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Tuatara

The tuatara is an ugly beast. He is not, however, a plagarist whereas your author indubitably is. It is the purpose of this piece to examine the little borrowings that litter another piece by your author, a little story entitled The Man Who Wrote The Necronomicon.

The tuatara is an ugly beast. That's a good line. Start a piece with a good line and it writes itself. Just as there books that read themselves, so there are books that write themselves. I propose to let this piece write itself.

The tuatara is an ugly beast. That's a good line. The Hurkle is a happy beast. That's a good line too; it is the first line and the title of a short story by Theodore Sturgeon. You can see where we are going with this. The price of having read too much is that one has seen too many good lines. They come burbling out of the subconscious, waving little flags, saying "Look at me, I am clever, and striking." And so they are, just as they were when their original author created them.

But what does the tuatara have to say to anything? Not much; tuataras don't talk. What they have is a third eye. They have two normal eyes which they use to see it where they are going and what's for dinner. The third one is used to detect danger coming out of nowhere. Very useful thing, a third eye.

Third eyes pop up all over the place. The ESP people talk about a third eye; you have these paintings with a third eye planted square in the middle of the forehead. A third eye is the symbol of the seeing of things unseen, of seeing things outside the normal realm of the everyday. [This paragraph is foreshadowing - we are going to talk about this some more later.]

Then there are three eyed cars. Just after World War II a man named Tucker started a company to build and sell a revolutionary new car called the Tucker [what a coincidence.] One of the notable features of this car was that it had three headlights. There was an extra one in the middle which was bigger and brighter and steerable. It was supposed to give you better night lighting.

The Tucker was an ugly car. Headlights on a car toward you look like eyes. People just don't expect to see something with three eyes coming at them. Three eyes are ugleee. It has something to do with brain wiring, I imagine. The thing is, if you've got a third eye, you can't just mix it in with the other eyes.

Bob Tucker was not an ugly man. He was an SF writer. He didn't have three eyes. However he had some cute little tricks. You had to read his stuff with three eyes, two to follow the story and that extra one to catch him at his little tricks.

One of his tricks was slipping in little references to well known SF fans and writers into his stories. This was an in-group thing. You had to be in the know to catch all of the nuances. He was so famed for this little trick that it was called Tuckerizing. Knowing about tuckerizing is also an in-group thing.

So what we have here is a Harter doing some tuckerizing. What's worse he's tuckerizing himself which really doesn't sound very good. I think it would be best if we just don't speculate about what that means. There are limits to this literary symbolism jazz.

The Harter is a happy beast. He's been out tuckerizing and now he's going back stage with the tuatara to look at some stuff with the third eye.

We have here a short work of fiction entitled The Man Who Wrote The Necronomicon. Properly speaking it is, to borrow Borges useful term, a short ficcione. Borges' most famous ficcione may be his piece about the man who was writing Don Quixote. The object was not to copy it but to write the same words with the same significance as they would have for a modern Frenchman. The same passage written by Cervantes and by Pierre Menard would have two different meanings because they come from different contexts. One observes that writing Don Quixote is a quixotic thing to do and moves on.

Who is the character that the narrator speaks to, the man named in the title? It is again Pierre Menard, that author of books written by others. What we have here is a little plagarism, the borrowing of a form. More than that the borrowing of a character. Still more than that, the borrowing of a concept. Is that all? No, there is still more. Just as Borges' concept was a literary pun so there is a literary pun here. The story is an amalgam of borrowed thoughts. The author deals in borrowed works; so does his character.

All of this supposes that the reader catches the reference to Menard, to "the Spanish book" and finally to Don Quixote itself. This is not the only reference to a non-existent book; there is also the Necronomicon. Again, the reader is expected to recognize the reference. Note that we have two non-existent books. The Don Quixote in Borges's ficcione does not exist and, even there, is only a fragment. In this ficcione, however, non-existent books are completed.

Have we met the narrator before? That depends. If you have read The Razors Edge by Maugham or The Drifters by Michener you will recognize the narrator, albeit in a distorted looking glass. One of the little things that one has to settle in writing fiction is the choice of viewpoint. (I realize that this is very elementary but bear with me if you've heard it all before.) In first person narration the story is told as though it were happening to the narrator, e.g., "I did this, I said that, I saw her do that". In third person narration the story is told without a narrator, e.g., "He said this, that happened". There are some technical variations but that's the nub of it. We can combine the two forms by using a narrator who is, by the nature of things, an observer and not part of the real action.

