Tuesday, November 16, 2010

To Build a Fire by Jack London

I’m suddenly reconsidering, and re-exploring the short story. I haven’t put aside my big-ass (they are always big-ass when you’re writing them) novel that I posted about over the summer; in fact, I’m between drafts, as they say.

But I was asked to write a short story for a holiday-themed YA collection, locally produced here in SoCal (about which, more later, but it’s not really my project to announce. Yet), and that became the first short story I’d written... in years. There've blog posts and articles on the short side, and books on the storytelling side. But no short stories. I didn't realize how much I missed them.

So while I’m conjuring my own 2,500-word Yuletide apocalypse, reminding myself I’m not writing a “first chapter” but an entire arc, beginning to end, I come across a downloadable novella from Fantasy & Science Fiction about our grim globally-warmed future. I spend part of a morning with it, and was brought back to a type of reading I did much more frequently in my own YA days.

And then, concurrent to all this, I’m collaborating on with “Vampire High” author Douglas Rees on a longer project, which calls for us to, among other things, bone up on our Jack London.

So -- also for the first time in many many moons (in this case, the Valley of the Moon in Sonoma, eh?), I’m working my way through part’s of Jack’s canon (on which note, we have references to canons, and London’s near-contemporary, Eugene O’Neill, just a couple of posts below. Get ready to blast your way through than English syllabus!) and before I get to the "Iron Heel" -- there’s some politics in Doug’s and my genre work -- I’ve started with short stories.

I started with one I’d heard about, but never gotten to -- the stripped down, unrelenting “To Build a Fire.” It’s a simple tale -- a man in the Yukon, turn of the last century, is on his way back to camp. It’s cold and getting colder. He’s hiking with a dog -- who, we find, regards him somewhat skeptically (in dog terms) -- and makes one or two bad decisions. Which very quickly gets him in a position where a fire, a simple fire, will save his life. Or not.

It should be pointed out there are two versions of this iconic story -- the first, written around ‘aught two (and I don’t mean “2002,”) appeared a periodical known as “Youth’s Companion.” It was kind of like “Boy’s Life,” full of adventure for young lads (I’m not sure anyone thought that young lassies would be reading these compendia, too), though imagining yourself in a wild place, away from a cityscape, wasn’t nearly so difficult in that earlier ‘aught two.

In the first version, the walk isn’t nearly as harrowing, nor is the outcome. It’s written more as a cautionary tale (don’t walk alone when it’s freezing cold!), in a generally amiable, if somewhat stiff, 19th-century way. You can see London’s growth as a writer between the two versions, the first opening with some telling, instead of showing: “For land travel or seafaring, the world over, a companion is usually considered desirable. In the Klondike, as Tom Vincent found out, such a companion is absolutely essential. But he found it out, not by precept, but through bitter experience.”

By the time he got to to the second, darker, more renowned version of the story, a few short years later, he got right to it: “Day had broken cold and gray, exceedingly cold and gray, when the man turned aside from the main Yukon trail and climbed the high earth-bank, where a dim and little-travelled trail led eastward through the fat spruce timberland,” and then later, when assaying the character of his once-likeable protagonist, “The trouble with him was that he was without imagination. He was quick and alert in the things of life, but only in the things, and not in the significances.”

Sounds like our current crop of politicians!

In any case, even though stories aren’t structured this way anymore-- it’s all description, with no dialogue (though a little internal monologuing) -- the thing really moves. There’s scarcely an ounce of fat in it, and it’s a marvel of relentless writing an inexorable plotting. At one point -- as jaded a reader as I fear I’ve become-- I nearly gasped, sitting in the coffee shop where I read it, when a sudden reversal-of-fortune affects our ill-fated traveler. For that alone, I’m in Jack London’s debt.

Where’s that open-source audiobook version of "Iron Heel!?"


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