Unlike most holics, (if, as Alan would say, I may be permitted a neologism) (p13), biblioholics (p164) serve a distinct social function. Unlike the alcoholic, whose yarns tend to be maudlin and repetitive, or the workaholic, who rarely has time to talk anyway, biblioholics entertain and enlighten, especially when they are prepared to parade their vice with as much abandon and relish as the Bearded Triffid. Not for him the closet, though that may at times provide a sanctuary for the happy indulgence of a page or three (p95). No, unashamed and unrepentant, the Triffid declares his addiction, and we all profit, as the pages of this second volume of Trimmings amply demonstrate.
Alan de Triffid (p198) is monstrously well read. While his focus is mainly on Science Fiction, he ranges widely embracing (if that is the word) Horror Stories, Who-dunits, Cowboy Yarns and occasionally Fantasy (p267). But the listing of these genres only tells half the story. All the opinions which he offers on the books mentioned in this volume, have as their background, a deep and wide-ranging literary awareness -- and this, be it remembered, is one of the hallmarks of a polymath. We are not surprised to discover that Alan has a degree in Chemistry (p166) or that his maths (p36) is more than adequate, (as I discovered to my advantage when I was writing Pioneers) or that his knowledge of computers (Macs excepted) is wide ranging. Such qualities are shared with many other lovers of Science Fiction. What we are less prepared for is Alan's ability to refer to (say) the thoughts of Chairman Mao tse-Tung (p164), Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky (p10), the works of Kafka (p57), Karl Popper's "paradigm of disprovability" (p166) etc. The list goes on as you will discover as you read these pages. This context of understanding, drawn from world literature, history and philosophy, gives Alan's writing its authority. He can soar beyond genres and swoop, critically, when need be.
But Alan wears his scholarship lightly and his characteristic voice is affirmative rather than severe or prescriptive. "I enjoyed it so much I went out and bought all the other " (p202) "The book held me enthralled from page one " (p206) "This book deserves to win every award going." (p268) He takes no pleasure in the disembodied voice of the invisible critic: No! Alan is an enthusiast, and his articles and commentaries are the passionate expression of his informed mind as it explores new texts or revisits old and loved ones. Reading through his book, I had the impression that Alan likes nothing better than finding a new writer to fall in love with.
At the same time, Alan is aware that the role of critic carries certain important responsibilities. One entire article Gosh -- Haven't You Grown, is devoted almost exclusively to an analysis and explanation of his own critical practice. It is an article written to celebrate the tenth birthday of Phlogiston and what a splendid present for Alex the Editor to receive. And what an honouring of Science Fiction too, that Alan the Critic is prepared to sit down and explain the mixture of erudition, plain common sense and simple caring that he brings to his art. The essay is superbly written -- a mixture of wit and wisdom -- and is the one I think should be read first as it establishes the ground rules which guide Alan's work, and in its writing, epitomises all that is best in Trimmings. Besides, it primes the palate for more.
One of the endearing characteristics of Alan's critical approach stems from his deep love of language in general, and the English language in particular. No writer can complain about a critic who relishes grammar rightly used or who celebrates in such a forthright manner the richness of vocabulary and the peculiarities of English syntax. But woe betide the writer who, through sloppiness or ineptitude, diminishes the language. As I have noted already, Alan is rarely harsh in his judgements, but when he does choose to demolish he has formidable powers of linguistic analysis at his command. Witness the Article Do You Speak English (p15) in which he takes sloppy writing to task. And this, surely, is one of the prime functions of a critic for by attacking the churn-it-out mile-a-minute formulaic writing which is so often careless of the beauty and precision of the language, the critic is clearing the ground for those writers who do reshape and refashion language to serve a distinct creative and literary end. Most writers would agree that when they are "running hot", their normal sense of language vanishes and is replaced by something sensuous and strange -- a bright fusion of thought, feeling and word. Too often, critics of Science Fiction concentrate solely on the ideas in a book and not on the way those ideas are expressed. While a case can be made for Science Fiction being essentially a literature of ideas, how refreshing it is to read articles in which the literature (by which I mean the craft of the writer) is celebrated as much as the ideas. And can one ever really separate the two, I wonder?
The Bearded Triffid writes in a very personal and quite unique way, mingling autobiographical anecdote with critical insight. This style is seen at its best in some of the later essays such as Monomania, written for Phoenixine 98, which begins with the following intriguing paragraph.
