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THE COMPLEAT OVA HAMLET
by Richard A. Lupoff
Introduction by Philip Klass
Dick Lupoff tells me that he has a dream. Well, what the hell, every man is entitled to a dream. Dick’s dream is that he’s at a science-fiction convention and a fan comes up and says, “You’re Dick Lupoff, aren’t you? Listen, you know what’s my favorite in all your work?” And then the fan names a novel or short story that Dick has written—The Triune Man, I’d say, or “Sail the Tide of Mourning,” both sound, sensitive choices— and not a piece of criticism or other extracurricular material.
That’s his dream. And you know something? My heart bleeds for him. It bleeds for him the way it bleeds for Arthur Conan Doyle, dreaming of a compliment on The White Company, for once, rather than the Sherlock Holmes pot-boilers. Or, more to the issue here, the way it bleeds for Max Beerbohm, hoping for a fan letter on Zuleika Dobson instead of the parodies of TH*M*S H*RDY and H.G. W*LLS or essays like the tongue-in-cheek one-shot, “A Young Clergyman.”
Let the rest of us live, is what I say. Accept your fate and don’t crowd us. So what if Lupoff has written a lot of good fiction and is likely to write a lot more? So what if Sword of the Demon and Space War Blues and “Saltzman’s Madness” are overshadowed in the minds of many readers by the popular music criticism he wrote in the 1970s for Ramparts or by the investigations he had done earlier on Edgar Rice Burroughs and phenomena like the early comic books?
Nobody, after all, held a gun to his head and forced him to continue rollicking in areas long bypassed by the stuffier critics. He could have left Holmes at the Reichenbach Falls, so to speak, and gone on to a better, cleaner life as a normal eight-to-five novelist. But no. He had to try his hand at parody, too. And not sensible, reasonable, makeable parody like Beerbohm’s TH*M*S H*RDY and JOHN G*LSW*RTHY and ARN*LD B*NN*TT, but toughies on the order of B*RRY M*LZB*RG and H*RL*N ELL*S*N and PH*L*P K. D*CK, not to mention L. R*N H*BB*RD (sh-h-h, TH* CH*RCH OF SO*NT*L*GY may be listening).
It’s obvious that Lupoff is a man who bounces cheerily into a room where all the angels in heaven are flattened, trembling, against the walls. It’s obvious that he deserves everything he gets in the way of badly skewed recognition. Parodies of science fiction? At first glance it’s like measuring a horse race in ohms, like scrutinizing an amoeba through a spectroscope. It’s like tuning a piano with a piece of muenster cheese: There might be a way to do it, but why try?
Parody, if you avoid the trap of etymology (“a song sung beside”), is a comic parallel stylistically of a specific work of poetry or prose. It belongs to a small group of literary terms -- satire, travesty, burlesque, parody, Hudibrastic—the invididual components of which have long been used so interchangeably by so many commentators that their definitions have receded into pure blur. Two of these, however, can be separated from the rest as an obvious pairing—burlesque and parody. What’s the yoke between them and what’s the difference? Why is burlesque an easy thing to do in science fiction, and why is true SF parody so terribly difficult?
Simple: burlesque deals with matter, parody with manner. Burlesque explodes the content into ridicule; parody distills the form, the style, into an essence so pure and concentrated that every writerly trick in the story or poem is thenceforth and forever visible. Swinburne’s lines from his merciless self-parody—
Mild is the mirk and monotonous music of memory, mute as it may be,
While the hope in the heart of a hero is bruised by the breach of men’s rapiers, resigned to the rod;
Made meek as a mother whose bosom-beats bound with the bliss-bringing bulk of a balm-breathing baby;
As they grope through the graveyard of creeds, under skies growing green at a groan for the grimness of God.
—deal with the how of his poetry, not the what. Similarly, while Beerbohm touches, in passing, on Kipling’s view of the world in A Christmas Garland—
. . . Many were the night-beats I had been privileged to walk with Judlip, imbibing curious lore that made glad the civilian heart of me. Seven whole 8x5 inch notebooks had I pitmanised to the brim with Judlip. And now to be repulsed as one of the uninitiated! It hurt horrid.
—the barbs that sink deep (the inverted constructions, the flourish of technical detail, the pretentious archaisms and the patronizing cockneyisms) are barbs of style. This is quite different from a passage in Robert Williams Buchanan’s “The Ballad of Kiplingson”—
‘Wot! haven’t you heard of Kiplingson? whose name and fame have spread
As far as the Flag of England waves, and the Tory prints are read?
