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02 December 2009 @ 11:10 pm
“Dog-Eared Paperback of My Life” by Lucius Shepard  
I've just finished reading Lucius Shepard's novella, “Dog-Eared Paperback of My Life,” which took up 90 pages of the 308-page DAW anthology Other Earths, edited by Nick Gevers and Jay Lake. There are many excellent stories in the book, most notably Robert Charles Wilson's "The Peaceable Land; or, the Unbearable Vision of Harriet Beecher Stowe," Jeff VanderMeer's "The Goat Variations," and Paul Parks' "A Family History." But the Shepard is the jewel in the crown.

The story is about a writer named Thomas Cradle who discovers the existence of a book, The Tea Forest, written by a second Thomas Cradle, a book, better than anything he's yet to write himself, that appears to have slipped through from the universe next door, written by a man who seems to be a variant of himself. In fact, there turn out to be an endless number of Cradles in similar universes, all slightly different from this one, and our Cradle abandons his life and goes on a quest through Cambodia and Vietnam to uncover the ur-Cradle and the meaning of it all.

I've always loved Shepard's lush prose, and he doesn't disappoint here. I'm going to quote a single paragraph to demonstrate the level at which he works, a paragraph more than two pages long that is positively Malzbergian in its syntactical complexity. (And in its bitterness, too.)

Perhaps it's the wrong paragraph to pull from the text to convince you to go along on Shepard's journey, since it's so focused on Cradle the writer rather than the journey he goes on through the flickering, merging universes, which could have happened to anyone. I put that caveat out there for the benefit of those who don't like reading about writers. Don't worry—it won't all be about writers and writing. But this, one of my favorite paragraphs, is.

Be sure to take a deep breath ...

Of my many failings, the most galling was that I had wasted my gifts on genre fiction. I could have achieved much more, I believed, had I not gone for the easy money but, like Cradle Two, had been faithful to my muse. Typically, I didn't count myself to blame but assigned blame to the editors and agents who had counseled me, to the marketers and bean counters who had delimited me, and to the people with whom I had surrounded myself—wives and girlfriends, my fans, my friends. They had dragged me down to their level, seduced me into becoming a populist. I saw them in my mind's eye overflowing the chambers of my life, the many rooms of my mansion, all the rooms in fantasy and science fiction, all the crowded, half-imaginary party rooms clotted with people who didn't know how to party, who failed miserably at it and frowned at those few who could and did, and yearned with their whole hearts to lose control, yet lacked the necessary passionate disposition; all the corridors of convention hotels packed with damaged, overstuffed women, their breasts cantilevered and contoured into shelf-like projections upon which you could rest your beer glass, women who chirped about Wicca, the Tarot, and the Goddess and took the part of concubine or altar-slut in their online role-playing games; all the semibeautiful, equally damaged, semiprofessional women who believed they themselves were goddesses and concealed dangerous vibrators powered by rats' brains in their purses and believed that heaven could be ascended to from the tenth floor of the Hyatt Regency in Boston, yet rejected permanent residence there as being unrealistic; all the mad, portly men with their bald heads and beards and their eyeballs in their trouser pockets, whose wives caught cancer from living with them; all the dull hustlers who blogged ceaselessly and MacGyvered a career out of two ounces of talent, a jackknife, and a predilection for wearing funny hats, and humped the legs of their idols, who blogged ceaselessly and wore the latest fashions in the emperor's new clothes and talked about Art as if he were a personal friend they had met through networking, networking, networking, building a fan base one reader at a time; all the lesser fantasists with their fantasies of one day becoming a famous corpse like Andre Breton and whose latest publications came to us courtesy of Squalling Hammertoe Woo Hoo Press and who squeezed out pretentious drivel from the jerk-off rags wadded into their skulls that one or two Internet critics had declared works of genius, remarking on their verisimilitude, saying how much they smelled like stale ejaculate, so raw and potent, the stuff of life itself; all the ultrasuccessful commercial novelists (I numbered myself amongst them) whose arrogance cast shadows more substantial than anything they had written and could afford, literally, to treat people like dirt; all the great men and women of the field (certain of them, anyway), the lifetime achievers who, in effect, pursed their lips as if about to say "Percy" or "piquant" when in public, fostering the impression that they squeezed their asscheeks together extra hard to produce work of such unsurpassed grandiloquence . . . Many of these people were my friends and, as a group, when judged against the entirety of the human mob, were no pettier, no more disagreeable or daft or reprehensible. We all have such thoughts; we find solace in diminishing those close to us, though usually not with so much relish. And while I kept on vilifying them, spewing my venom, I recognized they were not to blame for my deficiencies and that I was the worst of them all. I had all their faults, their neuroses, their foibles, and then some—I knew myself to be a borderline personality with sociopathic tendencies, subject to emotional and moral disconnects, yet lacking the conviction of a true sociopath. The longer I contemplated the notion, the more persuaded I was to embrace the opinion espoused in The Tea Forest that Thomas Cradles everywhere were men of debased character. The peculiar thing was, I no longer took this judgment for an insult.

