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"Write a story about a female talk show host."
I think I groaned.
A female talk show host wanted me to write a story about a female talk show host. If true love could ever possibly have blossomed between Carole Hemingway and me, it was brutally crippled in that moment.
I have read a lot of crime fiction in 2012 and reached the point where I really need a change of pace. I'm not sure how I ended up buying a Harlan Ellison short story collection, but it may or may not have something to do with his reputation as a pulp fiction legend. Sure thing, I was served a faceful or exactly what I was looking for. Ellison's prose is like a bowling ball, thrown on the sidewalk. It wrecks every pattern in its line and forces you to twist, curve and adapt. It was quite the invigorating intellectual workout. I'm tather proud to have read SHATTERDAY, because Harlan Ellison is, for most people, the best science-fiction writer they have never read. There are two obvious reasons for that. First, he was most productive in forms that don't sell very well (short stories and essays) and his stories are mainly about the human condition, which doesn't sit well with a good part of the science-fiction crowd, who reads to escape the very thing Ellison writes about. In most of his stories, he uses science-fiction as a mean to avoid any type of limitations about what he can say. SHATTERDAY is written with a chaotic, exhilarating freedom and is like no other thing in genre literature. Consider the pace changed.
One thing you have to know about SHATTERDAY is that the stories are linked together, through a series of individual introductions by Ellison, where he gives a little background information as well as he keeps stressing the fact that writers always leech information from real life. "Writers cannibalize their own lives," he keeps saying. Why am I even mentioning this? Because these introductions are an integral part of SHATTERDAY as a work of art and give a unique perspective into the stories. In the introduction of IN THE FOURTH YEAR OF THE WAR for example (one of my favorite stories in the collection, by the way), he recalls a painful, unfair childhood memory that triggered the inspiration for this disturbing psychological horror story. In the intro of FLOP SWEAT (quoted above), lets us in about the sardonic intent behind the macabre tone of the short. The introduction are generous, earnest, satisfying and 100% deliberate. They were a surprisingly enjoyable part of SHATTERDAY.
Splitting the collection in halves is the novella ALL THE LIES THAT ARE MY LIFE. Ellison identifies this story as being very important for him and as something that took him years to write. It's a long, tortuous tale that begins as what seems to be an eulogy, but really is much more than that. It slowly morphs into this quasi-abstract meditation about grief and friendship. A writer is dead and his friend delivers the obituary and tries to cope with his absence. Larry Bedloe, the narrator, recalls the good and the bad moments with heartbreaking honesty. There are moments where I laughed out loud, others where I was genuinely moved. Despite technically being science-fiction, ALL THE LIES THAT ARE MY LIFE is the story in SHATTERDAY that is most entrenched in realism. Ellison discusses through his characters the boundaries of friendship and selflessness through two writers that seem to represent different sides of his personality. The successful, brash agitator and the quiet, but tireless observer of the human condition. This was an engrossing read and maybe the most transcendent story in the collection. I may pick up SHATTERDAY several times again, only to read it.
That dyspeptic old fart Nelson Algren got three out of four. He wrote: "Never play cards with a man named Doc. Never eat in a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own."
Close. Very Close.
But he missed a fourth:
"Never let anyone catch you down on your knees puking into a toilet bowl."
Especially not a woman whose troubles are worse than your own. I should have locked the door. But the bile was pushing as if it were spring-loaded; I barely had time to get into the can before I felt it coming like the Sunshine Express. Down on my knees, loving the toilet bowl, and then the river of fire.
Leslie was in there, right behind me, trying to hold my forehead, for Christ's consumptive sake, with me hurling and heaving like a boa constrictor that's swallowed a Peterbilt. I shoved as her, ineffecually, as she continued to play Lady Bountiful to my bounty.
I flailed my free arm behind me, trying to get her to back off. I think in that moment I realized just how insensitive she is.
Most stories in SHATTERDAY discuss the frailty of human existence and the fragile nature of what we call "everyday life". There are some more idiosyncratic ones, like SHOPPE KEEPER, but they stood out like a sore thumb as Ellison keeps a disciplined focus on his themes for most of the collection. But it's hard to keep Ellison accountable for that as his goal was to show that the writer's job is to show readers that they aren't alone with their fears. Because of this, Ellison makes himself vulnerable and shares intimate things about him, which is why SHOPPE KEEPER found its way into SHATTERDAY. I want to mention the shortest story of the collection also, OPIUM, which's draws tremendous power from its economy of language. It's beautiful and tragic. There's nobody like Harlan Ellison. He is crazy, driven, charming, earnest, outrageous, violent, emotional and many other things. SHATTERDAY made me a fan and if you want to break your habits as a reader and discover new things, it will make you a fan also.