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"How Sargent Peppers Phony Arts Dubbed Grand"
Yes, I know, it's maddening. You shell out good money to travel millions of miles from your home world to the Pamela Sargent Labyrinth of Literary Delights – in some cases, you even hopped from one spiral arm of the Via Galactica to the other – and then you find your way through the maze to the Thumbprints Museum, and what's the first thing that happens to you? You get herded into this stuffy rotunda by a gnomish little tour guide who proceeds to bark orders at you. But that's how we do things on the Planet of Irreproachable Priorities. If you want to be treated like royalty, go take a goddamn cruise.
So as I was saying: turn off your cell phones, disconnect your pagers, throw away your coffee cups, and inform your children that for the next three hours no one is interested in their opinions about anything. I'm more than happy to lead you through the Thumbprints Museum – I'm even willing to share my knowledge of the Pamela Sargent Labyrinth in general – but, hey, folks, no docent should have to waste his breath competing with a lot of bleeping and slurping and whining, right?
Please step this way.
Our first exhibit is inspired by "Thumbprints" itself, that sardonic deconstruction of the American publishing industry in the early years of the twenty-first century. Go ahead, don't be shy, walk right up and press your thumb against the big red sensor. In a matter of nanoseconds the emanations will travel from your epidermis to your brain, and after the prognostic analysis is complete the screen will display ... wait a minute, madam, the computer already has a prediction for you! Evidently you have what it takes to crank out a murder mystery. And you, sir – it appears you've got a horror novel in you. And you over there with the false eyelashes and the superfluous makeup – you may very well be a romance writer in embryo.
If you'll permit me to lapse into French, "Thumbprints" is a tour de force of the roman à clef. Today, of course, the story also seems rather prophetic, having accurately, if obliquely, predicted that Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections, for all its critical laurels and commercial success, would fail to entrance subsequent generations of readers, most of whom were not particularly interested in misanthropic autobiographical venom disguised as social satire. Indeed, Sargent's talent for deflating unearned literary nihilism and strafing received aesthetic wisdom is one of the enduring rewards of her oeuvre. You might say that Sargent peppers phony arts dubbed grand.
In the next gallery we have a tribute to "Out of Place," the largest terrarium to be found anywhere on our world. Catopia, the boss calls it, and at any given time we have between ten and twelve felines in residence, each with a transceiver implanted in its cortex. Merely slip on the headphones, and you'll hear the animals' thoughts ... well, not their thoughts exactly, these are cats – you'll hear a litany of complaints. Why don't they make the sunlamps hotter? Why won't they give us more canned food instead of this dry crap? Why can't they stick in a few more newly upholstered chairs?
If you've read "Out of Place," you know that cats aren't above making personal remarks, so try not to ... oh, dear, oh, dear, I'm sorry, sir. The Siamese had no cause to pass such a judgment on your wife's physiognomy. Try to understand – we always intended this installation to be nothing but fun, though naturally we can't control the malice factor entirely.
Moving right along ... in this salon we have an homage to my personal favorite among Sargent's humorous stories, "Shrinker," that wry extrapolation from Richard Matheson's homunculus classic. This dollhouse is a hands-on exhibit – don't be afraid to poke and prod. See, the little shower emits a stream of hot water, and that's an actual live television broadcast there on the tiny plasma screen. You could warm a cup of sake on the miniature stove.
Turn the corner, and – voilà – there it is, our triptych honoring the Temujin cycle. How many of you have read the novel Ruler of the Sky? Yes, madam, I agree, the film adaptation was a disaster. They took out most of the tough-minded feminism and threw in a lot of pointless battle scenes. Okay, sure, the movie wasn't half as bad as that Omar Sharif vehicle called Genghis Khan, and it was a masterpiece compared with Howard Hughes's The Conqueror, but Sargent still deserved better.
On your left you'll see the funerary monument that Brendellini carved after reading "Spirit Brother." Two human figures, rendered in the finest Clastrelpian marble, supine atop the two-ton granite sarcophagus, Temujin on the right, his blood brother Jamukha on the left. Note the melding of their temples ... the intertwining of their fingers ... the tangent of their thighs. I imagine Jamukha would have loved this piece. I'm not so sure about Temujin.
On the right, meanwhile, we find Falconetti's acclaimed sculpture called Erdeni's Tiger, inspired by the haunting story of the same name. Art critics have praised Falconetti's decision to carve the tiger-demon in crysalinium – not an obvious choice for rendering the metaphysical, but in Falconetti's hands the medium proved as pliable as liquid mercury. For Erdeni, meanwhile, Falconetti chose pressure-treated fluxanium, ideal for subliminally conveying the shaman's inner conflict.
