Sunday, 1 March 2015
Odd Corners by William Hjortsberg
Something about William Hjortsberg chimes with me on a level I'm not really sure how to define. We share a few interesting commonalities - a deep and abiding appreciation of Richard Brautigan, a distaste for the generously applied literary tags of publishers and critics, a difficult surname to spell - but it is his writing that murmurs warm and comfortingly in my mind and makes it a delight to spend an afternoon deeply immersed therein. I regret offering up Nevermore and Fallen Angel to the indifferent charity shop shoppers without defending their literary honour, and so in my new found library-lite state of being I am definitely keeping this little collection, and will jealously guard it against the constraints of future living arrangements.
For those who do like pigeon-holes with their reading, one might throw this one into science-fiction. For indeed, just as Hjortsberg proffers in his own introduction, the stories utilise aspects of future technology to deliver their morals and prop up narrative arcs. And yes, the sharp-eyed vultures amongst you, waiting for me to witter on about my general lack of love for short stories, might also have deduced that this is a collection of such. And yet, Hjortsberg also points out that it wasn't until he began ignoring what others thought he should and shouldn't write that he began to write in his own voice, developing an authentic Hjortsbergian voice, one which, when reflecting on his work, I realise demurs delightfully to the characters and action of the story, rarely if ever intruding.
Let us quickly round up the action for those who enjoy plot synopses and such. There are only four stories in the collection, two short, one very short, and one longer piece itself split into five stages. The first, Symbiography portrays a society addicted to entertainment via vicarious experience, mainly through purchased dreamscapes but also the burgeoning market for first-person sensory immersion. A capitalist dystopia, citizens exist in walled cities whilst those competing for life outside regress to the state of nomadic tribes, primitive and fractious. Homecoming is the short story of the seeders of life in the universe, ambiguous beings of light who travel the universe knowing all that is to be known and balancing galactic karma. The Clone Who Ran For Congress is an hubristic tale of human cloning, initially to satisfy sporting audiences hungry for further athletic achievement, but leading towards a future where hive minded human replicas can manipulate mankind to fulfil their own hidden agendas. And in Grey Matter, all humanity resides in a pre-Matrix disembodied dream world, literal brains in jars, where the goal is elevation to the top level of existence through diligent meditation and ultimately enlightenment, only the three brains we follow have other ideas, proving mankind still has the potential for hate, rage, solipsistic hedonism, regardless of how much of the physical form is removed by the logic of Occam's Razor.
There is a general trend towards dystopia, a vision of the future as a battleground between humanity and technology whether humanity realises it or not, and a frustrated sense of the wasted potential of our species. But, remarkably for a man who has "committed science fiction", the technology is just another device to explore the drama of the human, its battles and struggles, the void left by diminishing usefulness and lack of purpose, and the temptations of hubris. I genuinely wish he'd commit more of the same, and far more regularly. If you don't have time to wade through the weighty Jubilee Hitchhiker to get a sense of Hjortsberg's breadth of talent go for this instead, and don't let his crimes against literature put you off.