Wednesday, May 27, 2009

On the Road with Ellison, Volume One

Harlan Ellison is a writer.

He got his start writing science-fiction stories, and his stories have always had an element of fabulism (what is sometimes called "magical realism," but what the hell does that mean?). He made a name for himself writing teleplays for the Outer Limits and Star Trek, but rankled at being labeled a genre writer. His stories, hundreds of them written over the decades, are fiery and raw, obsessed with the darkest places of the human heart. He is also known for his non-fiction, including some excellent criticism of television programming as collected in a volume entitled The Glass Teat, and a free-wheeling column he used to write for the L.A. Weekly that was collected in a fat paperback edition entitled An Edge In My Voice.

Harlan Ellison is also a famous personality. In life as in his writing, he is described variously as pugilistic, letigious, venomous, vengeful, or just an asshole. He is sometimes described as unhinged, but this really isn't fair. However widely he swings, the hinges are always there: his views on politics and culture are clear, well-defined, and he defends them with sincerity and passion. He is an unsparing debater, not above making the argument personal. He is not a saint, and isn't interested in that. He tries to speak the truth, dreams unapologetically of a better society, is completely unafraid to be an iconoclast. He has lived a long life and done many interesting things, which are documented elsewhere. In fact, a brand-new documentary dedicated to him has just opened. I want to move on.

Harlan's flair for words and his electric personality made him a popular lecturer. He would go to schools like M.I.T. and laugh with the students, saying, "I could never get into this school, and here you are listening to me." In 1983, a very limited-release LP record came out with some recordings of him before college audiences, and it is now on CD.

Harlan is good in front of an audience. Mike in hand, moving among the crowd, able to decapitate the occasional heckler without even slowing down. Think Lenny Bruce without the dope: sharper, angrier, pledged to shake young scholars out of their complacency before it is too late.

The two gems of this collection (there are two more volumes after this) are a long anecdote about the famous gopher incident, and a recording of him reading one of his L.A. Weekly columns. The former is an account of a legal fight he had with a publisher, and how he resorted to a campaign of pranks and harassment, up to and including, yes boys and girls, mailing a dead gopher to a publishing executive. The latter is one of his own favorite pieces, a eulogy for Norman Mayer, an elderly political activist who was shot to death by police.

These two pieces say it all about Harlan. One shows Harlan's dark (yet hilarious) side, the outlaw, the guy who would never actually kill you but is perfectly willing to scare you. (As he says, "I am a snake on a rock. Don't fuck with me, I won't bite you. Fuck with me, you're gonna walk around with me hanging from your neck for the rest of your natural life." The other shows his deep humanism, his affection for the lonely dreamer who goes to extremes in pursuit of the good.

Yeah, that's Harlan.

1 comment:

Hal Johnson said...

Great piece about a writer I've long found fascinating. Thanks.