Beyond Apollo | 1972, Random House | 156 pages
The Men Inside | 1973, Prestige Books | 175 pages
Galaxies | 1975, Pyramid Books | 128 pages
(Note: all three of these books are out of print, but cheap used copies can be found. In Chicago, I bought Beyond Apollo for $2.95 at Myopic Books (in Wicker Park) and The Men Inside for $3 at Bucket O’ Blood Books and Records (Logan Square). Galaxies I purchased used through Amazon for $1.25 + s/h.)
1. On 15 August 2011, my pal Jeremy M. Davies emailed me and said that I should look for a book called Galaxies by Barry N. Malzberg because it was “seriously beyond belief.”
I’m ashamed to say it took me until earlier this year to pick up a copy and read it. However, once I got started, I finished it under 24 hours.
2. Barry N. Malzberg was born in 1939. Since 1968, he’s written at least 66 books, if not more. (He’s worked under ten different names that I know of, which complicates compiling a full list.) Dozens of them are science-fiction novels—at least in theory. He’s also written story collections, essay collections, movie novelizations, crime novels, and pornography.
3. Galaxies (1975) at first glance tells the story of a young astronaut, Lena Thomas, the sole crew member of the spaceship Skipstone. Her cargo is an immense tank of goo filled with 515 human corpses. It’s the year 3902 and a person can pay to have his/her body ferried into space after death in the hopes that cosmic radiation will revive them.
Midway through the voyage, the Skipstone falls into a black hole, and the majority of the novel’s plot deals with Lena’s attempt to escape the ensuing hallucinatory free fall. During that timeless time she repeatedly dies and is reborn, recalls her lover John, consults with cyborg engineers, and communes with the dead, who have psychically reawakened.
But that’s not really what Galaxies is about.
4. Rather, Galaxies is a work of metafiction, concerned with its own creation, and presented as Malzberg’s notes on how he would write the novel Galaxies, if only he could. (He maintains that the novel is impossible to complete with present knowledge.) As such, most scenes are outlined rather than dramatically depicted. For instance, Chapter 29 begins:
And here could run yet another moody flashback concerning Lena’s relationship with John, dropped in to provide color and poignance, augmenting the mood of despair. Long sexual passages here could alternate with painful streams of consciousness in the present. Sex and space, orgasm and isolation could run counterpoint, and the author’s gifts for irony, which are not modest, would be exhibited to their fullest range. Also, in the traditions of modern science fiction, the sex scenes could be quite titillating, render the novel some extraliterary interest. A construct like this could use all the extraliterary interest it could get.
But even that’s not really what Galaxies is about.
6. Rather, Galaxies is about what science-fiction should look like in the year 1975. Malzberg is surveying contemporary literature and asking: How should science-fiction respond to the then-recent literary experiments of John Cheever, John Barth, Donald Barthelme, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth, and others?
7. I’m not making this up. On page 48 Malzberg writes:
For instance, as the ship falls, there could be some elaboration on the suggestion that neutron stars might be pulsars which would be most intriguing, if the reader has not been intrigued sufficiently by the notion that all of “life” as we understand it when we glimpse the heavens may be merely an incidental by-product of the cycle of neutron stars.
So there, Cheever, Barth, Barthelme, Oates. What in the collected works would touch that for angst?
8. Malzberg calls those authors out again on page 85:
“Madness,” Lena says, shaking her head, “that’s utter madness,” but the author, busily pulling the handles of this little dumb show, sweating behind the canvas, casting a nearsighted, astigmatic eye every now and then through the cardboard of the set to see whether the audience is paying attention, how the audience is taking all of this, is thinking take that Barth, Barthelme, Roth, or Oates! Pace Bellow and Malamud, and may your Guggenheims multiply, but what have any of you or those unnamed created to compare with this?
9. If I haven’t convinced you yet to spend $2–3 on a used copy of Galaxies, you might as well quit reading now.
10. Besides Galaxies, I’ve also read Malzberg’s earlier novels Beyond Apollo and The Men Inside, both excellent. Beyond Apollo won the first John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. That seems the highest honor that Malzberg has ever received.
He deserves more.
11. Malzberg is a master stylist. Early on in Galaxies he parodies Cheever’s (brilliant) Bullet Park (1969). Bear with me, but the entire page bears repeating in full. The context is that the author is debating whether or not to try writing Galaxies, knowing that it will be an impossible book to write, and knowing that, even if he writes it, it will not be appreciated as art:
“No,” I could have said like Cheever’s adolescent in Bullet Park, “No, enough of your breathtaking concepts, infinite distances, quasar leaps, binding messages from the Crab Nebula; be away with your light years, asteroids, Van Allen belts, methane systems and heavy planets. No, I am aware that there are those who find an ultimate truth there and would bend their lives toward their perception but this is not for me. Where is the pain, the remorse, the regret and guilt and terror? No, I would rather dedicate the years of my productive life which remain to an understanding of the agonies of this middle-class suburb in northern New Jersey. Until I deal with those how can I comprehend Ridgefield Park, to say nothing of Scarsdale, Shaker Heights of the unknown lands of the west? Give me not the year two million which I will not see; give me now. The year two million can say nothing to me, but I may address it if, of course, the collected works can be carefully preserved. At least one writer will survive from this era and if not the notorious Q or the obscure N or the unfortunate A, why could it not be me?”
