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John Kessel

The Book That Took Me Past Rage to Laughter

So, that’s what I mean by saying that the world is upside-down. The world is not well-arranged. It is not well-arranged, and therefore there is no way that we can be happy with it—no way, even as writers.

–Chinua Achebe, 1988

I was raised Catholic, and I took it seriously. Though eventually I lapsed from the church, certain habits of mind I developed when I was quite young are still with me. One of them is looking at the world through the lens of right and wrong. I am a moralist.

The problem with viewing the world this way is that the world will make you crazy, or profoundly depressed, or murderously angry, sometimes all three at once. None of these emotions are useful. They won’t help you make the world any better; they are as likely to poison your actions as motivate them.

Every day gives new evidence of humanity’s inability to handle the products of its ingenuity. The globe itself is being poisoned by the byproducts of civilization. Lethal politics, religious intolerance, ethnic strife, greed, ideology, shortsightedness, vanity, imbecility, a lack of regard for and active hostility toward others—the news every day offers examples of all of these things, at the macroscopic and microscopic levels, done by nation states, whole populaces, by the guy next door or the person at the next spot at the bar. Every day I participate in them myself.

So how does a writer deal with this?

[Laughter helps.]

Five Offbeat Quasi-Fantastic Novels of the 1930s

The 1930s was a fascinating decade in U.S. and European history. The Great Depression and the rise of fascism dominate historical retrospectives of the period, but many other interesting things went on, including modernist art movements and the evolution of jazz and the entry of women into the workforce. The decade also saw the rise of the science fiction pulp magazines, with the origin of Astounding Tales of Super-Science to go along with Amazing Stories and a host of other fiction pulps and comic books.

Most of the “serious” literature of the decade was realism—this was the heyday of Hemingway and Steinbeck, Faulkner and Thomas Wolfe. Over the years I have noted a clutch of 1930s books by young writers who were never associated with the pulps yet that do not fit easily into the dominant paradigm. All of them have, if not a direct fantastic premise, some tangential connection with the strange. Though some, like Cold Comfort Farm, have devoted followings today, most of these writers never really got much attention from genre readers. If 1930s fiction in the U.S. and Britain were a large club, pulp writers were for the most part not let in the door—but I can imagine these writers having a separate room in the back. I suspect the conversation between them might be more interesting than that going on in the big room between Hemingway and Steinbeck.

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