On Theodore Sturgeon

February 20, 2009

As a boy, I hated to read. Perhaps it was because at the age of four, I was presented with around sixty volumes of encyclopaedias to occupy my time at home while my mother delivered babies at the District Hospital in Sur. It wasn’t neglect, exactly, what she did, but it resulted in a loneliness that I could only surmount by reading, which, like I said, I hated.

I still remember the hospital, an entirely flat structure, purposely compressed, with miniature date palms growing out of gravel in the courtyard. Sur District Hospital was the largest of its kind in the Sharqiyah region of Oman where I was born. My mother’s office was in the East Wing, from where she oversaw the entire Gynecological staff along with our neighbor, Dr. Mohammed. I remember still the office they shared. It was small, filled to capacity with case files, its wallpaper cracked and peeling. Under its hideous shade of yellow—or was it green?—was an ugly grey the color of a boiled tire.

I read all the volumes of the World Book encyclopaedia including the accompanying Childcraft and Young Scientist books by the time I was nine because I didn’t want to spend much time with my mother. I blamed her for retiring to that office, away from me, leaving me only encyclopedias. I didn’t know what all the words within them meant but I read them all anyway. Some I understood, others I did not. I could hold forth on the French Revolution before any of my peers and I am certain I was the only one in Oman that understood Marx, or had read him. I often joke that I was nursed by encyclopedias and fumbled child-like at their barren teats.

When I was thirteen and buck-toothed, my dad took me to the House of Prose, Oman’s only bookstore, before my scheduled dental surgery. He said I’d be bored at the dentist’s and would need a book to pass the time spent waiting in line for braces. On a whim, I picked from my first stack of books a dark blue-and-gold volume, Star Trek: Joy Machine by James Gunn, with a foreword by David Gold about a man named Theodore Sturgeon. I didn’t have to wait too long at the dentist’s. The book went unread. It sat in my dad’s car for a couple days.

I began having trouble sleeping soon after, when friends at school began calling me Metalmouth. I’d just won the school’s annual trivia, athletic and academic prize so really, they were seizing on any excuse they could. The girl who came in second said I was ugly. Three days later, I smashed a kid’s teeth in playing soccer. I read the Joy Machine while waiting for the principal. I told him it was all an accident. As I was his best student, he agreed not to call my mom, who by then had begun spending more and more time at home because the Government had finally sent her additional staff. A suspension would have killed the fragile routine we’d settled into.

That first angry week, I dreamed solely of Timshel, the alien world Captain James Kirk had entered. I sat within its zombifying pleasure couches, and as Kirk, confronted a puppetmaster machine that defended itself using its programmed belief that pleasure was the purest good. I read about Timshel blissfully unaware of Steinbeck. I broke my own promise. I read for pleasure. I remember reading the Joy Machine six times before I got to the foreword, which informed me the premise was based on a screenplay by Theodore Sturgeon, who had died before the book’s publication. He was a big deal, James Gunn kept repeating over and over. I tried talking to my mom about the book. She listened but didn’t understand. A blank look passed over her face as I tried to dramatize the action sequences for over an hour, through which she sat patiently, occasionally smiling when I said or did something particularly funny. For some reason, her incomprehension only served to anger me.

Late that night, I was lying in bed when the full force of Theodore Sturgeon’s mind came to bear on me; naive as I was, I blamed my first orgasm on the Joy Machine.

That night was laundry night. At some point in the evening, I’d managed to spill Mountain Dew all over my clean sheets, and it was too late to do another load. The mattress, I remember, was stripped bare and bristled with some orthopaedic something or other. Not wanting to sleep with my mother and sister, I insisted that I would be fine sleeping on the bare mattress. “As you wish,” my mother said when she turned out the lights. I remember the full moon that washed light onto my prone form, glinting viciously off my open metallic mouth. I thought of the book I’d finished reading, how angry I was, how lonely, caring about a book I could not explain, and found myself with an unwieldy erection.

I writhed against the mattress to make it go away, rubbing myself against the material, which if anything, only intensified my discomfort. Part of me wondered why I wanted to make my erection go away that badly. I’d read about it. I even knew it was natural. The other part was delighted by my body’s insistence on painful repetition. In any case, I couldn’t stop. I didn’t stop. I don’t know how long I continued moving this way and that but eventually, I came and broke down into tears. I wasn’t sure if I’d peed my pants or if my penis was chafed and bleeding, if the liquid I felt on my cotton pajamas was blood. I blamed my unhappiness on the following things: my metallic mouth, my penis/hormones and The Joy Machine. As I could do nothing about the first two, I promised myself I wouldn’t read for pleasure ever again.

