Strange itineraries, p.1
Strange Itineraries, p.1Tim Powers
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In Which Corner of the Compass is Ago?
The Way Down the Hill
Fifty Cents · James P. Blaylock & Tim Powers
Through and Through
We Traverse Afar James P. Blaylock & Tim Powers
Where They Are Hid
The Better Boy · James P. Blaylock & Tim Powers
Also by Tim Powers
In Which Corner of the Compass is Ago?
Paul Di Filippo
TIM POWERS is haunted.
Tim Powers is haunting.
These two statements are not mutually exclusive, even though they conjure up the paradoxical image of a ghost pursued by other ghosts.
And why shouldn’t bogeymen have spooks that frighten them? If the study of ecology has taught us anything, it’s that every species has its predators. The chain of bigger bugs biting littler bugs goes on ad infinitum. It seems only right and fair and just that the uneasy spirits that haunt mankind should in turn be continually looking over their spectral shoulders for higher- or lower-level ghouls. In fact, if I’m not taking excessive pride in my own ingenuity, I would call this conceit a very Powers-like notion.
But wait – perhaps I am in fact merely recalling such a preexisting trope from one of Powers’s many fine novels. After enjoying his writing for over twenty-five years now, ever since The Drawing of the Dark in 1979, I have tended to regard the world from time to time through a Powers-ish lens. Could my mind and his have become astrally conflated somehow, overlapping at curious junctions, as in one of Powers’s own eerie fabulist tales?
You’ll pardon my temporary mental confusion and the above digression, I hope. It’s just that a concentrated dose of Powers – as I’ve just experienced while enjoying this seminal collection of his rare short stories, and as you are about to experience – has a way of unhinging the consensus reality.
Back to our theme of haunting and being haunted.
For Powers, who is surely the closest living successor to the masterful ghost-monger, M. R. James, the world is populated by spectral remnants of emotion. Ambition, frustration, lust, nostalgia, shame, regret, love – these emotions, born in the crucible of the human heart and mind, acquire a life outside their originators, becoming tangible influences in the daily existence of Powers’s protagonists. His ghosts are not so much scary strangers to those they visit, as they are familiar revenants from the past, snippets of the victim’s own personality.
As such, these haunts have a way of distorting the flow of time. Past and present blend into a formless forever in most Powers stories – at least until the protagonist manages to resolve his plight. Here we detect an echo from another famous modern Gothicist, William Faulkner, who proclaimed that the past is never dead, nor even truly past.
So: Powers’s tales, and his characters, are literally haunted.
And as a result of Powers’s immense talents, these haunted stories become in themselves haunting: unforgettable, tenacious, insistent phantoms perched on the shoulders of his lucky – but definitely not untouched – readers. Fiction as near-tangible specters.
Now, my focus on Powers as a dealer in afterlife imagery, while accurate and essential to an appreciation of his oeuvre, I believe, conceals nearly as much as it reveals.
For instance, I have not yet spoken of other major themes in his work, such as the doppelgänger motif. In story after story, characters often come face to face with themselves, with revelatory consequences. Just consider, as a prime example, “Itinerary,” which manages to be the best ouroboros-style narrative since Heinlein’s “‘All You Zombies.’” Or “Fifty Cents” (co-written, along with two other selections, with Powers’s kindred spirit, James Blaylock), wherein an ostensibly simple craphounding trip across the American desert develops into a mystical journey worthy of David Lynch.
Mention of the setting of “Fifty Cents” brings me to another important aspect of Powers’s writing, and that’s his concern with the specifically American landscape and with forging modern myths.
Powers’s characters and the settings they move through and the objects they come in contact with are relentlessly modern and quotidian and quintessentially of these United States, yet still tinged with magic. No supermen or high wizards need apply for leading roles in his books. (The Zelazny-style clan of “The Way Down the Hill” are an exception to this observation.) His leading men and women are average joes fallen into exceptional vortices of circumstance. And he’s able to imbue such “innocent,” commonplace objects as a chain letter or a garden gnome or a deck of cards – or a simple tomato plant even – with the same mana that lesser writers find in such overblown tokens as magic swords and dragons. By highlighting the overlooked mystery of the everyday locales and appurtenances of our North American lifestyle, he freshens our vision and appreciation of the life we all share in common.
This concern with both representative heroes and with modern mythologies calls to mind two older writers who serve, I think, as models for Powers. The first, Philip K. Dick, is an acknowledged influence, having been a personal friend to Powers. In a story like “Where They Are Hid,” with its remarkable imagery of characters following scripted routines even when reality warps around them, we can see the pure Phildickian stream of surreality and metareality. Likewise, “Night Moves,” with its threat of a life sentence in an entropic bubble universe, and an evil female psychopomp, could have come from the pen of the primo 1960s-era Dick.
