Wednesday, September 03, 2008

"Almost the only people I know who agree word for word on what they saw on the night of 15 July are Phyllis and I."

On the recommendation of the Caustic Cover Critic, who recently revealed that the oeuvre of John Wyndham extends far beyond his justly famous The Day of the Triffids (1951), in recent days I've been racing through some of what Wyndham described as his "logical science fiction" novels. Had Wyndham not named his style, I would probably have tagged it with something clunky like "It was a day like any other . . ." science fiction. In the Wyndham novels I've read so far--the aforementioned Day of the Triffids, The Midwich Cuckoos (1957) (which is better known among American readers in its movie form, where it was called Village of the Damned), and The Kraken Wakes (1953), which I'm halfway through--space-borne entities of utterly inscrutable origin and intentions arrive and initiate a struggle for survival with the human race. What's so compelling about Wyndham's work is that by shifting the terms of our everyday life just a tiny bit he reveals--logically and convincingly--the shaky foundations and unquestioned assumptions on which our entire human world is based. It was an ordinary day . . . and then, again and again--sometimes suddenly, sometimes with dreadful, clawing slowness--it isn't.

I'll almost certainly have more to say about Wyndham in the coming months, as I work my way through the rest of his novels. For now, I simply want to share a great pasage from The Kraken Wakes. Whereas The Day of the Triffids is unrelenting in its tension, and The Midwich Cuckoos, though a bit more restrained, also rarely shifts its narrative attention from the creepy children at its core, The Kraken Wakes reads more like Wyndham's attempt to transplant Nick and Nora Charles into a particularly sharp episode of Lights Out. The couple who are its center are writers for the EBC, a commercial cousin of the BBC, and their comfortable banter offers considerable leaven to the slowly accumulating horrors of the first half of the novel.

This particular passage follows the late night-arrival of a couple of visiting friends, a husband and wife, and it shares the dry wit for which I praised Wyndham's prose earlier in the week--but with the addition of some finely honed thoughts about friendship and marriage, and a perfectly phrased observation to close it:
Wondering why one's friends chose to marry the people they did is unprofitable, but recurrent. One could so often have done so much better for them. For instance, I could think of three girls who would have been better for Harold, in their different ways; one would have pushed him, another would have looked after him, the third would have amused him. It is true that they were none of them quite as decorative as Tuny, but that's not--well, it's something like the difference between the room you live in and the one at the Ideal Home Exhibition. However, there it was, and, as Phyllis said, a girl who makes good with a name like Petunia must at least have something her parents didn't have.
Do you see why Wyndham has succeeded in enchanting me?

3 comments:

  1. aerawrite1:03 PM

    that's a great excerpt, i hadn't heard of the author until now but i'll have to check out his books. mind telling me which poet wrote the the lust snippet on the right side of your blog? thanks.

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  2. aerawrite,
    I hope you enjoy Wyndham as much as I have been. The only ones in print in the United States right now are The Day of the Triffids and The Chrysalids (the latter of which I've not read), but the others are available from the United Kingdom.

    As for the couple of lines in the Twitter feed on the sidebar? Though I'd certainly not have the confidence to call myself a poet, they're mine.

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  3. I just re-read 'Kraken' after posting all of those covers, and your description of the narrator and his wife as being like Nick and Nora is spot-on. It was surprisingly light-hearted in places, much more so than I'd remembered, especially considering that they were dealing with the end of the world. Of course, Nick and Nora were often waist-deep in murder, and that didn't stop the next cocktail from going down smoothly.

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