By now you've figured out that our central Temujin installation spins off from "Climb the Wind" – a dozen audio-animatronics horses suspended in midair, waiting for you to mount them. Go right ahead, ladies and gentlemen. Haul yourselves into the saddles. That's the idea, madam. And now the horses begin to gallop ... and now you feel the galactic wind in your face ... and now the stars come out. It's easy to understand why the protagonist hoped the ride would last forever – why he never again wanted to be just another tourist stranded in Ulan Bator.
Anybody hungry? Step into this alcove and you'll find our famous snack bar, Antoine's Aliments. The recipes all come from "Originals," that clever meditation on the need of every serious artist – culinary, literary, or otherwise – to be appreciated beyond his own backyard. I particularly recommend the cauliflower soup. The poulet persillade is also first rate.
Now that we've had lunch, let me suggest that we visit another planet. It's directly down the hall, our attempt to actualize the virtual-reality diorama from "Venus Flowers at Night." Put your face right against the glass. Plastic trees? No, madam, those plants are growing. Clockwork hawks? Believe it or not, sir, they're real, genetically engineered for flight and predation.
Sidle into the gallery to your left, and you'll recognize the lake from "Amphibians." So far we've raised thirty-four generations of turtles here. At first we tried to get away with sunlamps, but the reptiles refused to climb onto the logs and warm themselves, so we had to add the skylight. Maybe some of you would like to pause here for a few minutes and commune with the turtles, as Lillian's father does in Sargent's poignant, lyrical story.
Our tour ends with three deceptively simple exhibits, as befits the spare, poetic, elliptical tales they celebrate. The figures are all rendered in ephemerium, and so I must ask you to keep your hands in your pockets.
Over here we have a tableau depicting the first meeting of the boy and girl who will become the happy couple in "If Ever I Should Leave You." Hovering in the background: a veiled presence, holding an hourglass aloft. In case you haven't read the story I won't reveal who or what this third party represents.
On your left you'll see the unnamed narrator of "Gather Blue Roses," standing erect, forcing a smile, coping as best she can with her pathological empathy. Some critics have argued that the sculptor – Falconetti again – should have found a subtler way to represent the protagonist's congenital sensitivity to other people's pain: those half-dozen knives suspended within inches of her flesh, they're a bit much perhaps? I disagree. I believe the knives are a perfect choice. For the rose gatherer this must be exactly how life feels.
And finally, on your right, another image of isolation: Kaeti, the protagonist of "Utmost Bones," standing alone on the desiccated wasteland that planet Earth has become. The geodesic dome suspended above her head – that's the Net of Minds, of course, each node flashing with a different set of downloaded memories, whispers from a once embodied consciousness. "All oases were within" – forgive my histrionics, but the last line never fails to move me – "all oases were within, secret meeting places bright and green, where beings without bones swam in lakes of glass, surrounded by the night of faint hurrying galaxies."
So that's it, ladies and gentlemen. I hope you've enjoyed your visit. On your way out, you might want to stop by the gift shop, under the sign of the Golden Gryphon. You'll find every imaginable souvenir – Temujin coffee mugs, Venus key rings, Net of Minds T-shirts, Alvin and Meowser dollhouses, "Out of Place" talking-animal calendars. Yes, I know, such merchandise has little to do with science fiction and fantasy literature, but don't forget that our profits keep the books in print – Cloned Lives, The Sudden Star, The Golden Space, Earthseed, The Alien Upstairs, The Shore of Women, Ruler of the Sky, the "Watchstar" trilogy, the "Venus" trilogy, the Women of Wonder anthologies, the short story collections. Better to embarrass a valuable writer with vulgarity, I say, than to insult her with obscurity. We don't pretend to be paragons of good taste. No one calls us the Fixed Star of Subtle Marketing Strategies. We're merely the Planet of Irreproachable Priorities. It's a label we wear proudly. Please come again.
James MorrowCHAPTER 2
Gather Blue Roses
I cannot remember ever having asked my mother outright about the tattooed numbers. We must have known very early that we should not ask; perhaps my brother Simon or I had said something inadvertently as very small children and had seen the look of sorrow on her face at the statement; perhaps my father had told us never to ask.
Of course, we were always aware of the numbers. There were those times when the weather was particularly warm, and my mother would not button her blouse at the top, and she would lean over to hug us or pick us up, and we would see them written across her, an inch above her breasts.
