08 December 2016

The Return of David R. Bunch

In the earliest days of this blog, I declared David R. Bunch to be "unjustly neglected". This was true back then, but not nearly as true as it is today, when all his books are out of print and usually sell for high prices on the secondary market (if you can find them).

After I wrote that post in 2004, Jeff VanderMeer and I started talking about ways to get Bunch back into print. I sought out every stray Bunch story I could find. I tracked down the rightsholder. I typed up a section of Bunch's novel-in-linked-stories Moderan before tendonitis forced me to stop typing much of anything for a few months, and made the thought of returning to typing up Moderan painful. Various obstacles presented themselves. (I started a master's degree. I became series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies. I moved to New Jersey. My father died. I moved back to New Hampshire. Etc.) In amidst it all, I couldn't follow up on the idea of reprinting Bunch, though it was never forgotten by me and a few other folks, at least.

Jeff and Ann VanderMeer moved from one success to another, in terms of Jeff's writing, Ann's editing, and their joint anthology projects. As they began putting together The Big Book of Science Fiction, they thought of Bunch, ultimately reprinting three of his Moderan stories, the first time any Bunch had been reprinted in almost 20 years. 

And then they wondered if maybe they could find a way to do what we'd dreamed of doing more than a decade ago: Bringing Bunch back into print.

Their tremendous efforts have now paid off. New York Review of Books Classics will publish a new edition of Bunch's Moderan, possibly with some previously uncollected and/or unpublished Moderan stories (Bunch kept writing about Moderan after the book was published, and always dreamed of a complete Moderan volume. It's too early to say whether this edition will be able to be that).

Jeff and Ann are generous in crediting me with some of this, but the truth is that they picked up a ball I'd dropped and ran with it farther than I ever dreamed possible. My greatest hopes a decade ago were to bring some of Bunch's work back into print either via print-on-demand technology or through a small press that would do a limited edition for collectors. He's such an odd, esoteric writer that I didn't think more would be possible. And more might not have been possible then — the literary world has changed a lot in the last ten years, and it seems to me far more hospitable now to the sorts of things Bunch did than it was then. In many ways, our current era has finally caught up to David Bunch.

It's important, I think, to note that Bunch's work was very close to being forgotten. He never had a large audience, despite publishing many short stories over a period of nearly 50 years, and getting enthusiastic support from such influential writers and editors as Harlan Ellison and Judith Merril. (Indeed, he not only didn't have a big audience, but many readers actively loathed him. The few editors willing to publish his work inevitably got letters from outraged readers who complained that Bunch's stories and vignettes didn't have plots, weren't written in good English, and were much too weird.) The original edition of Moderan was a paperback published without fanfare in 1971. His later books came from tiny presses. He died in 2000, almost completely out of print. Until The Big Book of SF, the most recent reprinting of a Bunch story that I know of is "2064, or Thereabouts" in Bruce Coville's Strange Worlds (the story had previously been included in 1993's The Norton Book of Science Fiction, probably the most recent Bunch anthologization before that).

But now at least some of that work will be saved, and Bunch's words will be read again by a world in many ways more prepared to understand them than at any other time, as writers like George SaundersMatthew Derby, and Ben Marcus, among others, have helped readers learn how to read such writing.

I always struggle with how to describe Bunch's work. I like Jeff's comparison: Philip K. Dick meets E.E. Cummings. John Clute in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction is good, too: "Bunch's style at its best resembles R A Lafferty's at his best, though it is far more exclamatory, and rhetorically pixilated, than Lafferty's work. At its most intense, Bunch resembles a diced, gonzo Walt Whitman, sampling (in a frenzy) the body electric." 

Comparisons only go so far. Bunch is utterly unique.

Perhaps the best way to let you know the great treat you are in for when the NYRB edition of Moderan is published is to give you some little bits of Bunch. Here, then, a few passages from various pages of Moderan:

Quaint they were, these records, strange and ancient, washed to shore when the Moderan seas finally unthawed.  Played in the old-fashioned machine way we, the beam people, the Essenceland Dream people, easily divined, they told of a very different world, a transition world, if you will, between what we are now and the death and defeat these people hoped to overcome.  New-metal man!  It does have a ring.  MODERAN!  It did seem pretty great in concept, I'm sure, and, who knows, perhaps it had a reasonable chance of success.  But all societies, all civilizations, all aspirations it seems must fail the unremitting tugs of shroudy time, finally, leaving only little bones, fossils, a shoe turned to stone maybe, a bone button in the sea perhaps, a jeweled memento of an old old love.

Flesh seemed doomed that year; death's harpies were riding down.  The once-beautiful, sweet and life-sustaining air was tinged with poison now, and man drank at his peril from the streams that had once been pure.  He prayed to a God that was said to be in all things good, true and beautiful, but especially was thought to be all sternness and goodness, justice and loving-care, in some milk-white place far away, "On High."  And those prayers if answered were answered very obliquely indeed.  For the air got deeper in poison from the tinkering with lethal things the flesh-man indulged in when not praying, and the water got fuller with danger as each new explosion pounded the bomb-fevered air.  There was talk of the End; great discussions were handled in great halls across the land.  Treaties were signed among statesmen to help the air get better, to allow the streams to recover and run pure once again.  But even as the flesh-hands grasped the pens to scrawl the marks of good faith in some countries, fear lashed at capitals in other countries.  Arsenals were tested anew.  Things done were undone.  The air got sicker; the streams ran not pure but pure danger-- There seemed no chance for flesh-man, and his God seemed entirely silent wherever He was, wherever His white throne was.  The HOPELESS signs were out everywhere.  Little children asked that they be allowed to go quickly and not grow up hurting and maimed.  Adults in what should have been the full flower of brave manhood and fair womanhood quaked, looked heavenward for some hopeful sign and, finding none, fell down and cried bitterly.  The aged ones, quavering and whining now, finally decided that yes, truly they were most glad that they were so very old.  The flesh billions courted at the Palace of Danger so ardently had turned against them and the mass wedding of Death and Destruction seemed now all but assured.

     "Maybe you could camp here until the time comes up to talk, and then I could hear your tale," I said, because I had my humor about me as well as one of my feet in safety, in the door of the peep-box of steel.
     "Just say I found the Answers," he said.  "Just say you've seen the walking-talking Don't-Care man, one being who has escaped The Grip.  It wasn't easy, it took a long time, and planning, but I think I've achieved it finally, the ultimate resolution of that built-in agony, the Life-Death Predicament of Man." 
     That was a big statement he'd just loaded out there at the last.

So do you wonder that I sit in my hip-snuggie throne in the Innermost Room of Authority, sometimes for days on end, calm as a cold bowl of oil, my heart on REST, my brain on MAX and think on Universal Deep Problems?  I have so many problems!  We have so many problems, inlooping problems, intertwining problems, interwoven problems.  And, really, how to do these circles is not even a beginning of THE PROBLEM.