‘I was raised in the lap of Jingo, sir, till I grew to the height of a man,
And a wonderful Literary Gent, I emerged upon Hindostan!’
—where the jingle-jangle, while competent, is unimportant; it is only the handle of the club. Buchanan’s target is unmistakable: Kipling’s philosophy, Kipling’s statement. He wants to smash these wide open with burlesque. He doesn’t need a sensitive ear for that.
The Chaplin burlesque of Carmen, of half a century ago, could thus never be considered parody for one utterly basic reason: it’s a silent film. The specific language of the opera—aria and duet, overture and chorus—is missing, and without language as a place of departure there can be no parody.
Alexander Pope makes this point when he says, “I have translated, or rather parodied, a poem of Horace.” And he’s making another point, too—that parody, unlike burlesque, need not have ridicule as its aim. Swinburne, however much of a happy-go-lucky masochist he may have been, surely had more in mind than self-flagellation when he wrote a parody of his own work. And two of the oldest parodies in our literature are the Batrachomyamachia, which has fun with the descriptions of battle scenes in Homer, and the Achamians, a takeoff on the style of Euripides. And yet the first is so good and so true to the original that it was long thought to be Homer’s own work (another masochist?), and the second is by Aristophanes, of whom it is impossible to believe that he didn’t admire—or, at the very least, respect—his fellow-craftsman.
However many self-parodies now exist, there are very few burlesques by writers of their own work. The most puzzling single example I know of is the “Pyramus and Thisbe” sequence from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which seems to be a burlesque of Romeo and Juliet (the star-crossed lovers, the suicides caused by mistakes, etc.). Both plays were written in the same year. Could Shakespeare possibly have written a play after he’d done a burlesque of its plot? Shakespeare certainly wrote parodies of work by contemporaries and near-contemporaries.
“Most parodies,” says Dwight Macdonald, “are written out of admiration rather than contempt. It is hard to make the mimetic effort unless one has enough sympathy to ‘identify’ with the parodee.”
In other words, why “sing a song beside” a nonentity? The parodist has to be impressed before he sets to work. He has to be impressed so that he will want to examine that impression most carefully. Then, of course, he might laugh the impression out of existence.
But there’s more to good parody even than that. In Point Counter Point, Aldous Huxley observes: “Parodies and caricatures are the most penetrating of criticisms.” And they are, they really are: they are criticisms dramatized, they are criticisms which have snatched bodies and are walking across the stage, they are critisicms which do what every young writer is begged and begged to do until he is bored bleary by the repetition: they show rather then tell.
And what they show is how a given style works. You always come back to that with parody, whether the purpose is ridicule, admiration, or stolid, careful investigation and criticism. You come back to style.
The trouble is that science fiction is primarily ideational, conceptual. Most of us remember what Kinglsey Amis told us back in 1960: “This primacy of idea means that a good science-fiction story of this kind will sound good in paraphrase, and in this direction lies some support to the plea that stylistic adequacy is all one need demand from examples of the idea-category, which is not a vehicle for the verbal imagination.”
If science fiction is a literature of content—matter—and parody is a literature of form or style—manner—how do the twain ever meet? Certainly, there’s been damn little first-rate parody in the field, and not too much fifth-rate stuff either. There have been burlesques aplenty: about the time I began reading the stuff—early to middle Triassic—there was a story called “Brain-Eaters of Pluto” in, as I remember it, one of the Gernsback magazines. At the age of thirteen or so, I found it very funny, funnier than the Depression anyway. When I began writing professionally, I turned out a couple of van Vogt burlesques; more correctly, I stood a van Vogt concept on its head as a way to begin a story. Thus, in one piece I transformed non-Aristotelian logic into non-Platonic politics, and in another I made a human being take the place of the monster in “Black Destroyer” (first part of The Voyage of the Space Beagle) while the slime-dripping, eye-stalked creatures he was terrorizing talked in heavy Toynbee to each other about his possible social and historical origins.
I did write one very definite parody, but not for publication. It was part of a speech I delivered—1948? 1949? 1950?— during a Christmas entertainment at the old Hydra Club in New York (all this before I was expelled for overt and persistent monogamy during a major divorce festival). I picked Bradbury, as the only science-fiction writer with a strongly identifiable style, and I wrote a Martian Chronicle. The first explorers from Earth, see, find themselves a little girl sitting on the edge of a canal and dangling her Buster Brown shoes over the side of it. She’s picking her nose and making little balls out of what she picks and then dropping the little balls into the rusty tin cans and general garbage at the bottom of the canal. The explorers try to get information from her but she replies only with iambic yearns. The way I sustained the humor was by keeping it down to five or six paragraphs.