The other author I place in the honorable lineage leading to Powers is perhaps less obvious. But it seems to me that Fritz Leiber could be seen as one of Powers’s literary godfathers. Having practically invented Urban Fantasy (arguably more so than even Ray Bradbury), and having in his later years found California a congenial locus for both his physical body and his body of work ( as does Powers), Leiber shares more
Both Dick and Leiber also possessed a sardonic sense of humor frequently ignored or misconstrued by readers and critics. The same is true of Powers. Perhaps above all, in the end, Powers is a comic writer. Tragedy he does not deny. But he affirms the superior resiliency and salving effect of humor, even unto the pratfall. If you don’t find yourself laughing at least a few times in every Powers story, you’re missing something. Certainly the most humorous piece in this collection is “The Better Boy,” whose protagonist experiences one indignity after another, without ever quite losing his essential nobility – a nobility we can all aspire to in its attainability. But even in the midst of such a chiller as “We Traverse Afar,” whose narrator is sorely afflicted, we get a suburban Jesus-impersonator rummaging through his sackcloth for spare change. Now, if that doesn’t crack you up, then you’re one of Powers’s undead, who are generally distinguished from the living by precisely that lack of a sense of humor.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Tim Powers face to face on one or two occasions. Our conversation, regretably, has been short and inconsequential, due to the press of circumstances. But even from those brief exchanges, I walked away with the impression of a fellow whose ready smile and chipper mien contrasted with sad eyes and certain inner preoccupations, a man wryly appreciative of life’s entertaining enigmas, fully intent on sharing what wisdom he had gleaned in his life, while also a shade despairing of ever finding any satisfying answers this side of death.
THE DAY before the Santa Ana place blew up, the telephone rang at about noon. I had just walked the three blocks back from Togo’s with a tuna-fish sandwich, and when I was still out in the yard I heard the phone ringing through the open window; I ran up the porch steps, trying to fumble my keys out of my pocket without dropping the Togo’s bag, and I was panting when I snatched up the receiver in the living room. “Hello?”
I thought I could hear a hissing at the other end, but no voice. It was October, with the hot Santa Ana winds shaking the dry pods off of the carob trees, and the receiver was already slick with my sweat. I used to sweat a lot in those days, what with the beer and the stress and all. “Hello?” I said again, impatiently. “Am I talking to a short circuit?” Sometimes my number used to get automatic phone calls from an old abandoned oil tank in San Pedro, and I thought I had rushed in just to get another of those.
It was a whisper that finally answered me, very hoarse; but I could tell it was a man: “Gunther! Jesus, boy – this is – Doug Olney, from Neff High School! You remember me, don’t you?”
“Doug? Olney?” I wondered if he had had throat cancer. It had been nearly twenty years since I’d spoken to him. “Sure I remember! Where are you? Are you in town – ”
“No time to talk. I don’t want to – change any of your plans.” He seemed to be upset. “Listen, a woman’s gonna call your number in a minute; she’s gonna ask for me. You don’t know her. Say I just left a minute ago, okay?”
“Who is she – “ I began, but he had already hung up.
As soon as I lowered the receiver into the cradle, the phone rang again. I took a deep breath and then picked it up again. “Hello?”
It was a woman, sure enough, and she said, “Is Doug Olney there?” I remember thinking that she sounded like my sister, who’s married, in a common-law and probably unconsummated sense, to an Iranian who lives at de Gaulle Airport in France; though I hadn’t heard from my sister since Carter was president.
I took a deep breath. “He just left,” I said helplessly.
“I bet.” A shivering sigh came over the line. “But I can’t do any more.” Again I was holding a dead phone.
We grew up in a big old Victorian house on Lafayette Avenue in Buffalo. The third floor had no interior partitions or walls, since it was originally designed to be a ballroom; by the time we were living there the days of balls were long gone, and that whole floor was jammed to capacity with antique furniture, wall to wall, floor to twelve-foot ceiling, back to front. My sister and I were little kids then, and we could crawl all through that vast lightless volume, up one canted couch and across the underside of an inverted table, squeezing past rolled carpets and worming between Regency chair legs. Of course there was no light at all unless we crowded into a space near one of the dust-filmed windows; and climbing back down to the floor, and then tracing the molding and the direction of the floor planks to the door, was a challenge. When we were finally able to stand up straight again out in the hall, we’d be covered with sour dust and not eager to explore in there again soon.
