years and Michael Bishop has returned to themes throughout his career. It also means that some subjects can be followed into new fields, and that others are dead-ends - subjects tantalisingly offered which are never followed through.
For an author who has been a semi-academic for a large part of his adult life Michael Bishop began it unpromisingly as a military brat moved around the USA and Spain as his father's career required, later moving with his mother and step-father. He was put through college by the US Air Force, staying in uniform as a lecturer to the enlisted men. The shaven headed ones (or is that only the US Army?) must have felt some surprise as they came to English class only to be told to read sf. Bishop himself discovered sf quite late - at the back of the Hallmark shop in Denver Colorado - though he had been prepared by his childhood taste for Jonathan Swift and Ray Bradbury. The "Mister Ray" of the title is that Ray, and the "Reverie" is one of six essays in the first section describing Bishop's principle influences - those two authors; Le Guin and Sturgeon; Clifton Fadiman, the US broadcasting polymath; Flannery O'Connor, the southern writer; and Classics Illustrated comics. Michael Bishop would not understand the howls of derision that still echo in Britain at Tommy Steele's admission that he read most of his classics in comic book form. Classics Illustrated opened the world of literature to the military brat.
Bishop started to participate in fandom in Denver where DASFA met in the basement of a bank. (It's surprising how easily US fans obtain property: NESFA, based in greater Boston, have a double-fronted shop as their HQ and publishing base). Through fandom Bishop met authors (Harlan Ellison was hardly impressed when he was asked if he had ever written a novel) and started to contribute articles and reviews, both to fanzines and the mainstream press. He describes how seminal David Hartwell's editing was to his career; he includes the proposal he wrote for NO ENEMY BUT TIME; and elsewhere describes how Hartwell and he took the novel apart - literally, on a kitchen table - and re-assembled it.
He includes an article here on the world of blurbing and puffery, while some of his profiles, though profiting from his personal knowledge of the authors, come close to advertising copy. On the other hand he shows himself a master of empathy in following the life of Englishman Brian Aldiss through THE TWINKLING OF AN EYE, whose years of minor public school/ war service/ bookselling/ age of austerity could have had few American corollaries.
Bishop was an early and appreciative critic of authors who had yet to establish themselves. Reviews of Gene Wolfe's FIFTH HEAD OF CERBERUS or, more especially, THE SHADOW OF THE TORTURER, before its succeeding three volumes had been published, are an example of this appreciation, making explicit the science fictional nature of the world of the New Sun. Bishop was also an early fan of Haruki Murakami.
Some of these articles gain new introductions, or are collations of several essays on a subject, to make one longer work, sometimes re-edited for continuity. Others are as submitted, though not as published - "All that glitters is not Golding", written for OMNI in 1984 when Golding won the Nobel Prize for Literature, is an example of Bishop saving his work in this way. On the other hand, because Michael Hutchins' editing produced thematic chapters some work is separated. For example, two reviews of J. G. Ballard are collated in the eighth section, but the review of MYTHS OF THE NEAR FUTURE is found 220 pages earlier, while Bishop's Ballard pastiche "Nine Prescriptions For My Funeral" appears only fifty pages from the end of this thick book.
Surprisingly, some of Bishop's weakest works are his semi-academic introductions, either to reprinted classics (such as Sturgeon's MORE THAN HUMAN) or actual academic works. "Children Who Survive: An Autobiographical Meditation on Horror Fiction" (which introduced Garland Publishing's HORROR LITERATURE and companion FANTASY LITERATURE) is 350 pages away - that editing problem again - from his long review of Brad Leithauser's NORTON BOOK OF GHOST STORIES, which is much more satisfyingly detailed, even if he drops his references. In his opening essay on Swift he talks about Gulliver and bodily functions without referring to earlier works such as Norman O. Brown's "The Excremental Vision" or Orwell's "Politics Versus Literature". Fortunately, there are only a few of these weaker articles.
So welcome to the Episcopal palace - perhaps you will read on not knowing where you are going, not knowing where you are being taken. I did let this work, though, take me into cyberspace and http://www.michaelbishop-writer.com, where more of Bishop's ephemera is being fixed. I have not yet returned by that door within which I went.
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© L J Hurst 2006