I’m lousy at promises. At eighteen, I promised my mom I wouldn’t light a cigarette for as long as I live. I am twenty-three now. For five years, I’ve obeyed and disobeyed that promise. I allow other people to light the cigarettes I bum off them.

I did not have an opportunity to read anything further by Sturgeon until I was in my first year of undergrad. I’d long since left the Middle East, lost my braces, made up with my parents, but this isn’t about that. My mom and I discovered that outside of literature, we had a great deal in common, and eventually, some of the resentment I felt towards her faded. Even so, every time she dismissed a book, I could not help but feel an involuntary twinge of anger.

I borrowed a volume of short stories called Baby is Three from the UBC Library. In it, I came across the story that made me want to be a writer, which also happened to be the first story to make me cry. Its title was Slow Sculpture.

Theodore Sturgeon affected my body then too. Faced with the brilliance of his mind and the beautiful hope contained within, my body seemed fated to turn to liquid each time. The power of a few words, a snatch of dialogue, how simple my body must be if it responds to those cues like a lock turned by a key. When I read the ending to the story (which won a Hugo and Nebula Award, so you know it’s not just me), I believed, I honestly did, that Sturgeon was speaking directly to me through the young woman who is cured of breast cancer, that everything she said to the twisted, sad inventor refusing to take his cure further, she was saying to me also. I cried for hours.

The story is basically this: a woman comes across a man with a gold-leaf electroscope. The woman is dying. She has a lump in her breast. The man is not a doctor. He tells her he can cure her and takes her to his orchard where a large bonsai tree stands. He hooks her up to a machine, turns her into a generator that balances the charged wild cancer cells within her body. She is cured. He is angry at her for being grateful. He used to be an inventor. His inventions made him a lot of money as companies, afraid of how revolutionary they were, buried all knowledge of them, paid him off. He expects she will ask him to give his cure to a humanity incapable of gratitude. Until this point, he has not asked her name nor offered his. He tells her to leave. She spends a night thinking under the bonsai tree.

What Sturgeon was able to do in that story was profound. His story worked not only as a message to me, the reader, and also as a message to the unnamed inventor, who he made me believe resembled me, the reader, to such a degree he was inseparable from me, the person. I could not tell where the story ended and I began. I cried because the thought of two twisted lonely trees making bonsai of each other was just too much to bear. I bit into my lip and tasted the familiar metallic loneliness that I’d always believed also ran in my blood, because who I am is pieced entirely out of encyclopedia articles. How can I explain myself? How could I ever receive gratitude?

I can quote the ending of Slow Sculpture sight unseen. It begins with the inventor provoking the woman as she turns to leave, daring her to ask the next question, and then asking it for her. It is a technique I am sometimes guilty of.

“You said I was angry– and afraid. You want to know what I’m afraid of.”
“Yes.”
“You. I am scared to death of you.”
“Are you really?”
“You have a way of provoking honesty,” he said with some difficulty. “I’ll say what I know you’re thinking: I’m afraid of any close human relationship. I’m afraid of something I can’t take apart with a screwdriver or a mass spectroscope or a table of cosines and tangents. I don’t know how to handle it.”
His voice was jocular but his hands were shaking.
“You do it by watering one side,” she said softly, “or by turning it just so in the sun. You handle it as if it were a living thing, like a species or a woman or a bonsai. It will be what you want it to be if you let it be itself and take the time and the care.”

I am a writer now, working on my MFA from Rutgers-Newark. A strange path for a boy that hated to read, certainly, but a natural one. Every single time I sit down to try and write, I think of Slow Sculpture, Sturgeon’s gift to me. I think of species, and women, and bonsai, the many things that have affected and shaped me, and for a moment feel hopeful of reaching out in a similar way. In the story, the woman, whose name is never revealed, takes pity on him because it seems strange to her that he has come to believe there can be no gratitude, no compassion in the world. Her voice is the most real thing in the universe to me, a star I will forever chase. Someday, I hope to put my finger on her, to say thank you. I have belief. Absolute belief.

I told my mom about this story once, drunk off my ass. Her voice crackled over the dorm room phone. I summarized the story but perhaps because of all the tequila I’d been drinking, I could not tell her why I was calling at 2 am to inform her of this. “It’s a little bit hokey, don’t you think?” she said. “Are you well?”
Sturgeon says the following about Gene Roddenberry, who he believed had some fine Mom and apple pie values that he really believed in, which each episode of Star Trek reflects, for good or ill. “Some of the episodes were a little bit on the hokey side,” Sturgeon admitted, “George Jessel used to wrap an American flag around himself and dance across the stage in order to get applause. If people didn’t applaud him, they were going to applaud the flag. Once in a while, Gene was guility of that and I won’t deny it. Nobody ever said that he was an equitable, even-handed liberal human being. He isn’t. By no means, he isn’t. He’s an autocrat. Nevertheless, his convictions are real. And that’s the one secret that Hollywood has still not understood – the matter of conviction, of believing in something.”

I am not without self-awareness. This essay is me wrapping myself in an innocent story about masturbation in the hope that you will at least applaud the boy I was. It is a foolish, mad impulse, certainly. Perhaps I am schizophrenic for allowing it to infect me to this degree. I wouldn’t put it past myself to be that weak. Like the inventor, my loneliness has made me afraid of things I cannot take apart, of opening myself up to other human beings. Like him, my greatest fear that in the end, a bonsai is just a very small tree.

This is how the story really ends. This part isn’t particularly literary. When I am asked to quote the ending, I usually leave this part out. It’s melodramatic. It’s hokey. Many times when I am drunk, I begin making wild claims about my love for Slow Sculpture. I tell people that I can quote the entire story. I always leave out the ending. But without it, the story’s heart is simply not there. Ending where I do, I leave the listener slightly impressed, but more often than not, concerned about my sanity. But since I’m being honest, I’ll include the ending.

“I think,” he said, “that you are making me some kind of offer. Why?”
“Sitting there most of the night,” she said, “I had a crazy kind of image. Do you think two sick twisted ‘trees ever made bonsai out of one another?”
“What’s your name?” he asked her.

I am not the perfect conduit for the stories I want to tell. Most of the time, I don’t even know why I want to tell the stories I do.

For years, I persisted in dating junkies and freaks, the maladjusted. I remember particularly the one time one of my ex-girlfriends wanted me to do coke with her in a park that contained a few saplings, barely taller than bonsai trees. I was nineteen then, same as her. I was broke, having spent the last of my money on coke from a dealer on Broadway and Arbutus. This was around the time we’d been together for a couple months and I believed we were drifting slowly but steadily towards love. I had told her all about myself, my improbable love for Theodore Sturgeon and why masturbation for me is tinged with pain and prickliness. It was a still night in the park. We were trying to imagine ourselves as significant beings. Nothing moved in the trees that towered over us. Lonely dogs walked in front of their lonely owners. But I had her. I wasn’t lonely. She loved the strange parts of me, she said, the parts that were stitched together out of encyclopedia articles and science fiction stories. “How on earth did you end up here, with me?” she often asked, an edge of surprise to her voice. Below us, at the bottom of the incline, Vancouver stretched like a picture on which I was fortunate to walk.

“Got some money?” she asked me suddenly, even though she knew the answer. “A dollar bill will do. I’ve never snorted out of a hundred, have you?”

“No,” I replied and she kissed my poverty. Afterwards, she took out a book from my bag, while I got up to hang upside down from the jungle gym.

“What are you doing?” I asked, surprised by the book in her hand. It was an anthology which had one of Sturgeon’s stories in it. She was not the kind to read. I was surprised by the mere sight of her staring at something within those pages.

“I’ve only got Visa,” she said, “I mean, I have money but no bills, you know?”

I nodded even though I didn’t understand. I felt a tremor pass through my heart.

She tore a page out of my anthology, spreading fine white powder on to the seesaw’s metallic surface.

I watched her with disbelief. It was the last time I was that close to violence. In that moment, I could have sworn I heard my heart being torn, the paper part of it. I suppose I’m still the boy I always was. Books are my soul, whether I like it or not. I gave up coke, though I suppose I might as well I simply gave up buying it. That said, I haven’t had any in years. That night, I gave up any desire I had to grow closer to her. I shoved her off the seesaw and later, when I picked her up off the ground, I realized I was crying and she was angry.
To be understood, babies, you’ve got to be understood, that is how I imagine Theodore Sturgeon responding to Kurt Vonnegut, another writer who spoke to me many years later. I wondered why I couldn’t explain to her why I did what I did. Certainly, I tried. I hemmed and hawed and apologized. She didn’t believe me. She didn’t believe, in the end, that my heart was made of paper, or bonsai, or encyclopedias, any of those things.

“Fear, love, loss, laughter and loneliness – above all, loneliness,” Sturgeon said in an interview once, “You write a story about loneliness, and you grab them all because everybody’s an expert on that one. Sometimes it’s called alienation, but it’s something more than that. It’s loneliness, not being separate from the whole world. It’s a seeking, a searching for somebody who’ll understand you.”

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