13 February 2004

Unjustly Neglected: David R. Bunch

I'm not in this business primarily to describe or explain or entertain. I'm here to make the reader think, even if I have to bash his teeth out, break his legs, grind him up, beat him down, and totally chastise him for the terrible and tinsel and almost wholly bad world we allow.... The first level reader, who wants to see events jerk their tawdry ways throguh some used and USED old plot -- I love him with a hate bigger than all the world's pity, but he's not for me. The reader I want is the one who wants the anguish, who will go up there and get on that big black cross. And that reader will have, with me, the saving grace of knowing that some awful payment is due...as all space must look askance at us, all galaxies send star frowns down, a cosmic leer envelop this small ball that has such great Great GREAT pretenders.

--David R. Bunch
It is not a surprise that David Bunch's hundreds of short (very short) stories have been nearly forgotten, his few books gone out of print nearly as soon as they sneaked their way onto unsuspecting shelves. It is not a surprise, but it is a shame. A travesty. An indication of all that is wrong in the best of all possible worlds.

That Bunch's large body of small works have become little more than a footnote in reference books is not a surprise because Bunch was never an easy read. His prose has been called "convoluted", he was said to be a writer who alienated readers. "Convoluted" may be an accurate term for the feeling one gets from reading Bunch's sentences, but it is not an accurate term overall because it connotes bad writing, and Bunch was not a bad writer -- exactly the opposite. "Dense" is a better way to describe those sentences, those little stories of immense weight. "A miracle of language" might be the best description, though.

Out from the black-curtain area those compilers from another unit would swagger and stand looking at us like we were cold spit on the floor, and then they would gaze all around our area as if seeing everything clearly in a kind of blanket stare and evaluating everything correctly in a kind of God's judgement just before ambling on up to get their doughnuts, and their coffee or tea, with the sure walk of Captains to the snack bar.

("In the Empire")
I've been reading a bunch of Bunch over the past few days. I knew I wanted to write about him, as I have wanted to write about him for years, to shout his name out to the world, to say, "Look what you have ignored!" But I hadn't read much Bunch in years, and I needed to refamiliarize myself with the specifics of the tales, to try and figure out how he did what he did, because from the first story I read (in Dangerous Visions) I could describe the effect of Bunch on the brain -- he sizzles the senses, he snaps the synapses, he makes you go back to page one and start all over again -- I've never been able to figure out, precisely and incontrovertibly, HOW he achieved his effects.

(Another Bunch effect: He's contagious. Look at that ALL-CAPS up there. Oh, DRB, what have you done to me!)

It's been said that when Bunch was publishing one story after another in Amazing, Fantastic, If, Galaxy, and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction during the 1960s and '70s that readers were outraged -- they felt the stories were deliberately opaque, that he was mocking them and their desire for linear narratives with clear plots and sympathetic characters.

He was.

But he was doing it out of necessity, and somehow he convinced editors to let him get away with it. (Perhaps because he didn't take up too much space. It's a rare Bunch story that lasts for more than a few pages.)

What readers who decided to hate Bunch, to deliberately Not Get It, missed out on what were, among other things, some of the best first sentences and paragraphs ever published in genre magazines:
At first I was always scared that the policemen would come. And there I'd be up in my poor little room kicking this head. So the extreme pleasure I would be getting would be tinged with fear -- not guilt, not at all -- but fear that sooner or later those big blue men would come on their leather-cloppy feet -- heel plates thundering, thick knuckles pounding, and say, "Who's that up there making all that noise? Like kicking a head. Who's it? OPEN UP!!" And there I'd be.
("Any Heads at Home")

It was early along in my Stronghold reign, after I had won me a couple of world Max Shoot-Outs and had established myself as the current Greatest Man, that I began to think again of other things; I began to think of ... aspects ... Purpose ... Beauty ... Community Interest...
("The Bird Man of Moderan")

There wasn't much we could do about it. Mostly we just did our job, which was to dump the cans and scoop up the sacks and the broken lamps and the pieces of chairs and the old picture walls and the kids and put it all in the back. Where the teeth were.
("In the Time of Disposal of Infants")
The wonder of Bunch is that all of those first sentences and paragraphs are followed by equally skilled, surprising, magical sentences and paragraphs. Each story works its way toward endings which are unpredictable, disturbing, darkly funny, and utterly apt.

Reading lots of Bunch is an exhausting experience, but also fulfilling, for the vast majority of his stories are -- given close attention -- immensely rewarding. You would think that reading such SHORT stories would be easy, quick, light. Not in the least. There are some Bunch stories which I have spent an hour reading, working slowly through the sentences, going back and forth and back and forth, imagining and savoring, constructing and reconstructing the sense and imagery in my mind.