The nightmare I always had as a child was of having crept and wriggled to the very center of that room all by myself in the middle of the night, pausing roughly halfway between the floor and ceiling in pitch darkness on some sloped cabinet or sleigh bed – and then hearing a cautious scuffle from some remote cubic yard out there, in that three-dimensional maze of Cabriole legs and cartouches that you had to touch to learn the shapes of. And in the dream I knew it was some lonely boy who had hidden away up there with all the furniture years and years ago, and that he wanted to play, to show me whatever old shoe buckles or pocket watches or fountain pens he had found in drawers and coat pockets. I always pictured him skeletal and pale, though of course he’d be careful never to get near enough to the windows to be seen, and I knew he’d speak in a whisper.
I always woke up from that dream while it was still dark outside my window, and so tense that I’d simply lie without moving a muscle until I could see the morning light through my eyelids.
I was in the yard of the Santa Ana house early the next morning, sipping at a can of Coors beer and blinking tears out of my eyes as I tried to focus on the tomato vines through the sun glare on the white garden wall, when I heard a pattering like rain among the leaves. I sat down abruptly in the damp grass to push the low leaves aside.
It was bits of glass falling out of the sky. I touched one shard, and it was as hot as a serving plate. A cracking and thumping started up behind me then, and I fell over backward trying to stand up in a hurry. Red clay roof tiles were shattering violently on the grass and tearing the jasmine branches. The air was sharp with the acid smell of burned, broken stone, and then a hard punch of scorchingly hot air lifted me off my feet and rolled me over the top of the picnic table. I was lying facedown and breathless in the grass when the bass-note boom deafened me and stretched my hair out straight, so that it stood up from my scalp for days; I still have trouble combing it down flat, not that I try frequently.
The yard looked like a battlefield. All the rose bushes were broken off flush with the ground, and the ceramic duck that we’d had forever was broken into a hundred pieces. I was dimly glad that the duck had been able to tour California once in his otherwise uneventful life.
The eastern end of the house, where the kitchen had been, was broken wide open, with tar-paper strips standing up along the roof edge like my hair, and beams and plaster chunks lay scattered out across the grass. Everything inside the kitchen was gone, the table and the refrigerator and the pictures on the wall. Propane is heavier than air, and it had filled the kitchen from the floor upward, until it had reached the pilot light on the stove.
The explosion had cracked my ribs and burned my eyebrows off and scorched my throat, and I think I got sick from radon or asbestos that had been in the walls. I took a daylong ride on a bus out here to San Bernardino to recuperate at my uncle’s place, the same rambling old ranch-style house where we lived happily for a year right after we moved from New York, before my mother found the Santa Ana house and began making payments on it.
The ceramic duck might have been the first thing my mother bought for the house. He generally just sat in the yard, but shortly after my sister and I turned seven he was stolen. We didn’t get very excited about that, but we were awestruck when the duck mysteriously showed up on the lawn again, six months later – because propped up against him in the
My uncle’s place hasn’t changed at all since my sister and I explored every hollow and gully of the weedy acre and climbed the sycamores along the back fence so many years ago – our carved initials are still visible on the trunk of one of them, I discover, still only a yard above the dirt, though my sister isn’t interested in seeing them now. There’s a surprising lot of our toys, too, old wooden Lincoln Logs and Nike missile launchers; I’ve gathered them from among the weeds and put them near the back of the garage where my uncle supposedly keeps his beer, but she doesn’t want to see them either.
Always in San Bernardino you see women on the noonday sidewalks wearing shorts and halter tops, and from behind they look young and shapely with their long brown legs and blonde hair; but when the car you’re in has driven past them, and you hike around in the passenger seat to look back, their faces are weary, and shockingly old. And at night along Base Line, under the occasional clusters of sodium-vapor lights, you can see that the bar parking lots are jammed with cars, but you can generally also see four or five horses tied up to a post outside the bar door. My uncle says this is a semi-desert climate, right below the Cajon Pass and Barstow in the high desert, and so we get a lot of patches of mirage.
I’ll let my sister drive me as far as the Stater Brothers market on Highland, though that doesn’t cheer her up, probably because I mostly shoplift the fruits and cheese and crackers that are all I can keep down anymore. She flew back from France after I hurt myself, and when she can borrow an old car from a friend she drives out to visit me. She keeps trying to trick me into coming back to live in Santa Ana again, or anywhere besides my uncle’s house – she wants to drive me to a hospital, actually – but I don’t dare. I’ve told her not to tell anyone where I am, and I’ve taken a false name, not that anyone asks me.
Strange Itineraries by Tim Powers / Fantasy / Science Fiction have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes