“To define terms at the outset, this will not be a novel so much as a series of notes toward one. Nevertheless pay attention.” —Barry N. Malzberg, Galaxies, 1975
I began vomiting somewhere over Turkmenistan. But it was not until the second day on the ground in Benares that I became desperately ill, losing a quarter of a pound an hour every hour for forty hours. “I figured you would be all right in the end,” Jamie told me after the ordeal was over. “Then again, I have seen patients die, and that is more or less what it looks like.”
From my India notebook:
A pair of mouse turds on the table. Amazing to think that I ever planned to write about this place. Why not spend ten years becoming better acquainted with my own country. And spend more time with S, you fool, what is it you think life is about. The river priest, dressed in brilliant orange, gives me his blessing, custom-tailoring my reincarnation: “Not come back as parrot, not come back as mosquito, not come back as dog.” Malzberg for TPR: The Falling Astronauts, In the Enclosure, his Kennedy books, Galaxies. Just because I like it doesn’t mean it isn’t crap.
That’s how much I wanted to write my Malzberg thing. And I would have done it, too, if I had lived.
I first encountered Barry N. Malzberg in my twenties during a confused summer spent with David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels. Malzberg’s Galaxies was number seventy-seven.
Malzberg—author of Horizontal Woman and The Masochist and Oracle of the Thousand Handsand Screen and In My Parents’ Bedroom and many other books; aka K. M. O’Donnell, author of Final War, Universe Day, Gather in the Hall of the Planets, and so on; aka Howard Lee, who wrote novelizations of the 1970s television series Kung Fu, starring David Carradine; aka Mike Barry, author of Night Raider, Bay Prowler, Desert Stalker, Boston Avenger, etc.; aka Eliot B. Reston, author of The Womanizer; aka Claudine Dumas, author of Diary of a Parisian Chambermaid; aka Mel Johnson, writer of I, Lesbian and Instant Sex and Nympho Nurse and The Sadist and Do It to Me—was unquestionably a hack, God knows. He knew it, too. But what a workhorse!
His science-fiction novels tend to be assembled from a store of repetitive raw materials: insane astronauts, the Kennedy assassination, sexual dysfunction, and omni-explanatory figures like Christ, the prophet Jonah, and Freud. But these books are really about writing: he begins to tell a story, then wrong-foots the reader by substituting the difficulty of telling for the tale.
The novel itself cannot be written, at least by this writer, nor can it be encompassed by any techniques currently available, because it partakes of its time and that time is of the fortieth century … these fifty-five thousand words are little more than a set of constructions toward a construction even less substantial. —Galaxies
You get the ur-modernist gravitas of Hofmannsthal’s 1902 Lord Chandos Letter (“My case, in short, is this: I have lost completely the ability to think or to speak of anything coherently … Once again words desert me. For it is, indeed, something entirely unnamed, even barely namable,” etc.) blended with the luxuriance of self-loathing, of self-consciousness: a vortex of self. Imagine a twelve-volume novel called Why I Can’t Write, and you’ll get the picture. It is a revolting trick, and, during my summer of reading Malzberg, I wanted to know how to do it.
When you read enough of a guy like this, you learn a few things. He’s small enough to walk around, and he has any number of habits. You learn that he never misses a chance to repeat the idea of falling: “Before I have even fallen, I am falling; it is as if death catches me twice, first by intimation and then at the root”; “And fell, fell, into the absorbing blackness, curiosity his only emotion as he tumbled into the swelter of the night, the screams and squeals of his wife punctuating the heave and billow of his mortality”; “It is strange and complex, complex and strange and my orgasm is like a giant bird torn wing to wing by rifle fire, falling, falling, in the hot drenched sun of that damned Southwestern city.”
You learn that he likes the idea of notes, having written stories called “Notes Just Prior to the Fall” and “Notes for a Novel About the First Ship Ever to Venus” and “Some Notes Toward a Useable Past.”