The narrators in the two works mentioned are excellent examples of this technique. They are old and emotionally uninvolved. They are well to do so their movement and actions are not constrained. They are worldly and sophisticated. They travel. They are reflective. In short they are excellent observers of a story in which they are only nominally a part of.

Such a narrator is useful if one wants to tell a story in first person voice and third person mode. Here we have such a narrator except that he is a part of the story. More than that he is not a nice person. His income is derived from the drug trade. His position in the literary world is purchased. He is unscrupulous in his business dealings and in his literary dealings.

Here we shall make a curious omission.

So far we have looked at this little piece with two eyes, with a view to the ordinary dicta of literary form and the references that one might expect to other works. It is time to look at this piece with the third eye, with the eye of the tuatara.

This work can stand alone; one would not be unduly puzzled to find it in some journal although one might wonder at the taste of the editor. However it is actually part of a cycle of works. They are:

A Note on Aardvark Symbolism in Late Castilian Literature
On the Road to Ventimiglia
A Hero's Death
Image of the Book
The Man Who Wrote The Necronomicon
Tuatara

The first of these is a jazz riff of fantastic flights. It is a collaboration that has no apparent connection with the cycle. The second is an appreciation of various minor books. It is a bit of self indulgence; however it introduces the theme of the fictional book in fantastic literature. The third is a short ficcione which is an example of the theme. The fourth is almost unclassifiable. It is an explosion of fictionality and referentiality, containing intertwined suggestions of stories. The fifth is the work we are discussing here and the final is, of course, this discussion.

Now the first thing that we notice when we survey this cycle is that A Hero's Death and The Man Who Wrote The Necronomicon are variants of the same story. In each the narrator receives a mysterious book from an acquaintance who disappears. In each the book is dangerous. And in each the narrator must make a decision about what to do with the book. The stories have different endings. In one the narrator embraces the book; in the other he disowns it. These stories are mirror images of each other. They are also shadows cast by Image Of The Book, one as a precursor, one as an aftermath. One might think of On the Road to Ventimiglia as conception, A Hero's Death as vigorous youth, Image of the Book as complex maturity, The Man Who Wrote the Necronomicon as decadent old age, and Tuatara as the grave.

The reader will note another curious omission.

We are not quite done with these little borrowings. There is the matter of the speech by Pierre Menard where he speaks slightingly of the value of reputation and indifferently of the claims of life and death. This theme is stolen from a poem by yours truly whose final lines read:

So reputation matters not
For in the grave you only rot.
There is the matter of the nationality of the narrator. This we know. He is English as evidence by his reference to the telly. That he had business in South America is an echo from Agatha Christie novels in which Englishmen (principally Hastings) went off to South America on unspecified business.

Where was this cafe at which our narrator and Pierre Menard sat and drank their vile coffee? It might have been anywhere although one might guess Paris, since Menard is a Frenchman and Paris is the city one thinks of when one thinks of sidewalk cafes. And so it is. It is time to repair some of our omissions.

Have you noticed that our story has three characters? There is Menard who is The Creator of the Book. There is the narrator, The Man Who Must Deal With the Book. And then there is Marie, the waitress, she of the fine figure and sour mind who disapproves. She may not speak but she is definitely present. What is she doing here? We have our two principals, each an archetype in his own way. But Marie, what role does she play? Is she just window dressing, a bit of verisimilitude to lend substance to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative? (More theft.) Perhaps so, perhaps not. But we have met her before in A Note on Aardvark Symbolism in Late Castilian Literature. I quote:

"I recall the day well. There I was in this little cafe, casually sipping my vile coffee (but the baguettes were quite nice), reflecting idly on Marie's peculiar propensities, when I noticed an artist across the way, one of many who infested the area."

The same cafe, the same vile coffee, and the same Marie. This entire cycle, this entire structure of literary references and obsessions, is not about the "image of the book" at all. It is the fanciful and ornately elaboration of minor incidents in the life of Marie. The cycle is about Marie; she begins it; she ends it. The rest is mere commentary.

This page was last updated August 5, 1997.
Copyright © 1997 by Richard Harter