Wayward Pines

How does an author sell over a million copies of his novels without ever learning how to write a convincing line of dialogue?  Welcome to the world of Amazon Publishing and self-published direct-to-Kindle ebooks.  Price your work cheaply enough and enable One-Click™ purchasing, and you may be the next Blake Crouch.

So why did I read not one, not two, but three of Crouch’s excruciating “novels” set in a fictional town in Idaho?  Crouch’s books were the inspiration for the recent FOX television show Wayward Pines.  Compared initially by reviewers with David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, the M. Night Shyamalan-produced series caught my attention with the very first episode.  It had, as they say, “great potential,” as did the central idea of Crouch’s trilogy.  Part nostalgia, part science fiction, part post-Edward Snowden surveillance-state paranoia: In different hands—say, Ray Bradbury’s—this story could have been a delight.  (Indeed, something about the premise calls The Martian Chronicles to mind.)  Instead, it feels like a missed opportunity, because no one will now be able to take this particular twist on a postapocalyptic world and do it right.  (Shyamalan had a chance, but he diverged from his source material only in frustratingly inconsequential ways, and hewed closely to it whenever he shouldn’t have.)

The only thing to be said for Crouch’s dialogue is that it is no worse than the other elements of his writing—plotting, pacing, grammar, spelling.  Amazon.com has pitched its direct-to-Kindle imprints as the future of publishing; if Crouch’s trilogy is any indication, that future looks about as bright as that of the residents of Wayward Pines.

First published in the September 2015 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

Ray Bradbury, R.I.P.

America has lost one of her best novelists and writers of short stories, and perhaps the last chronicler of a world that can no longer be found: the early 20th-century Midwest, a world of small towns and small farms, of hot summer days and bitter winter nights, of swimming holes and traveling shows, of Main Streets and gas lights and front porches. Bits and pieces of that world remained in the smallest of small Midwestern towns for almost 50 years after Bradbury’s family left his hometown of Waukegan, Illinois, for the last time, settling in Los Angeles, California, in 1934. But all that remains now is what Bradbury, and a few other writers like him, captured in such novels and collections of short stories as Dandelion WineSomething Wicked This Way Comes, and Farewell Summer.

To those today who still remember his name, Ray Bradbury was, as the New York Times declared in a lackluster obituary, “a master of science fiction whose imaginative and lyrical evocations of the future reflected both the optimism and the anxieties of his own postwar America.” But while Bradbury worked in a variety of genres—horror, fantasy, and crime stories among them, as well as science fiction—what bound all of his writing together, as his friend Russell Kirk well understood, was the moral imagination. The best elements of his most famous work, The Martian Chronicles, had nothing to do with the future and technology, and everything to do with memory—imagination operating historically. (Bradbury insisted that The Martian Chronicles was not science fiction but fantasy, something that ”couldn’t happen,” while Fahrenheit 451 was science fiction because it could—and, indeed, he believed it had happened, before 1960.)

Bradbury’s moral imagination was born, as was Kirk’s, in a particular time and a particular place. For almost 70 years, his imagination ran free in the hot Midwestern summer of 1934. Like meter in poetry, the constraints of his past allowed Bradbury to transcend the increasingly chaotic and immoral present.

The Waukegan, Illinois, of 1934 is gone, never to return; yet all is not lost. There are many forces competing for the imagination of a new generation, and most of them look like Mr. Dark. But there was a reason Ray Bradbury had Charles Halloway work in a library, and if you don’t know what I am talking about, you need to get a copy of Something Wicked This Way Comes and read it to your children, before it is too late.

First published on ChroniclesMagazine.org on June 9, 2012.