Thursday, December 13, 2018

"What Happened to Auguste Clarot?" (1967)

Larry Eisenberg is a name I don't know. From Harlan Ellison's introduction and also Wikipedia, it sounds as if he published nearly as much in the way of limericks as science fiction. Yes, that's right, limericks. Who knew there was a market? Ellison has affection for Eisenberg, and for this story, but mostly in the way of a kind of practical joke. The story, which is very short, is more a parody of hardboiled detective fiction though all decked out with science fiction trappings. A Nobel-winning chemist disappeared without a trace one day and the news story was a sensation for a time. Now the narrator of this story, a journalist, has been assigned to revisit the case years later, a bit like the frame stories in Citizen Kane and Velvet Goldmine, and off we go. The story is dense with comic detail, which sometimes works, as with an editor who insists on communicating telepathically with his staff. They're left guessing, and don't always guess right. But the story is pointless, even as it drags around its heavy chains of detail. In many ways (and I'm not trying to conflate limericks with literature) Eisenberg writes with that inert quality so many poets bring to prose. They are so used to compressing lots of information artfully into the fewest possible words, or something like it. The story elements are so familiar I could reorient myself whenever another one came along, such as the appearance of a femme fatale, hostile encounters with authorities, a ritual beating, etc. But yes, I'm sorry to say, even in the space of six printed pages I found myself lost in thickets. Which is not to say that each paragraph, taken on its own, isn't entertaining. They are. They all are. This is like the stand-up comic portion of the variety show. It doesn't have anything to do with detective fiction. It's just using the tropes. It's even weaker as science fiction. It's a weird world, yes. People say and do and seem to believe some strange things (like the would-be telepathic editor). But there's nothing to bind or unify it beyond the formal parodies. Eisenberg reports in his afterword that the story was a satisfaction to produce. Ellison in his introduction seems a little nervous about including it at all. Makes me think there might have been something on the order of trading favors behind this story. But what do I know? It's good for a laugh.

Dangerous Visions, ed. Harlan Ellison


  1. Ellison turned it down, then accepted it in a marginal note...