It has been an odd month. I had a disturbing encounter with an aeroplane; the only books I have read have all been by the same author; I violated the laws of probability; and my cat's gone bald.
While the main focus of the What I Read essays is always on the books, the autobiographical record is stimulating and moving in its own quite distinct way. I have puzzled as to why this strange marriage works so well and have reached the following conclusion. An act of criticism is also an act of self-discovery. If you say, "This is what I like," or "This is what I believe," you are really exploring and mapping your own feelings and beliefs. It is not surprising then that writing criticism stimulates questions about the origins of one's ideas and opinions, and this leads directly to autobiography.
On a more personal level. I have been intrigued to discover parallels between Alan's life and my own. Both of us are from the North of England. For both of us New Zealand is our adopted country and both of us shared a similar education: yea, even unto Latin, French and Literature. Both of us have a deep admiration for writers as varied as Roger Zelazny and Barry Crump. (p137)
I know exactly the world Alan is describing when he writes in Lingua Frankly (p7) about eccentric schoolmasters. The entire article is about encountering the new, about coming to terms with the alien (he is not referring to school masters), and about the various experiments with alien languages found in Science Fiction. The article ends with a tantalising memory and one of the most intriguing speculations of all time.
They say that the best way to learn a language is to have a torrid affair with someone whose native language it is. I think there is a degree of truth in this. It is more than a quarter of a century since I last saw Yasmin. but I still have a smattering of Urdu.
Is this the language school of the future when we shall finally meet the Alpha Centaurians?
This last article, profoundly serious and yet filled with humour, should dispel any notion that Trimmings is a ponderous tome of criticism. I have already mentioned the enthusiasm that informs the Triffid's writings, I now wish to pay tribute to his wit. At no time does Alan's criticism give the impression that he is a frustrated novelist. His art form is the essay. In these he is free to follow his enthusiasms (whether for cats or a long-out-of-print book), to explore SF in cinema, to comment on the strange patterns of his life and to eulogise the writers he admires. While the wit is never absent, just occasionally he gives fuller expression to his love of the absurd, and when he does, some memorable narratives arise. I am thinking of A Dozen Drabbles (p23). A Drabble is a short story of exactly 100 words. It is an exacting form which depends on precision as well as economy in the language. The Bearded Triffid offers us a dozen -- all of them good -- and which range from the moving Once Upon a Time in an Office to the frightening elliptical Virtual Unreality.
One of the reasons why our Triffid is such a fine critic is that he engages deeply with words and structures. I am glad he does not want to write novels simply because that is such a lonely and strange craft and he is such a fine essayist. However, if ever he were to try his hand at longer fiction, I am sure the result is foreshadowed in the essay Science Fiction in Everyday Life . Here is a narrative that might just make you fall off your chair with laughter. In reading it I was reminded of the work of Alfred Jarry who, just a hundred years ago, invented the science of Pataphysics. Pataphysics bears the same relation to Metaphysics as Metaphysics does to Physics. It is the science of imaginary solutions and pataphysical writing can take many forms. In his essay Alan proves that the aeroplane from Auckland to Wellington must fly at slightly more than half the speed of light, that the dark matter of the universe is hiding in beer and cakes and that computers run on smoke. Why and how, I leave you to discover, for the joy is in the reading not the conclusion. Writing of this kind requires the still faced seriousness of Buster Keaton and the lateral mind of Lewis Carroll. There is also lurking in the Triffid a dark delight in horror which emerges in his description of the lives and eating habits of cats (p223) and in his evocation of the common cold and the dank taste of a beard clogged with (p235). Stephen King beware.
However, at book's end, it is neither the nimble-minded humour nor the erudition or even the individual commentaries on the books which leaves the most lasting impressing. It is all of these, and something more, something deeply human and moving. There is an awareness that literature is not life, and no matter how much it may delight us, Life is what we have finally to contend with. It may therefore come as a surprise to you when I say that the most memorable essays to me are those in which Alan simply records his affection for friends, be they writers or teachers, and who have now passed on. Read him on Bob Shaw (p113), on Zelazny (p256). but most movingly, read him on Anthony Kelso Kent. (p261). This essay, Tony, displays a perfect marriage of form and content, where the sober auto-biographical narrative nicely balances the literary and analytical discussion. This essay occurs towards the end of the book and for me establishes the tone of the whole work: serious but not heavy, thoughtful but not ponderous, clever but not smart and above all careful for the well-being of Science Fiction, readers and friends.
28th Jan 1999