Nicely put. Cheever’s adolescent would have approved, if not Cheever. Indeed, I found it convincing, until it occurred to me in one of those quick changes of consciousness which control the lives of all of us yet which may never be acknowledged in fiction that Ridgefield Park would forever be as mysterious to me as the swamp of lights perceived through the refinery smog which are known to my children as “stars” . . . and that one should never deny infinity to pursue a particular which until the day of one’s death—if not for longer than that—would always be a mystery.
So I decided to try Galaxies after all, although with some trepidation. I felt better when I came to understand that it did not have to be a novel but merely a set of notes for one. Knowing this I was not shamed nor did I grieve, for one’s life is merely a set of notes for a life and Ridgefield Park merely a rough working model of Trenton in which nonetheless several thousand people live unable to divine their right hand from their left, and also some cattle. Shalt thou have not pity on the cattle? For they too grew up and perished in a night.
I’ve no idea whether Cheever ever read Malzberg.
I loved the Captain in my own way, although I knew he was insane, the poor bastard. This was only partly his fault: one must consider the conditions. The conditions were intolerable. This will never work out.
In the novel I plan to write of the voyage, the Captain will be a tall, grim man with piercing eyes who has no fear of space. “Onward!” I hear him shout. “Fuck the bastards. Fuck control base; they’re only a bunch of pimps for the politicians anyway. We’ll make the green planet yet or plunge into the sun. Venus forever! To Venus! Shut off all the receivers now. Take no messages. Listen to nothing they have to say; they only want to lie about us to keep the administrators content. Venus or death! Death or Venus! No fear, no fear!”
He has also had, in the book, a vigorous and satisfying sex life, which lends power and credence to his curses and his very tight analysis of the personalities at his control. “We will find our humanity under the gases of Venus,” the Captain will say, and then the sounds of the voyage overwhelm him us and momentarily he says nothing more. I sit with hands clasped, awaiting further word.
The novel, when I write it, should find a large commercial outlet. People still love to read stories of space, and here for the first time they will learn the sensational truth. Even though it is necessary for me to idealize the Captain in order to make the scheme more palatable, the novel will have great technical skill and will make use of my many vivid experiences in and out of the program. The novel will be perhaps sixty-five thousand words long, and I will send it only to the very best publishers.
It’s worth noting, though, that Beyond Apollo preceded The Dead Father by three years.
13. I’m quoting a great deal because I think that’s the best way to convey just how magnificent these books are. None of them contains a single boring sentence. And they are excellent science-fiction novels while at the same time comprising fabulous critiques of the limits of science-fiction—and, by extension, all writing. Indeed, that is the source of Malzberg’s artistry. Write science-fiction he must, but he remains adamant that he will write it on his own terms.
14. Malzberg’s writing is often quite erotic. His first dozen or so books were erotica/pornography, written primarily under the pen name Gerrold Watkins, and published by Olympia Press. Titles include the following: Oracle of the Thousand Hands, Southern Comfort, A Bed of Money, and A Satyr’s Romance.
15. Other early titles by Malzberg, written under the pen name Mel Johnson, include Love Doll, Instant Sex, Nympho Nurse, A Way with All Maidens, Horizontal Woman (aka The Social Worker), and Everything Happened to Susan.
16. Malzberg included plenty of sex in his science fiction. In Beyond Apollo the protagonist, astronaut Harry M. Evans, repeatedly makes love with his wife, although those scenes might be hallucinations. (Evans has just returned to Earth from a disastrous voyage to Venus, and has possibly gone insane.) In one particularly memorable scene, he transforms his wife Helen into another character, Leneh Venas (Evans is obsessed with anagrams), then flies with her to Venus without the use of spacesuits or a spaceship:
We are very close to Venus now, some five hundred miles or less above the planet and the thin, high scent of the atmosphere causes our ears to ring, although we seem otherwise to be doing very well without breathing apparatus or shielding of any sort. Perhaps we could have withstood space travel all the time; it was only our inert sense of caution which made things so difficult. “Do you care for me, Leneh Venas?” I ask her, putting an affectionate arm around her shoulders, letting my fingers ease down to her breast as the two of us, five hundred miles high, look at the green and gaseous planet. “Do you?”
“Well,” she says, “you took me on this interesting trip and have shown a lot of concern for me. I think that’s nice.”
“But do you love me? That’s the question which I asked you.”
“Well,” she says with a laugh, her fingers catching mine and drawing them subtly toward an arched nipple. “Love is very hard to decide. This is just our first date, you know. You have to give these things time.”
Evans also repeatedly fantasizes about his captain, whom he possibly murdered during the voyage, then ejected from the spaceship to fall into the sun. Whether this is true the novel never clarifies, as the scene repeats a number of different ways. For instance, sometimes the captain attacks Evans, who wallops him with a wrench in self-defense.