Evans returns to his various tasks in confinement: he must continue his notes toward the novel he will write. —Beyond Apollo, 1972
J. G. Ballard, a colleague of Malzberg’s in the this-isn’t-exactly-science-fiction school, had by 1967 published his own “Notes Toward a Mental Breakdown,” included in The Atrocity Exhibition (1970). Maybe notes or notes toward in the science-fictional seventies was something like the late fifties trend of jazz records calling themselves portraits: Adderley’s 1958 Portrait of Cannonball, or the Oscar Peterson Trio’s A Jazz Portrait of Frank Sinatra (1959), or Bill Evans’s Portrait in Jazz (1960). Serious people in those years did not do anything so commonplace as playing music or writing; serious people made portraits, or notes toward.
“My God, I’m blind, I can’t see anything!” Allen had screamed in space and the sound, tinny through the transmission, had afflicted Martin and all the others who were listening because Allen was talking to the part in themselves they had always suspected. “I’m going crazy, I’m going blind!” Allen had shouted, “you sons of bitches, I can’t stand this anymore!” but the center had alertly cut the transmission, already anticipating while Allen had screamed, “Get me back to that fucking ship! Oh mother, get me out of this! There’s nothing out here at all!” —The Falling Astronauts, 1971
In 1968, Apollo 8 orbited the moon. In 1969, Apollo 10 brought the module close to the lunar surface; Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 touched down that same year. In 1970, Apollo 13 famously did not land. Apollo 14 and Apollo 15 landed in 1971, the year of Barry Malzberg’s novel The Falling Astronauts.
Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 landed in 1972, the year of Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo, winner of the inaugural John W. Campbell Award for best science fiction novel.
Astronaut psychosis was in the pop-cultural atmosphere of the seventies: 1969 saw David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (“Ground control to Major Tom, your circuit’s dead, there’s something wrong”), and 1972 gave us Elton John’s “Rocket Man” (“I miss the earth so much, I miss my wife, it’s lonely out in space … I’m not the man they think I am”). Then, too, there was the less well-known Van Der Graaf Generator’s “Pioneers Over C,” from the 1970 album H to He, Who Am the Only One: “I’m falling down into sky, into earth … it is so dark around … I am the one you fear, I am the lost one, I am the one who pressed through space, or stayed where I was, or didn’t exist in the first place.”
The epigraph to Malzberg’s 1971 novel The Falling Astronauts purports to be a quote from 1959 Project Mercury astronaut Scott Carpenter (“Get me out of here. Get me out of here!”), who later turns up in another novel, Galaxies.
Carpenter had screamed in the capsule on the seas, begging for release, convinced that they would never come; Carpenter had in fact forced the mission to early conclusion because he could not stand the interior of the capsule. White had panicked at the end of the rope when he had lost the ship and had begun to sob in space. —The Falling Astronauts
It was not casual that our astronauts returned to give us their vision of otherworldliness, not casual that they staggered in their thick landing gear as they came under the salute on board, not casual that White screamed on his space walk and begged to return to the capsule or Carpenter shouted get me out of here! —Galaxies
Or, as the poster for Alien had it in 1979, “In space no one can hear you scream.”
Or, as Captain Cutshaw said in William Peter Blatty’s film The Ninth Configuration, “The man in the moon tried to fuck my sister.”
I tried, sir. You see the stars. So cold. So far. And so very lonely. I was so lonely. All that space. Just empty space. And so far from home. I’ve circled round and round this house, orbit after orbit. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like never to stop and circle alone up there, forever. And what if I got there, got to the moon, and couldn’t get back? Sure, everyone dies. But I’m afraid to die alone, so far from home. And there’d be no God. And that’s really, really alone.
Or, as Pascal had written long before: “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with dread … This is what I see and what troubles me. I look around in every direction and all I see is darkness.”
Beyond Apollo, 1972. Astronaut Harry M. Evans narrates this novel from inside the asylum where he has been held since his return from the Venus expedition. It was a two-man mission, and Evans has, unobserved in space, somehow killed the captain and disposed of his body by letting it fall into the sun (unless it was not a two-man mission, and Evans himself is Captain Jack Josephson—or was it Joseph Jackson?). Evans flashes back to his excruciating astronaut training, to his sexual problems with his wife, to conversations with the dead captain; he hallucinates conversations with the astronauts of an earlier failed Mars mission called Kennedy II. Pretending to resolve to come clean at last, Evans ends by redoubling his faith in the purity of his nervous breakdown and tells his supervising psychiatrist the same riddles with which he began.
