Interested In Its Own Mythology: Foundation

untitledIsaac Asimov’s Foundation is one of the earliest science fiction works of the contemporary era, being published in 1951. Asimov published four the five sections of the book as short stories in the early 1940s before tying them together and releasing them as a novel. The novel would become the centerpiece of his Foundation series, an alternative galaxy where a galaxy wide Empire crumbles into dust. I quite enjoyed Foundation and its premise, easily reading the five sections in only a few days. However, I think that as a whole, the book does not quite hold together.

This is because, as I said above, the sections were each published as short stories. Each is a world unto itself with some connection between them, but Foundation does not build a coherent, linked narrative across stories. What is does build is an epochal history of what happens in the galaxy after the Empire falls. To be sure, the stories all tell individual pieces of this grand narrative, but they don’t quite amount to an engaging novel-length narrative like some of the other science fiction works I have read this year (say Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness). Asimov certainly is not the first writer to produce a less-than-complete novel from a set of short stories. Even today, I often feel like some novels are really just elongated short stories that authors have been forced to expand by an eager publisher (Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil suffers from this among other things).

What Foundation does have going for it is its epochal scope. It refuses to limit itself to a small story and instead aims at a grand narrative of the galaxy. This has its own attractions and I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, it also means that the novel seems more invested and involved in its own mythology than in telling a story. This aspect of science fiction seems particularly noxious to readers who simply cannot buy into science fiction’s main premises. And to a certain extent, I can understand why. A book like Foundation simply uses a rotating cast of characters to tell a much bigger story, a story that seems to have little to do with our own world. Foundation does seem to be a critique of authoritarian political power, but that kind of reading lessens the total craftsmanship of the book itself. Instead, it is intent on painting its own grand canvas, and if you are not on board, then you will not enjoy it.

I strongly recommend Foundation for fans of science fiction. This is a seminal work in contemporary science fiction and a highly enjoyable read.

Asimov, Isaac. Foundation. 1951. New York: Bantam Books, 1991. Print.

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Welcome to Drugs and Transience: Jesus’ Son

9780312428747JF has been after me to read this one for a long time now. So, I finally sat down to read it and I simply devoured Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. This is in part because the stories are quite short but also because they open up the maniac world of a heroin addict/ alcoholic. I’m normally quite skeptical about drug narratives, I’m looking at you Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, but Johnson’s collection is something else entirely. I think there are two reasons for this.

The first is that the stories are written in, what was to me, a unique form. The narrative jumps around schizophrenically, so that you might be in the hospital one minute and out in a truck in a sudden snowfall in the next (“Emergency”). Johnson throws narrative logic to the wind and frees his stories to move around at will. Of course, it’s not a willy-nilly movement that makes no sense. Johnson is careful to tie his stories back together either explicitly or implicitly. In “Work,” the narrator begins with shooting heroin with his girlfriend in a hotel room before switching to a bar scene where he is invited along on a shady mission with Wayne. They travel to an abandoned suburb (because of flooding) and proceed to strip a house of its copper wiring, only for the narrator to find out that it was Wayne’s house. The two characters then seeing a beautiful naked woman paragliding behind a boat on the river before the narrator stops at a house off the highway so Wayne can talk to its inhabitant (the same naked woman the narrator soon realizes). The story (only 9 pages long) then ends back at The Vine (a run-down bar) where Wayne and the narrator are served by their favorite waitress who serves generous drinks. As you can see, this story follows a wild plot and refuses to justify its movements. Instead, we are left with a sense of awe at Johnson’s ability to make it work.

The final paragraph of “Work” also points to second reason why I think Jesus’ Son works. Johnson seems to be a poet in disguise with some jaw-dropping passages. Heroin and alcohol seem to open up the narrator to amazing insights and thoughts, and we are privy to these. I’m going to quote the last paragraph of “Work” because it illustrates this quite well:

“The Vine had no jukebox, but a real stereo continually playing tunes of alcoholic self-pity and sentimental divorce. ‘Nurse,’ I sobbed. She poured doubles like an angel, right up to the lip of a cocktail glass, no measuring. ‘You have a lovely pitching arm.’ You had to go down to them like a hummingbird over a blossom. I saw her much later, not too many years ago, and when I smiled she seemed to believe I was making advances. But it was only that I remembered. I’ll never forget you. Your husband will beat you with an extension cord and the bus will pull away leaving you standing there in tears, but you were my mother.” (53-54)

I love the simile of approaching the cocktail glass like a hummingbird. It imbues a kind of golden/magic aura to the run-down bar and its inhabitants (I also have a strange fascination with dive-bars and old alcoholics). However, reality irrupts into this scene with the final lines where the narrator callously predicts her future while still paying homage to her as an alcoholic’s muse/siren.

If you are unsure about Johnson’s work, there is a New Yorker podcast of “Emergency,” read by Tobias Wolff that is a great introduction to the world of Jesus’ Son. I highly recommend it.

I also highly recommend this collection to fans of short fiction. It is one of my favorite reads this year.

Johnson, Denis. Jesus’ Son. London: Granta, 1992. Print.