Saturday, April 09, 2005

Harlan Ellison

Harlan Ellison

Blogger was constipated in the middle of the week. I wrote this out Wednesday or Thursday, and ended up saving it to my personal journal when I couldn't publish here. It's not exactly what's in my brain, but it does alright. This is a post in which I try talk about one of my favorite writers:

I've been reading through one of the McSweeney's short story collections edited by Michael Chabon, and I got to Harlan Ellison's contribution to the Mammoth Treasury of Thrilling Tales, "Goodbye to All That."

Harlan's one of my favorite writers. He works mainly in the short story medium, so it’s hard to give a description of his body of work. He does so many things that I enjoy that it's tough to single out any particular aspect of his work. I will say that his best stuff is funny and twisted. He’s got a decent curveball, as writers go. He doesn’t necessarily send you for the okey-doke, which is something you can appreciate.

He’s got a master’s way with words. A golden ear for dialogue. A viewpoint that is all his own. A crazy work ethic. A persona that packs more volume, brass and confrontation into the frame of one small man than you'd ever have thought possible (and Harlan’s one of those guys whose reputation and persona are perhaps as famous as, if not more than, his work).

Anyway, I'm reading the story in the compilation, and it's all eerily familiar. Like it's something I've read before. And I'm figuring just that: I've read the story before, but not remembered.

But it's a really funny story, though, of man with incurable wanderlust climbing the final peak on Earth searching for the Meaning of Life (or is it the Heart of Irredeemable Authenticity, or perhaps The Corpus of Nocturnal Perception?).

And it's all so familiar, and all so funny, that I know that if I had read it, I’d remember the experience of reading it. I just knew for a fact that I've never read this one.

And it hits me. It took this phrase: "The Corporeality of the Impossible Metaphor."

Harlan read one of his to-be-published stories to a crowd at Dragon Con a few years back, and this was the story he'd read to us. It didn't hit me until I read that phrase, "the Corporeality of the Impossible Metaphor" that I realized it.

And Harlan, as he read, loaded each stilted phrase with all the pomp and grandeur that a phrase of that magnitude deserves. And of all the pompous, pretentious metaphors for Meaning of Life he puts into "Goodbye to All That," I found that one to be the best. Even without seeing it printed on the page, that one rang in my head for a while.

It's a good story. Check it out. Called "Goodbye to All That."

That was the same year I got to see Harlan, in a panel discussion on internet publishing & piracy, light into a young man who argued for a looooong time about the freedom of created works on the internet with Harlan. This kid stood his ground with Harlan, though his argument didn't hold much water. He clung steadfastly to one plank in his argument: "I don't wanna pay for words and ideas."

He got called an ignorant sack of shit by Harlan.

No, it was one of those phrases said through clenched teeth, with fists pressed firmly against the table: You. Ignorant. Sack. Of. Shit.

Harlan was at the time embroiled in a goodly bunch of legal action concerning the illegal distribution of his works online.

(It occurs to me that the panel may not have been expressly intended to be about the internet and/or publish and piracy....either way, Harlan's three ring circus of an argument with the young man took up enough of the discussion time that it became the subject of the discussion, by default. That's a good indicator of his personality...he's loud, brash and confrontational enough that whatever he's passionate about, you're gonna talk with him about. Whether you like it or not. And whether it's just you, or a room filled with a few hundred people.)

Harlan was at Dragon Con last year. I was fortunate enough to find him in a quiet moment. And rude enough to disturb him. I hate bothering any of the guests of a convention when they're lucky to have a quiet moment, especially somebody who carries as much as a following as Ellison. He was scheduled to sign soon, though about 20 minutes later, so I wandered over, said hello.

Got to chat for a little while. Just a couple of minutes. He signed my copy of The Glass Teat, and asked where I'd gotten the copy he was signing. I'd gotten it in a lot off Ebay, I said. My copy of The Glass Teat came from a smaller print run from a publisher in England. Not rare, necessarily, but kinda rare to be seen over in the U.S.

He signed it, and asked whether I'd taken anything from the book, which is a collection of his essays and criticism on the TeeVee. I mentioned that I was taken by his position against President Nixon's White House, and was struck by some of the parallels between that White House and our current administration. He kind of laughed, and nodded.

"That's a pretty good point," he said, but was politic in his further response, saying only that he didn't have time to energy to start on that subject, and that if he did, he didn't know if his ticker could take it.

Not long after I noticed that Harlan was at a signing table by himself, everybody else noticed. We spoke for a minute more, mostly chatting about the convention, and where I'd come from, what I did. I said, kinda sheepishly, that I was trying to be a writer. He told me, essentially, to keep hacking away.

The line started growing behind me, pretty much having materialized out of nowhere. He thanked me for stopping by, and I thanked him for his time.

I generally hate trying to meet someone I admire in those kind of crowded circumstances. Never much of one for forethought, I wander around for days afterward thinking of what I could and should have said in that 2 minute meeting. But I felt pretty good about the little conversation.

Ah well. I'm wandering. That's the story.....


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