Very late in his narration, Evans claims that, before he disposed of the captain’s body, he committed upon it “a final, unspeakable act (which I will never, never tell).”
17. The Men Inside, meanwhile, begins with its virginal protagonist, Blount, shrunken to microscopic side and injected into the elderly millionaire Yancey, tasked with cleaning out colon cancer (i.e., he finds himself inside another man’s ass):
In medias res, folks, here comes Blount. He is on the run and full of fun, looking for a follicle of cancer. Consider him if you will, if you must: his indignity, his power: he is twenty-two years old at this time, still and always-to-be virginal, sliding through corpuscles and strips of intestine like a beetle, scuttling through all of the fields of darkness. At the ready is his little lance, in his helmet is his tiny light, both ready to aim and cut. Think of Blount if you will: he is a man of some potential, education and background. Does he really deserve to be in a position like this? Mote in the crazed and sleeping Yancey, eighty-three years old and there he lies in the Institute at some enormous expenditure to be cured of his diagnosis. The figure for treatment bedazzles Blount; he continues on his way.
The Men Inside reminds me less of Cheever or Barthelme, and more of Pynchon, Coover, Hawkes.
The difference, though, is that Malzberg wrote each of his books in about a month. The Men Inside ends with the note “11-75.”
18. It also ends with a sex scene. Blount murders Yancey at the urging of that man’s granddaughter, Susan, into whose ready arms he then falls. However, their plot goes awry:
“Beautiful,” she says, standing, embracing him, throwing her arms around his neck and raising herself slightly so that he can seize a breast in his mouth. “Beautiful, beautiful,” and with beauty he parts her, with beauty he surges into her, the ancient strokes of generation overwhelmingly fresh to Blount for he has never done this before and he comes quickly, three or four of these strokes and already he is done but as she gasps and climaxes around him, holding his prick like a flower, he casts one eye back toward the bed then, as he knew he would, sees the dead eye of Yancey peering back at him . . . and with a cry tumbles into that wink, falling densely until finally he has toppled all the way inside Yancey and perched in the gut then like a tiny frog, pulls the blanket of the blood over him . . . and there, shielded from Susan’s unheard cries, he rests forever.
20. How has this author gone so unnoticed for so long?
21. Malzberg resists writing many of the sex scenes in Galaxies, choosing to simply nod toward them instead. Had he tired of writing more graphic fiction by that point? “Space is asepsis,” he repeatedly claims by way of justification. But he strikes me more as an artist who’s trying to find his way out of his usual strategies and devices. Which should be the goal of any artist.
22. There is however one exception: in Chapter 22, Malzberg muses over including a scene in which, following a botched training session, John seduces Lena in order to calm her fears about embarking into space in command of so many corpses. Malzberg contemplates how he might best depict the ensuing coitus:
“Oh, my god, you must do it to me,” Lena would shriek, a little floridly, but floridity under stress is one of her more charming habits; she becomes more rather than less dignified when excited and indulges in archaisms of speech. “You must do it to me quickly, you must do it to me now, you must penetrate me swiftly to the core and make me close in upon you in the arc of my need,” her nipples bursting like little flowers, or, more in tune with the material, one might say that they are the dull purple of methane.
I love Galaxies very, very much.
23. That scene sets up a later tour de force that echoes the work of another master stylist, William H. Gass. In chapter 37 Malzberg writes:
This accretion of sympathy can be managed through a bag of fictional techniques, some of them conventional, some more ambitious. Individuation through defining idiosyncrasy, for instance: tricks of speech, habits, mannerisms and so on. The kind of thing which could have been applied to the scene with the cyborgs if the writer had not such an excess of integrity. Stammer or lisp, hitch in pace, a sudden characteristic stumble or aversion to odors as she limps across the cabin to check the portholes. Rhetorical devices peculiar to her, as in the instances of sex with John where here rhetoric becomes florid. Little physical signs, a large bosom or cast in the eye if nothing of greater originality occurs. Keep those devices modest and visible, however; science fiction is bizarre enough without increasing the distance of the characters from the reader.
24. Malzberg spent the late 60s and early 70s writing in dialogue with Cheever, Barth, Barthelme, Oates, Roth, Malamud, and others—but did any of those writers ever read Malzberg?
Sadly, the answer appears to be no. Unless I’m missing something, Malzberg only ever reached science-fiction fans, and then only for a little while. (Harlan Ellison and Robert Silverberg were notable fans.) Following the 1970s, his reputation fell, like the beautiful and spirited Lena Thomas, into decline.
25. Whatever. Fire the tachyonic drive. Tear free of the inescapable neutron star’s black hole. The dead will return to life as the future retakes the past.
Start reading Barry N. Malzberg now.
Tags: Barry N. Malzberg, Bernard Malamud, Beyond Apollo, Bullet Park, donald barthelme, Galaxies, Harlan Ellison, Joh Barth, John Cheever, John W. Campbell, Joyce Carol Oates, Lena Thomas, Olympia Press, philip roth, Robert Silverberg, Saul Bellow, The Men Inside, William H. Gass