(By the time I reached my adolescence, I had heard all the horror stories about the death camps and the ovens; about those who had to remove gold teeth from the bodies; the women used, despite the Reich's edicts, by the soldiers and guards. I then regarded my mother with ambivalence, saying to myself, I would have died first, I would have found some way rather than suffering such dishonor, wondering what had happened to her and what secret sins she had on her conscience, and what she had done to survive. An old man, a doctor, had said to me once, "The best ones of us died, the most honorable, the most sensitive." And I would thank God I had been born in 1949; there was no chance that I was the daughter of a Nazi rape.)
By the time I was four, we had moved to an old frame house in the country, and my father had taken a job teaching at a small junior college nearby, turning down offers from Columbia and Chicago, knowing how impossible that would be for mother. We had a lot of elms and oaks and a huge weeping willow that hovered sadly over the house. Our pond would be invaded in the early spring and late fall by a few geese that would usually keep their distance before flying on. ("You can tell those birds are Jewish," my father would say, "they go to Miami in the winter," and Simon and I would imagine them lying on a beach, coating their feathers with Coppertone and ordering lemonades from the waitresses; we hadn't heard of Collinses yet.)
Even out in the country, there were often those times when we would see our mother packing her clothes in a small suitcase, and she would tell us that she was going away for a while, just a week, just to get away, to find solitude. One time it was to an old camp in the Adirondacks that one of my aunts owned, another time to a cabin that a friend of my father's loaned her, always alone, always to an isolated place. Father would say that it was nerves, although we wondered, since we were so isolated as it was. Simon and I thought she didn't love us, that mother was somehow using this means to tell us that we were being rejected. I would try very hard to behave; when mother was resting, I would tiptoe and whisper. Simon reacted more violently. He could contain himself for a while; but then, in a desperate attempt at drawing attention to himself, would run through the house, screaming horribly, and hurl himself headfirst at one of the radiators. On one occasion, he threw himself through one of the large living room windows, smashing the glass. Fortunately, he was uninjured, except for cuts and bruises, but after that incident, my father put chicken wire over the windows on the inside of the house. Mother was very shaken by that incident, walking around for a couple of days, her body aching all over, then going away to my aunt's place for three weeks this time. Simon's head must have been strong; he never sustained any damage from the radiators worse than a few bumps and a headache, but the headaches would often keep mother in bed for days.
(I pick up my binoculars to check the forest again from my tower, seeing the small lakes like puddles below, using my glasses to focus on a couple in a small boat near one of the islands, and then turn away from them, not wanting to invade their privacy, envying the girl and boy who can so freely, without fear of consequences, exchange and share their feelings, and yet not share them, not at least in the way that would destroy a person such as myself. I do not think anyone will risk climbing my mountain today, as the sky is overcast, cirrocumulus clouds slowly chasing each other, a large storm cloud in the west. I hope no one will come; the family who picnicked beneath my observation tower yesterday bothered me; one child had a headache and another indigestion, and I lay in my cabin taking aspirins all afternoon and nursing the heaviness in my stomach. I hope no one will come today.)
Mother and father did not send us to school until we were as old as the law would allow. We went to the small public school in town. An old yellow bus would pick us up in front of the house. I was scared the first day and was glad Simon and I were twins so that we could go together. The town had built a new school; it was a small, square brick building, and there were fifteen of us in the first grade. The high school students went to classes in the same building. I was afraid of them but soon discovered that their classes were all on the second floor; so we rarely saw them during the day except when they had gym classes outside. Sitting at my desk inside, I would watch them, wincing every time someone got hit with a ball, or got bruised. (Only three months in school, thank God, before my father got permission to tutor me at home, three months were too much of the constant pains, the turmoil of emotions; I am sweating now and my hands shake, when I remember it all.)
The first day was boring to me for the most part; Simon and I had been reading and doing arithmetic at home for as long as I could remember. I played dumb and did as I was told; Simon was aggressive, showing off, knowing it all. The other kids giggled, pointing at me, pointing at Simon, whispering. I felt some of it, but not enough to bother me too much; I was not then as I am now, not that first day.
Recess: kids yelling, running, climbing the jungle gym, swinging and chinning themselves on bars, chasing a basketball. I was with two girls and a piece of chalk on the blacktop; they taught me hopscotch, and I did my best to ignore the bruises and bumps of the other students.
(I need the peace, the retreat from easily communicated pain. How strange, I think objectively, that our lives are such that discomfort, pain, sadness and hatred are so easily conveyed and so frequently felt. Love and contentment are only soft veils which do not protect me from bludgeons; and with the strongest loves, one can still sense the more violent undercurrents of fear, hate and jealousy.)
Excerpted from Thumbprints by Pamela Sargent, Marty Halpern. Copyright © 2004 Pamela Sargent. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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