Thursday, October 08, 2009

This Is Me, Jack Vance! by Jack Vance

No one else can write a Jack Vance sentence -- though many have tried, and a few have come close, there's nothing else like the insouciance and offhand wit of the real thing. Vance is 93 now, his guttering eyesight completely gone now and his literary career ended after his final novel, 2004's Lurulu.

But something -- perhaps the publication of the major new anthology Tales of the Dying Earth, in which many of Vance's friends, devotees, and followers among the SFF writers of the 21st century wrote new stories set in Vance's first-created and best known fictional world -- spurred Vance to write one last book. And so he dictated this book -- a memoir less rambling than many, though focused almost entirely on his non-literary life -- to his friend Jeremy Cavaterra, and there's one more Jack Vance book in the world. One Vance book we couldn't have expected, since he never liked to talk about himself.

The greatest pleasures in This Is Me, Jack Vance! are in those pure Vancean sentences and paragraphs, and in reading how Jack himself was once a young man tossed about by life, just like so many of his tough, spry heroes -- beset by arbitrary authority figures and always seeking the main chance. Those pleasures are strongest in the first third of this book, but they recur even towards the end, as in this splendid passage on pages 175-176:
Manny [Funk] and I had one falling-out, deriving from Manny's attempt to play the tenor saxophone and his conviction that he had succeeded in doing so. Sad to say, his best efforts yielded only halting discords which bore only the most casual relationship to the tune being played. This is a situation which, among musicians, always generates exasperation and hurt feelings.
Vance doesn't tell any secrets in This Is Me; at one point he narrates how one man ran off with another man's wife -- in Vance's borrowed car, no less! -- all the while carefully concealing the identities of the parties in question. But he does tell stories, and anyone who's read Vance's fiction knows that he can tell great stories. The matter of his life isn't exciting: he grew up in and outside San Francisco, did odd jobs and avoided WWII before becoming a full-time writer, and then puttered around on boats and took long vacations around the world for many enjoyable decades. But Vance tells stories about the things he did, and the stories are amusing and wonderful, filled with those unique and irreplaceable Vance sentences.

Look, let me find another one for you -- I'll choose a page at random:
On our first payday, I became aware of an inequity which I found irritating.
(page 30)

And one last short paragraph, in which Vance is being queried by the officer of a carpenter's union, on p.84:
The third question I forget, but it might have been something like "Which end of a nail goes in first, the sharp end or the flat end?" I replied that I thought it was most likely the sharp end.
If you've never read Vance before -- and you really should; the New York Times recently wondered aloud if Vance was one of the great writers of our time, and came perilously close (perilously for the Times, that is) to admitting that he is -- you should start with his fiction, something like the omnibus of the first three Demon Princes novels, or a selection of his short fiction, like The Jack Vance Treasury, or even The Compleat Dying Earth, which Your Humble Correspondent had no little hand in the publication of. But, for those of you who already know and treasure Vance, here is an unexpected treat: a sprightly and energetic book from a man of 93 whom we had all thought silent for good.

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