Ray Bradbury is dead, at 91. “Every child is an artist,” Pablo Picasso once said. “The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” If ever there was a writer whose imagination always remained as unfettered as a child’s, it was Bradbury.
We love slotting, categorization. Kurt Vonnegut was writing for about two decades before anyone in the literary firmament figured that he was not “just a science fiction writer”. The usual Bradbury obit will mention him as a science fiction author, and refer to Fahrenheit 451, which enjoys highbrow fame as a Francois Truffaut film. Bradbury himself said, more than once: “I’m not a science fiction writer. I’ve written only one book of science fiction—451.” In the few Bradbury books that I own, the publisher’s note classifies him as “one of the greatest writers of fantasy and horror fiction in the world today”.
A file photo of author Ray Bradbury.
Well, my description of Bradbury would be a little more simple: he was one of the world’s greatest child-writers. His imagination was as boundless and mysterious as that of Borges, but always full of a wonder very different from the super-polyglot awe of that great blind librarian. His imaginative constructs were uncomplicated—I doubt if he ever cared to read Proust, or Ulysses, either the Greek or the Irish version. Yes, he wrote a lot of horror fiction, and a 2000-word Bradbury story like The Veldt or Jack-in-the-Box can keep you disturbed for much longer than the latest blunt instrument from Stephen King. And whether he wanted to be known as a science fiction author or not, the fact remains that he gave us the Butterfly Effect. An insect flapping its wings in Brazil and causing a typhoon in the South China Sea? The term, though never referred to specifically as such by Bradbury, comes from his short story A Sound of Thunder.
And when he wanted to, Bradbury could outlyricise Scott Fitzgerald, while using less difficult words. Take this passage, from his masterpiece Dandelion Wine (a magical summer seen through the eyes of a 12-year-old):
The courthouse clock chimed seven times. The echoes of the chimes faded. Warm summer twilight here in upper Illinois country in this little town deep far away from everything, kept to itself by a river and a forest and a meadow and a lake. The sidewalks still scorched. The stores closing and the streets shadowed. And there were two moons; the clock moon with four faces in four night directions above the solemn black courthouse, and the real moon rising in vanilla whiteness from the dark east.
In the drugstore, fans whispered in the high ceiling. In the rococo shade of porches, a few invisible people sat. Cigars glowed pink, on occasion. Screen doors whined, their springs and slammed. On the purple bricks of the summer-night streets, Douglas Spaulding ran; dogs and boys followed after.
“Hi, Miss Lavinia!”
The boys loped away. Waving after them quietly, Lavinia Nebbs sat all alone with a tall cool lemonade in her white fingers, tapping it to her lips, sipping, waiting.
“Here I am, Lavinia.”
She turned and there was Francine, all in snow white, at the bottom steps of the porch, in the smell of zinnias and hibiscus. Lavinia Nebbs locked her front door and, leaving her lemonade glass half empty on the porch, said, “It’s a fine night for the movie.”
They walked down the street.
Ray Bradbury never lost his sense of wonder, never believed that there could be anything more marvelously playful than ideas. He told The New York Times some years ago: “When I was born in 1920, the auto was only 20 years old. Radio didn’t exist. TV didn’t exist. I was born at just the right time to write about all of these things.” “That’s the great secret of creativity,” he revealed to someone. “You treat ideas like cats. You make them follow you.” His advice on what to read was typically both simple and enough to keep a man busy for a lifetime. “In your reading,” he said, “find books to improve your colour sense, your sense of shape and size in the world.”
This tribute will be, I suppose, confusing, for anyone who hasn’t read Bradbury. Well, read him, then. Start with the horror stories. But don’t try The Small Assassin if you are expecting a baby.
Bradbury never shut the child up, including all its nightmares and the sort of visions that would send most of us adults scurrying to psychiatrists. Sometimes—only on rare occasions, the grown-up who cherished the kid inside showed through. “We have our Arts so we won’t die of Truth,” he once said. Let Bradbury disturb, enchant, touch you. Don’t die of Truth.