Saturday, 21 February 2009

Keep The Giraffe Burning - John Sladek

Surrealism is hard to do well. As it is a movement/philosophy expressed principally through visual art and effects, surrealist writing is even harder to do well. Yet it does lend itself to writing as an expression, always provided the writer is someone who keeps tight control over their work. John Sladek is one such writer.

This collection is usually classified as ‘science fiction’, and whilst it does deal with science in fictional settings, it transcends what, for many, is a very specific genre. Indeed, one could accuse Sladek of having produced literature. He is careful, however, to point in the introduction the book that the pieces collected there are intended to amuse.

As works of a surreal nature they succeed admirably, exposing psychological truths by stripping the everyday of normal significance, making awkward and sometimes painful juxtapositions, to create images and trains of thought that might not otherwise occur. As an exercise in amusement, they also work, because Sladek is a paramount satirist. Indeed, it is the surrealism of the pieces that allows him to make acute observations about the sheer stupidity of much that we humans do.

Prescient, as well. Although it does seem as if a number of writers in the mid-1970s considered the possibility of Ronald Reagan as president of the USA. Yet the prescience extends beyond that. One story has finance ministers from around the world trying to sort out their economies whilst the world comes apart around them.

It is clear that pieces of fiction such as these are not going to appeal to everyone. They are ‘experimental’, peopled in part by the characters you find in mathematical problems (of the: if A gets on train travelling at x mph and B boards a plane… type – A and B discuss these events and their unhappy childhoods sharing apples with C, and so on), and they often seem to go nowhere (although those that do are sketches for what might have been powerful novels). However, it is also clear that Sladek has taken a great deal of care over them and they are fine examples of work that deserve a far wider readership.