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"Death is a Lonely Business" by Ray Bradbury
Off in the Virgo Cluster, and only a million light years from Andromeda, on a small planet encircling a small star, and at a particular (and possibly unique) conjunction of space and time, Ray Bradbury, the distinguished author of fantasy and science fiction, has written--a splendid detective novel.
His readers will see from this that he is still engaged in his lifelong quest for a literary form that will stand still for the demands that he puts on it. There was never any doubt that straight sci-fi was not such a form: Bradbury is not a sci-fi writer from the mainstream (like Robert Heinlein, for example) but a romantic. His interest is not so much in organizing and explaining as in finding, somehow, a means of breaking through the limitations of space and time and form, a way of saying the ineffable. It is for this reason that the very idea of a literary "form" seems out of place here: The rhetoric is always bursting its bounds, and where the characters can't go, the images will. But more on them later.
The novel is set in Venice, California, in a past that is evoked rather than defined--we are in the domain of poetry, not history--and it uses the conventions of the detective novel to create something that is profoundly, fundamentally different from the detective novel. A young novelist--he is not named, but the Bradbury fan will recognize the plots of his novels--finds that strange deaths are taking place in his circle of bizarre, outrageous and utterly fascinating friends, one of whom is a detective. This is no ordinary detective, of course, but another romantic--he has an African jungle retreat for a backyard, complete with sound effects--and it is he whom the hero involves in his attempts to unravel the mystery.
These attempts are certainly exciting--Bradbury is never dull--but the reader is advised not to expect a standard detective novel. Indeed, there will be some readers who may wish that the novel had been issued with a warning label designed to prepare those who are fond of detective novels but not familiar with Ray Bradbury. Something like: "WARNING: Some readers may feel that the author takes liberties with certain hallowed traditions of the detective novel."
This is because the ineffable turns out to be, well, hard to express in a detective novel. In the detective novel, as a rule, the hero pursues the villain principally by means of ratiocination, which he can do because it is assumed (a) that the villain has a motive and (b) that the motive is rational. But in Bradbury's novel, the villain's motives and actions simply do not make sense on any rational level (which is not to say that they do not make sense), and the hero's thought processes are intuitive, so that ideas arrive in gestalt form. This does not always work out well in narrative: As Aristotle (and more recently, De Saussure) pointed out, language cannot escape from its linearity. Events may take place all at once, but words cannot do so without sacrificing their meaning, which is why, in storytelling, the writer is obliged to resort to narrative devices of the "meanwhile, back at the ranch" variety. And while it is characteristic of Bradbury that he seeks to transcend such limitations, his attempts to do so are not always successful. In "Death Is a Lonely Business," for example, there are many situations in which suddenly everything is revealed to the hero, in a moment, while nothing has been revealed to the reader. Indeed: The hero himself makes a revealing comment on his peculiar and distinctive data-processing mode when he says that ". . . years back I had pasted two gummed labels on my Underwood. One read: OFFICIAL OUIJA BOARD. The other, in large letters: DON'T THINK."
Fortunately for the reader, he did not impose on himself any sanctions against imagery, because that is one of Bradbury's great strengths. You can recognize his images from afar: They are likely to be both striking and exotic (the oil pumps in Venice are giant pterodactyls) and to betray a hankering for whatever is unlimited, infinite, eternal. The narrator steps out into "a blow of daylight so fierce it made me want to live forever, and so ashamed of the thought, I wanted, like Ahab, to strike the sun." When he can't have eternal, he is content with very old indeed, as when the narrator compares an old woman, lying in bed, with the fossil bird archaeopteryx: "I had seen such bones in a museum, the fragile reptilian wings of that lost and extinct bird, the shape of it touched on sandstone in etchings that might have been made by some Egyptian priest." Here we see that even the exotic is never quite enough, but calls forth yet more images: Archaeopteryx is etched out by the Egyptian priest. And if the images are sometimes uneven, as in the first quotation, it might be suggested, in Bradbury's defense, that we are looking at the defects of his virtues: He is, after all, always exploring, trying to raise the veil on the unknown. Being correct is not so important as being creative.
And in this, Bradbury succeeds splendidly. The unreconstructed rationalist may not like the novel, but it is hard to see how anyone could resist the sheer ecstatic vitality of his characters, such as Constance Rattigan, the reclusive silent film star, who finds new roles in her retirement, presenting herself as her own maid and her own chauffeur. And the portrayal of Venice is poetic, even sublime, with the three-dimensionality of fine description: Something tricky and inexplicable happens to the space-time continuum, so that, even if you were never there in the '50s, you are likely to feel that you remember Venice to have been just the way he describes it. The Ouija board, it seems, along with its prejudice against rationality, has a splendid knack for poetry, description and the creation of utterly memorable characters.