In Trillion Year Spree, Brian Aldiss says of reading Bunch's collection of linked stories and not-quite-stories Moderan: "The effect is as if Whitman and Nietzsche had collaborated to rewrite a typical Heinlein-Anderson-Niven-Pournelle future history story. As such it is a unique book in the science fiction field." He goes on to say: "Moderan appeared only once, in paperback in the USA in 1971. Like so many good books in SF's history, it vanished in the flood of hype which launches many lesser fictional craft."

Judith Merrill put a number of Bunch's early stories in her Best SF anthologies, Harlan Ellison invited Bunch into Dangerous Visions, and, more recently, the controversial LeGuin/Attebery The Norton Book of Science Fiction including one of Bunch's tales of Moderan, "2064, or Thereabouts". A collection, BUNCH!, appeared from Broken Mirrors Press in 1993, and in 2000 Anamnesis Press published a collection of his poetry.

But so much of Bunch has been left uncollected, and all but a handful of stories are extremely difficult to find. Judith Merrill said Bunch had published 200 non-SF stories before selling his first SF story to If, and throughout his career he published nearly as much in small mainstream journals as he did in the SF magazines. (Some of these stories are collected in Bunch, and they don't feel too different from the SF stories, though they tend to have fewer machines.) At best, it seems, only 1/3 of Bunch's stories have ever been collected.

I have a copy of one uncollected story, "Doll for the End of the Day", from the October 1971 issue of Fantastic. It's essentially a horror story, and one of the most horrifying I've ever read, a tale of how one man takes out his frustrations, and the art that can be made from blood. If the rest of Bunch's uncollected work is of a similar quality, then the fact that it has remained uncollected means we have been deprived of knowing some of the best writing of the 20th century, in or out of the SF field. Scattered throughout hard-to-find old SF magazines and even-harder-to-find old literary journals is a wealth of wonder, and it's nearly impossible to know what we have lost through their obscurity.

David Bunch died a few years ago, forgotten except by some dedicated fans. His work should have changed the landscape of the SF genre. It still should.
Flying saucer stories were a little too mundane for these old rumor tigers, each of whom was a minor wise-person in many areas, not including of course the area on how to live on Earth with the world as presented to them by history and beyond their blame and, in large measure, beyond their power to alter and make amends for. In other words, these derelicts couldn't adjust, roll with the punch, make the best of it and all that. They were hung up on things like how to earn the daily and how to pay consistently for a roof that didn't leak too much to be under at night in moderate to heavy wet stormy weather. They were losers. Protestors. Disturbers. Snarlers and howlers until the end. YES!

("That High-Up Blue Day That Saw the Black Sky-train Come Spinning")

6 comments:

  1. i read Moderan sometime in the 70's, then again a few years ago. (it was even better than i remembered it.) there is no forgotten poet 1/10th his quality who hasn't been revived, at least for a moment, but science fiction has the unique capability to laud itself for its history at the same time it buries its genuine artists.

    m.

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  2. I discovered David R. Bunch late (much as I've stumbled upon this 3 year old post) and was blown away by his poetic prose style in Dangerous Visions. He was a wonderful but woefully underappreciated writer.

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  3. Bron Helstrom1/05/2009 11:01 PM

    Amazing. The name "Moderan" popped into my head more than thirty years after I read the collection. I never realized the impact David Brunch had on my writing style until reading it again. Truly, one of the masters of SF prose.

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  4. Oh, absolutely. I remember asking for Moderan once, and having the young lady behind the counter sneer, "misogynist". But, it truly is even now one of my favorite all time story lines, an American Lem.

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  5. I remember the bitching and moaning each month in Fantastic, and the staunch defense by the Bunch fans.
    "The Walking, Talking, I-Don't-Care Man" was my first Bunch story. I was hooked.

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  6. Recently 7 of us (Scott Cupp, Richard Lupoff, Micheal Kurland, Micheal Mallory, Pual Difillipo, Jim Kelly and me)co-wrote a story.

    It is brilliant ! (Mainly due to the other six guys)

    and sadly as Paul said "It reads like a collaboration between R. A. Lafferty and David Bunch."

    Why do I fall in love with writers nobody know?

    Maybe we can talk Wildside into doing a collection -- anybody have a bunch of unpublished Bunch?

    Anybody know the heirs?



    Bestest,

    Don Webb
    dwebb9@austin.rr.com

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