|Miles and Miles of Broccoli|
|by Ray Vukcevich|
I want to chat about the weather and then move on to my current three favorite books. The transition between the weather and the three books may be a little bumpy. Weather in fiction has influenced where I live, and weather in the places I've lived has influenced my fiction. I remember the rain in Arizona -- which is weird since there was so little of it -- but when I think of growing up there, I remember the rain and raging creeks and washed-out roads, wet dogs and horses, and huddling under a piece of canvas in a wilderness downpour like an orangutan with leaves on his head.
I read J. G. Ballard's The Drowned World back then, and I remember the guy living on a raft of floating junk and boating over to see the woman on another raft. I remember the way the story is tight and focused on these two people. Wet and dark. Some green -- but dark green and hot. Some of what I remember is not actually in the book.
I've lived in Oregon for more than 20 years. When I first arrived, I thought it looked like broccoli, miles and miles of broccoli, broccoli as far as the eye could see. Now they've clear-cut a lot of the broccoli, and there are highways where the big trees only go back a few yards and then the world opens up onto a desolate landscape of stumps and sticks. When you fly into Oregon these days, you see that there are big pieces missing. But it still rains here. A lot. That's what I liked when I got here. I still love it.
Almost everyone in Arizona was smart enough to come in out of the rain. When it rained, no one cared if you were in your dim room reading or building strange devices. I had banks of switches. They weren't connected to anything, but I could flip a switch and something would change in my head and I could fly or be invisible or walk through walls. I could get really really small along with my books and when the sun came out and people came looking for me to go out and play there would be no one there. In Oregon, you often have to go outside when it rains. Otherwise you wouldn't get out much.
I do miss the night sky from my childhood. We lived way out in the country on the side of a mountain and the stars were so bright you could read by their light on a moonless night. I remember telling my mother you could read by the light of the stars. She didn't believe it. We made a bet, and I got a book. We went outside and I started to read. I quickly came to the word "persimmon" and had no clue what it was or how to pronounce it. "Aha!" she said, but she was just kidding. I think I had been reading something by Robert A. Heinlein (maybe Have Space Suit -- Will Travel) but I have never stumbled across the word "persimmon" in his works since. Maybe someone will tell me where it is, or that it isn't there.
We seldom see the stars in western Oregon. These days I have an umbrella, and I have to park a long way from where I work and in the winter when it's always raining I have to walk back in the dark to my car and I step in a lot of puddles and get my socks soaked. I dream of a world where it rains all the time but the water runs off your back like water off the back of a duck and you've got X-ray vision so you can see the stars through the clouds.
The Ballard book may have nudged me into wetter lands, but what sticks in my mind about this book, and about his work generally (Concrete Island is a wonderful example), is the way you can tell a story in a small space with just a few people.
My current three favorite books are like that. They all do use more space in that they are also about a person traveling -- you might say running all over the place -- through many realities. The first book is The Mustache by Emmanuel Carrére. Here, a guy decides to shave off his mustache. What mustache? his wife wants to know. His friends, too, act like he's never had a mustache. He has to go a long way while wrestling with what this all means. Next, I like The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro. A pianist arrives to give a concert. He doesn't know what city he's in and he doesn't remember agreeing to do the concert. Things get interesting. And finally, take a look at Humpty Dumpty by Damon Knight, where a man wakes up in a hospital after being shot in the head in Milan and begins a strange journey so smoothly written I'm still amazed.
So, from the weather in my childhood through the drip drip dripping on my head in the wintertime in Oregon, I come to the kind of stories I like to read and write -- stories zoomed in tight on just a few people doing strange things in interesting places.
Ray Vukcevich's first novel, The Man of Maybe Half-a-Dozen Faces introduced his detective Skylight Howells to surrealism-starved Douglas Adams and Terry Jones fans everywhere. His first collection of stories, Meet Me in the Moon Room, has been nominated for the Philip K. Dick and the Bram Stoker Awards. Originally from Arizona, he is now very happily living in Eugene, OR.
Author photo courtesy of Writers on Rugs -- Nina Kiriki Hoffman and Leslie What.