Let me see if I’ve got this straight, Colonel Evans: in Beyond Apollo, you and the captain, a powerful paternal supervisory figure, were approaching the planet Venus, named for the goddess of beauty and erotic love, when you killed the captain, or possibly became him, or had been him all along. Is that correct?—I’m going to be honest with you: I think I might have heard this one before.
Oedipus Rex: “It was Apollo, friends, Apollo, who brought to fulfillment all my sufferings. But the hand that struck my eyes was mine and mine alone.”
Malzberg’s overt concerns in his astronaut novels of the 1970s are twofold: the effect of mass mechanization on humankind, and the question of the difficulty of telling.
These paranoid involutions are knock-off Dostoevsky: fevered rewritings of 1864’s Notes from Underground, that cautionary tale so often mistaken for a manual of style. If it’s good Dostoevsky you shouldn’t mix it and if it’s bad Dostoevsky you shouldn’t drink it, I know, what can I tell you, I was thirsty.
Men still are men and not the keys of a piano … the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key! —Notes from Underground, 1864
In none of it, when the truth is finally known, was there anything personal. None of it was ever personal at all: it was merely a question of machinery, intersection, causality, orbits. —Beyond Apollo
“Somebody should tell the truth. Just once. Somebody should really get a look into the way this thing works, because it just isn’t all machinery, you know. There’s got to be a guy inside all of this stuff, making it work.” —The Falling Astronauts
In The Frogs, Aristophanes has Aeschylus mock Euripides by showing how the iambics of his prologues are more alike than he might suspect, and tend to be rhythmically completable with the phrase “lost his oilcan.” Malzberg, if you read more than one of his books, is also revealed as semimechanized:
I have a wife. Evans has a wife. Evans and I are the same person … I have a disassociation reaction. Evans has a disassociation reaction. Each of us has a disassociation reaction. —Beyond Apollo
I am a tortured man. Monaghan is a tortured man. —Revelations, 1972
I sigh; Evans sighs. —Beyond Apollo
Maybe they think he is Busby. Maybe he is Busby. —The Falling Astronauts
“Call it disassociation if you want but what Busby does is a matter of total indifference to me. I feel outside of it, see? It’s not me up there; it’s him.” —The Falling Astronauts
“I do not understand. Evans does not understand.” —Beyond Apollo
“Stop referring to yourself in the third person. That’s disassociation reaction.” —Revelations
When you admire an artist, you dignify his limits by calling them a style: Bruckner always sounds like Bruckner, but you won’t hear me complaining. If you don’t care for a style, you can define its limits, often pushed against, as tics, medicalizing them as spasms; the assumption is that no one would behave in such a way voluntarily. Style is demoted to symptom, or to mere reflex action.
It is, I think, what Auden meant when he said in 1940 that “without an adequate and conscious metaphysics in the background, art’s imitation of life inevitably becomes, either a photostatic copy of the accidental details of life without pattern or significance, or a personal allegory of the artist’s individual dementia, of interest primarily to the psychologist and the historian.”
I remember that, when a child, I pulled flowers to pieces to see how the leaves were inserted into the calyx, or even plucked birds to observe how the feathers were inserted into the wings. —Goethe, Dichtung und Wahrheit, 1811
Overinterpretation is the rather frantic desire to be as close as possible. —Adam Phillips, Missing Out, 2012
I loved the Captain in my own way, although I knew that he was insane, the poor bastard. —Beyond Apollo
I love Barry Malzberg, in my own way. Anyone can see that. I have read many of his novels, several of them more than once, in order to construct the authority I felt I needed to make these remarks. If that isn’t love—or is it only obsession: I read Beyond Apollo seven times, and retyped almost all of it to get it into my working memory before a friend convinced me that would not be necessary.
At one point I wondered if I were writing an entire book about Barry Malzberg. “In literature, as in love,” said André Maurois, “we are astonished at what is chosen by others”; and, I might add, we are also astonished at our own choices. What would you do if you were aboard the train before you discovered a turkey in your suitcase? Did you pack your luggage yourself? No, officer, I did not. Then it’s not your fault if there’s a turkey in your suitcase. That’s what’s in your suitcase. You carry it to the end of the line.
An archaeological aside. At this point in a previous draft, there followed a section on Malzberg’s self-enabling insistence on the difficulty of telling: some three thousand words on H. P. Lovecraft, F. R. Leavis, and Wallace Stevens. And Malzberg, let’s not forget Malzberg.
