Let's Hear It for The Silence
by carl juarez
To remark the resemblance between the Face on Mars and David Langford is a commonplace, and those taking up a review of his work well know other risks of the endeavor -- the calamitous devirtualized typo, the transatlantic (or circumpolar) tongue-tangle, the confusion of absence of evidence in prose for evidence of absence in life . . . . His ongoing corpus, as well as the honors (ranging from various rocket statues to frequent remaindership) rightfully bestowed thereupon, is monumental enough to invite easily most invidious comparisons with that of the reviewer's, who must face what we might call the Stockdale Imperative ("Who am I? Why am I here?").
The complementary venture into the biographical is no cakewalk either with as towering a character, not merely because it is well-known (and documented to some length in his work), but in addition he appears to live somewhere in Britain, which is quite far away. E-mail contact though possible is hazardous as electrons traveling from one side of the planet to another acquire, through conservation of energy, a temperature differential that can either bake or freeze one's computer instantly depending on the orientation of the local magnetic field.
There is also the danger of repeating too-oft told tales, for some of us know that superb comic prose though renewable is miserably finite because it's so goddam much work, and it is cruel to the work as well as the appreciative reader to sprinkle the best lines through a review, for such this is, transmogrifying them into little time-encapsulated speedbumps of familiarity when, enthused by the reviewer's dithyramb, one reads the work itself. The basic all-encompassing silliness of the universe may be eternal but comic prose is only new once. (Well, maybe twice with the right head injury.)
Yet comes the time the would-be reviewer-sacrifice must confront these pitfalls to survey the work at hand,* especially since we want NESFA Press to send us more books. In fact, the work at hand is itself a book, which you suspected all along I'll bet. Printed on paper, as all the best books are, with ink, and illustrated with variations of the cover photo that led the Fortean Times to exclaim "frightening hair," it contains words, which are in turn organized into thirty-plus essays and bits of fiction, ranging with the usual wit and aplomb from Defense Establishment memoir ("The Leaky Establishment: Final Drips") to semi-critical stfnal surveys ("Trillion Year Sneer," "Fun With Senseless Violence") to more casual column-sized chunks (too many to choose), some of which themselves are small masterpieces of the form.
Ah, if only the presentation were up to the prose. While NESFA Press should be congratulated on the steady evolution of the quality of their publications (their earlier Langford collection, Let's Hear It For The Deaf Man, was a mimeoed chapbook, while Silence seems a thoroughly industrialized artifact), the result is a package, like the recent Cordwainer Smith collection, most valuable for the archivist but offering nothing for the beholder's eye, an unwitting (I think) illustration of the difference between layout and design. Page composition is adequate but no more, letters occasionally collide, and, while I'm quibbling, although it is truly a selling point that Silence includes nearly all of the rather rare earlier collection, the reprints make up (by page count) more than 40% of the current book rather than the 25% the copyright page would have us believe. (This must be some of that engineering math we've been hearing about.)
But pay no mind. This book is a treasure chest (pleasure chest?) of platinum-iridium-standard comic prose, commas combed neatly into place, with nary a typo. Yes, you'll thrill -- to accounts of tossing drinks with the mighty behind closed doors! Quiver -- with horror as a UFO hoax is abducted by abductees! Cringe -- as mountains of crap prose and plotting are filleted for your disgust and amusement! (Caution: do not read in one sitting.)
No excess lacrimation for Langford, America. Au contraire, mes amis, Langford for President -- he must be watched (and read). He might even outlast the Face on Mars.
* The Silence of the Langford, NESFA Press (PO Box 809, Framingham, MA 01701-0203), 1996. Trade paperback, 286 pages, $15. [back]
His brother Jon is not only a member of the Mekons (does one detect a certain familial tendency for prominence in obscure fora?) but also Chuck Death of "Great Pop/Rock Things" comic strip fame.
He has a web site at www.ansible.demon.co.uk which features materials yet uncollected as well as TAFF communiques from Martin Tudor and Dan Steffan.
Aside from the much-decorated Ansible, the best place I know this side of the Atlantic for fresh draughts of Langfordian prose is the British monthly Fortean Times, which occasionally runs The Photo, accompanied by its subject's musings, in its Forum section. Though published in London (with a concomitant focus on UK strangeness), weird shit happens everywhere, so whether it's itinerant hypnotist-thieves with fake Pakistani passports, allegations of Scandinavian antigravity, or mystery detonations in Colorado, they've got it covered. They're on the Web at www. forteantimes.com, and quite a few newsstands; check 'em out & tell 'em Apak sent you.
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Next article: Laying New Foundations, by Greg Benford.