Barry N. Malzberg’s Galaxies

Barry N. Malzberg, Galaxies (1976, Carrol & Graf 1989)

A while back the Art Student and I went to the Gleebooks launch of a book called something like The Brain, at which the author spoke entertainingly about hypergraphia, or perhaps graphomania, which he said was a biologically-based disorder suffered by, among others, Dostoevsky, Shakespeare and Cervantes. We came away knowing little about the book, but the fantasy that a deformed hypothalamus or whatever was responsible for the creation of Raskolnikov, Hamlet and Sancho Panza has a certain lasting, sick appeal. If such a condition existed, Barry N. Malzberg would be one of the few recorded sufferers to have recovered. He wrote a phenomenal number of books in his 20s and 30s and then, apparently, pretty much stopped.

Galaxies is a multifaceted, challenging, joyous, anguished outpouring (or perhaps, though I doubt it, carefully crafted facsimile of an outpouring). It begins, ‘To define terms at the outset, this will not be a novel so much as a series of notes toward one.’ The writer, referred to throughout in the third person, is a hack writer of science fiction and other genre, as Malzberg was, and there’s plenty of complaining about the pay levels and other drawbacks of the life. In the novel, a spacecraft carrying a cargo of 515 cryogenically preserved dead people, falls into a ‘black galaxy’ and its sole crew member lives seven thousand lives, converses with a trio of mechanical Job’s comforters, and finally makes a decision. But there are also the notes, which shoot off in all directions – lampooning the conventions of science fiction, canvassing the relationship between it and literary fiction, between it and science, discussing the craft of writing, all with tremendous energy and reflexive irony.

What he has to say about science fiction may be dated. I don’t know enough to say. I imagine a knowledgeable reader would enjoy this even more than I did – certainly I got a kick out of the references I did spot. For example, talking about the kinds of fate that science fiction hacks can expect, he gives examples whom he calls A, B and C. It was fairly clear to me that the first two of those innocent sounding letters actually stood for Asimov and Ballard. Later in the same paragraph he refers to himself as M, confirming the suspicion and capping the joke.

The book is funny and serious and pained and exuberant. On almost every page there are paragraphs that cry out to be quoted. I finally weakened towards the end of the book and folded down a page on this:

Success teaches nothing; failure presents limits, gives us the tragic sense without which understanding is impossible. Successes are composed of a thousand failures like the way the photographs in newspapers reduce on inspection to myriad scattered dots, each expressionless, all comprising vision.

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