Malzberg, from Galaxies: “Let it be made clear again; this is not a novel but merely a set of notes for one. The novel itself remains unutterably beyond our time and hence outside of the devices of fiction … These notes are surely as close to the narrative as anyone of this time can get, because the novel cannot be written for almost two thousand years.”
Lovecraft: “The Thing can not be described,” “to convey any idea of these monstrosities is impossible,” “And then there came to me the crowning horror of all—the unbelievable, unthinkable, almost unmentionable thing,” “it’s too utterly beyond thought—I dare not tell you—no man could know it and live,” “would not such a vaporous terror constitute in all loathsome truth the exquisitely, the shriekingly unnamable?”
Leavis: Conrad “feels that there is, or ought to be, some horror, some significance that he has yet to bring out. So we have an adjectival and worse than supererogatory insistence on ‘unspeakable rites,’ ‘unspeakable secrets,’ ‘monstrous passions,’ ‘inconceivable mystery,’ and so on … a ‘significance’ that is merely an emotional insistence on the presence of what he can’t produce. The insistence betrays the absence, the willed ‘intensity’ the nullity. He is intent on making a virtue out of not knowing what he means.”
Stevens on Phoebus Apollo, in 1942’s “Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction”:
A name for something that never could be named.
There was a project for the sun and is.
There is a project for the sun. The sun
Must bear no name.
The section in question had, in its turn, once been a freestanding Lovecraft essay—called first The Secret Gospel, then At the Picture Show, then An Accidental Piecing Together of Separated Things, then If We’re in a Garden, then, in its death throes, I Am Providence—you want a title? I can get you a title, believe me—and I had mown it back from a jungly nine thousand words by excising Longinus, Milton, Schopenhauer, Ortega y Gasset, Broch, Samuel Johnson, Karl Jaspers, Eliot, George Steiner, Poe, Whitman, and Kierkegaard.
I was moving too quickly and everything had become a blur. Then again, “If everything seems under control,” as Mario Andretti said, “you’re just not going fast enough.”
This pattern is familiar. When the initially insubstantial science-fiction roundup begins to metastasize into a quote-heavy messianic-prophetic explanation of all existing phenomena, it is called, without sarcasm, the Key To All Mythologies; next, as its manic unrealizability accelerates, friends smile and call it the Mentaculus; finally, when it is clear that the ticket will not be redeemed, the project is derided as the Encyclopedia Shittanica.
I have learnt Malzberg’s obsessions. I sawed and cracked him open and inserted my sternum-spreader, and I ate his heart. Was that nice? It’s Lecter-style cannibalistic analysis: possibly comprehension, but not much compassion.
The Captain and I had a disagreement just as we were settling into orbit and I murdered him … I struck him heavily on the temple. —Beyond Apollo
He swings the wrench at me. I try to duck but am too slow, too caught up in my own dialogue, to retain reflexes and take a shattering blow on the scalp, no, it is the temple. —Beyond Apollo
I hoist the wrench, pivot, move toward him, hit him a shattering blow in the temple. —Beyond Apollo
My head turned in a slight pivot, the temple exposed, the temple exposed to the line of fire—and I take the shot squarely. —The Destruction of the Temple, 1974
That is when they shoot me. One of them shoots me. I do not know which. A single smash in the temple. —The Destruction of the Temple
I hear the shots … Here they come, one in the neck and the other in the temple. —The Destruction of the Temple
Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself … Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain. —Matthew 27: 40–51
At this point a real doctor would heal him. Then again, I have seen patients die, and that is more or less what it looks like.
The radical finitude of Malzberg’s talent did not seem to dishearten him—strike that, reverse it: practically his whole game was claiming to be disheartened, but it didn’t prevent him from getting piles of writing done. He wrote the same book again and again, often using the same words. Didn’t he know that? Didn’t it bother him? Why didn’t it bother him? And if it did bother him, so what, who cares, he transmuted his botheration into—another book.