I mention this to underline the fact that I saw no future in the form. Writers seemed to be concentrating on nothing but new ways to play extraterrestrial, and I didn’t feel I could make a living out of Bradbury alone.
And besides, where could you publish the stuff? If, as George S. Kaufman is reputed to have said, satire is what closes on Saturday night, then parody fades in the out-of- town tryout.
Not here comes Dick Lupoff, complaining bitterly that not enough attention is being paid to his regulation short stories and novels; and just so the complaints will sound sincere, he develops a new distraction: in 1969 he begins writing and publishing science-fiction parodies. Not all of them are masterpieces; here and there is a discernible clunk; but there are a hell of a lot more clinks than clunks. He’s writing real parodies of real science fiction. And publishing them.
Why? Has the field changed? Is style and not content now the issue? Or has Lupoff changed the field—our awareness of it, that is?
Let me take a firm position with my answer. Yes and no, I say unequivocally. A little of both, I reply.
And, in all seriousness, that happens to be the only possible reply.
Science fiction has changed. More writers today see themselves as literary figures rather than as idea-a-minute hacksters. For one thing, there’s a wider and more critical audience than ever; for another, there’s much more money to be made on good stuff and less reason to ship the stuff to editors in truck-load quantities. But the subjective change is the most important of all. Concept still counts, but style sticks out like an adolescent boy’s ears in the works of J.G. Ballard (“Isle of Man Swings SF”), Harlan Ellison (“Battered Like a Brass Bippy”), Philip K. Dick (“Agony and Remorse on Rhesus IX”), and Barry Malzberg (“Grebzlam’s Game”). Kurt Vonnegut (“The Wedding of Ova Hamlet”) has always been a careful, conscious stylist, but not nearly as noticeably in his early The Sirens of Titan as in his more recent Breakfast of Champions, And so, you might say even if Lupoff doesn’t quite, it goes.
But damn it all, I’ve been around for a fairly long time now. I was reading L. Ron Hubbard (“Young Nurse Nebuchadnezzar”) and his Old Doc Methuselah stories when Lupoff was in rompers (well, training jockstrap anyway). I should have thought of feminizing Hubbard’s pen name to Renée Lafayette and having her graduate from as loaded a place-name as the Milford Institute of Terminology (migod, the soul shudders and the senses reel at the thought of Elron at a Milford Conference!); I should have thought of as utterly gudjess and typical a Guldeneh-Age-from-Astounding creature as a Procyonic proctopoid. I didn’t. Alas. My ass.
And what about H.P. Lovecraft (“The Horror South of Red Hook”) and his mama, Mary Shelley, and his auntie and uncle, Ann Radcliffe and Monk Lewis? Here, Lupoff has performed the true humorist’s job and made us aware of what we haven’t been consciously seeing or hearing; here, he has changed our awareness. After reading his parody, go back and reread some of Lovecraft’s story openings: “Searchers after horror haunt strange, far places.” “The most merciful thing in the world . . .” “After twenty-two years of nightmare and terror . . .” Lovecraft and his mad Arabs in staid old New England will never go down quite so easily again.
What are my favorites? In “Rhesus IX,” the “weak and watery” sun’s rays, the toothless philosophic bite of “Sometimes his existence didn’t even seem real. Other times it did.” In “Brass Bippy,” the wheezing antiestablishmentarianism and the carefully staled political slogans (although I must mention here, in all fairness, that P.G. Wyal insists the original is funnier). In “Grebzlam,” the insanely overdone quality, every movement sweatily described, everything a metaphor for almost everything else. Most of all, in the Ballard Murder Case, the reference to “dead dogs left to rot in overgrown fields of antic hay” and the note that “. . . speculative fiction offers a mature view of universal, realistic, objective despair.” This last reminds me of the Nonsense Novel by Stephen Leacock in which one Scottish chieftain argues that damnation can be achieved by faith alone, while his opponent insists that damnation can be achieved by works, too.
Don’t misunderstand me. While reading this stuff, I didn’t die laughing. I did get seriously injured, though, envying.
State College, Pa.
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