Still with me? Good.

“Dog-Eared Paperback of My Life” is one of the best stories of the year, and I hope you'll follow its unreliable and imperfect narrator on his journey. Will you? Won't you? Your reaction to this breathless paragraph will give you your answer.

You'll have to excuse me now ... I must rush off and file the incorporation papers for my new publishing company, Squalling Hammertoe Woo Hoo Press.
Nick Mamatasnihilistic_kid on December 3rd, 2009 07:40 am (UTC)
Great quote! It should be a poll!
~twilight~_twilight_ on December 3rd, 2009 08:46 am (UTC)
I chuckled a lot reading that. :)

Also, hey, what's with all the books and stories out there about writers? ;)
mabfan (Michael A. Burstein)mabfan on December 3rd, 2009 02:11 pm (UTC)
I'll go check out that story.
mrbelmmrbelm on December 3rd, 2009 03:08 pm (UTC)
All of that from attending Readercon?
scottedelman: Astro Boyscottedelman on December 3rd, 2009 03:31 pm (UTC)
Since he references the Hyatt Regency in Boston, I believe he's referencing a Worldcon. Readercon is safe!
Marymaryturzillo on December 3rd, 2009 03:59 pm (UTC)
What a wonderful driving barrage of images!

Yes, if only I could get accepted by Squalling Hammertoe Woo Hoo Press. They've had my novella, "Seventy-two Views of a Defunct Craphouse Straddling Mount McKinley" for several years now, and I refuse to believe that the editors died in a suicide pact.
Michael Canfieldmichaelcanfield on December 5th, 2009 06:13 am (UTC)
I gotta have it.
(Anonymous) on December 31st, 2010 09:06 am (UTC)
it's a piece of crap.
example sentence:

He had tried to make an architectural statement of his life after the tea forest, to isolate a geometric volume of air within a confine whose firm foundations and soaring walls and sculptural conceits reflected an internal ideal, a refinement of function, a purity of intent.

although i know what each of those words mean individually, they make zero sense in that particular order.

this is a pretentious story only suitable for pretentious people. you know, the kind who refer to things as positively Malzbergian.
scottedelman: BuhZurkscottedelman on December 31st, 2010 12:03 pm (UTC)
Re: it's a piece of crap.
So I take it you won't be joining my campaign to have Barry Malzberg declared a SFWA Grand Master?

Which is a joke ... but the fact that there are many of us out there who would consider being dubbed Malzbergian a compliment ISN'T.

Personally, I'd feel honored to be called Malzbergian. But i guess I'm just pretentious that way.
(Anonymous) on December 31st, 2010 05:27 pm (UTC)
Re: it's a piece of crap.
No. I don't have an issue with Malzberg. Or an issue with you. But I do have an issue with a writer who describes a woman with a large ass as steatopygian. Thesaurus writing is weak writing, and stringing along big words in syntactically correct, but essentially meaningless, sentences is insulting. it's just... positively Bogdanovian.