A writer becomes dependent on the device of notes toward perhaps because the technique permits foregrounding the teller rather than the tale, even if or perhaps especially because the focus is on the teller’s incapacities—and perhaps “because he is instinctively afraid of attaining his object and completing the edifice he is constructing,” surmised Dostoevsky’s narrator in Notes from Underground, saying further: “perhaps I consider myself an intelligent man, only because all my life I have been able neither to begin nor to finish anything.” That’s enough about the word perhaps for now.
Malcolm Bowie, from Freud, Proust and Lacan: “Freud speaks in the closing pages of his ‘Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis’ (1909) of the neurotic patient’s need for uncertainty and doubt and of the elaborate manoeuvres that he is often compelled to adopt in order to remain uncertain in a world where accurate measuring devices and reliable sources of information exist. Secure knowledge would bring him unspeakable terror.”
I aim to condescend to Malzberg and repudiate him, but not to such an extent that I must cast him off with utter finality, because I still love him and want him somewhere near me—“in town and out of my sight,” as Jack Lipnik said to Barton Fink—and that, I think, is an ugly trick to play on him. Make no mistake, I do not want you to read him. I wouldn’t wish that on my worst enemy: myself. Malzberg is an unsuitable love object, and he’s all mine. I love him, all right, but as my friend Donna used to say: Everything that look good to you ain’t good for you.
Virgil speaks to Dante on the highest step of Purgatory, saying:
My son, you’ve seen the temporary fire
and the eternal fire; you have reached
the place past which my powers cannot see …
from now on, let your pleasure be your guide;
you’re past the steep and past the narrow paths …
Await no further word or sign from me:
Your will is free, erect, and whole—to act
against that will would be to err: therefore
I crown and miter you over yourself.
I am revealed to disadvantage by the pleasure I take in Malzberg—I have not seen the temporary and eternal fires, I am not past the steep and narrow paths. His novels are terrible, but I am drawn to them: (especially because?) they are not a suitable object for intellectual inquiry. From Twilight of the Idols: “At thirty one is, in the sense of high culture, a beginner, a child.” There is no time to waste: When am I going to knuckle down and learn to read cuneiform? Why would I read Malzberg’s The Cross of Fire when I can reread the Gospel according to John, or his The Remaking of Sigmund Freud when I can return to Moses and Monotheism? I don’t have time to read everything, I barely have time to read anything: it’s like being an astronaut driven mad by the infinity of space.
I learn from Malzberg that, like me, someone has run in circles without quite realizing or admitting it, or that yet again I have projected my obsessions onto a relative innocent in order to deny and disown them. All the corny tricks I tried will not forestall the rising tide: in an invented enemy, I find every part of myself from which I flee. I run from my death in Baghdad to find it in Samarra; I leave off reading Sophocles to watch Schwarzenegger, only to find that Dutch Schaefer unmasks his Predator and delivers the inescapable verdict: “You are one ugly motherfucker.” Maybe the alien from outer space is, but not me, whew, that was a close one.
The novel I will write about the ultimate truth of the voyage will be divided into small chapters … The novel will be brilliant and everyone will want to read it … I loved the Captain. I was devoted to him … perhaps even a movie or cassette option. —Beyond Apollo
Now they are going to make a movie of Barry Malzberg’s Beyond Apollo. Doesn’t that sound like something they would do? Haven’t you heard: books are for making into movies, books exist only in the hope of being apotheosized into movies, books are not yet made, they are fetal.
2014 should bring us the cinematic adaptation of Beyond Apollo, assuming its director does not panic, initiate retrofire sequence, and eject his coproducers from the space capsule, leaving them to plummet into the sun. The movie will star Scott Speedman and Bill Pullman, the two of whom are expected jointly to metamorphose into Man-Man Speed-Pull.
But Malzberg’s books, in their tortured self-awareness, are primarily about writing: its technical difficulties and moral pitfalls, its potential to cheapen or calcify, its temptation to fraudulence or ventriloquism, the insisted-on inadequacy of language as an excuse for not being a less recursive or less involuted writer, and so on. It’s not easy to understand why or how anyone would attempt to film the emphatically verbal artifact of Beyond Apollo.
Barry Malzberg is seventy-four years old and living in Teaneck, New Jersey. I hope the movie is a gigantic hit. I plan to see it seven times—just as I plan eventually to be reborn as a parrot, a mosquito, a dog, and four other things. Get in the suitcase and enjoy the ride.
J. D. Daniels lives in Massachusetts.