Book Review: Guernica Night, Barry N. Malzberg (1975)

(Tim White’s cover for the 1979 edition)

4.25/5 (Good)

Nominated for the 1976 Nebula Award for Best Novel

“Here we are in Disney Land/Disney World; clutching the strange hands of those with whom we came, we move slowly through the ropes under the chanting of the attendants, swatting insects of habitation, toward the exhibit of the martyred President.  The martyred President has become a manikin activated by machinery, tubes and wiring; he delivers selected portions of his famous addresses, stumbling back and forth […] (1)”

Guernica Night (1975) is the third of Barry N. Malzberg’s books I’ve read after Conversations (1975) and In the Enclosure (1973).  Although lacking the harrowing extremes of the brilliant In the Enclosure, Guernica Night is not without merit.  It is a dense work inundated by an incredible spectre of darkness that never, even for the most infinitesimal moment, lifts.

And the images!  Manikins of a martyred President lurching around Disney Land/Disney World, holographic religious symbols, journeys to Trinidad…  Considering what I’ve read so far I’ve found Malzberg to be one of the more literarily inclined science fiction authors.  However, his relentless nihilism, archetypally depressed characters (which appear in all his works), frequent coarse sex scenes, and unfocused attempts at world building might be off-putting to some.  Malzberg is more concerned with visceral images, ideas, and language.

Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers) 

At an undefined point in the future, Earth society has devolved into small regimented groups.  A larger distant government, but powerful, maintains the organization.  This incredibly regimented life has dispensed with many aspects of our current day — the roads (viewed by many as manifestations of American freedom) are abandoned and the cars are seldom used….  A Transporter system, with serious health effects for extended use, links all places but also allows the state to extend its control.  The journey itself is no longer a form of relief.

A pervasive emptiness/desperation is the dominate mentality of the population.  Trips to Disney World/Disney Land with its manikin President Kennedy who still dispenses shreds of “wisdom” is the only activity which seems to provide relief: “Listening to him, we feel that we are on the verge of an insight; an insight so deep and strange, so true and final that it will eclipse everything that we have known before, every portion of our lives […]. And so, in perfect harmony, accord, we listen and listem, the little figure yanking itself around the stage […] (3).”

Suicides are pervasive and threaten to depopulate many of the habitation groups.  Their leaders can’t legally prevent people from committing suicide but try to persuade them in group meetings.

Sid, the main character, finds relief in sexual acts in an old car he’s found in an abandoned garage (reaching, as with the manikin Kennedy, for a shred of the past).  Sid’s daydreams (and dreams) are replete with embodied figures from the past — Beethoven, Hugh Cage (the inventor of the Transporter), Kennedy, among others — who hold lengthy discussion, often condemning his actions.  These mental embodiments of figures of the past are Sid’s conscience.

The main “plot” revolves around Jagway, a member of Sid’s group, who wants to commit suicide.  Sid’s group attempts to prevent him.  A government agent arrives with news that suicides are no longer allowed and he carries a weapon.

About halfway through the novel, the focus moves from Sid to the backstory of Jorg, the government agent, assigned to investigate suicides in the Dance sector where Sid lives.  Here, Jorg meets Jagway, and attempts to persuade him not to commit suicide.

Final Thoughts (*spoilers*)

It’s been more than a month since I read Guernica Night.  This is in part because I’ve found it incredibly difficult to sum up my experience reading Malzberg’s work.  I find his characters’ interactions with the past through the medium of Disney, mental constructs of famous figures, religious holographic icons, and the remaining physical manifestations (buildings, roads, cars) by far the most thought-provoking theme.  History becomes Sid’s conscious, the avenue by which he chooses not to commit suicide in his oppressive world. Through manikin Kennedy the connection to his fellow man is made manifest.  The connection itself isn’t altogether clear or inherently meaningful (sex in the car on the abandoned road is more of an act of desperation).  But it is enough — Sid is a survivor.  Jagway, despite the desperate attempts of the government official, isn’t.

My frustration with the work is due to the second portion concerning the government agent.  The images weren’t as lasting or powerful.  The visceral nature of the first half is muted.

Guernica Night is an intriguing work not for the fainthearted.  One of the few science fictions works I feel needs to be reread in order to appreciate its intricacies, hidden meanings, and metafictional delights (especially when Malzberg inserts himself into the novel near the end).

(Fred Samperi’s cover for the 1975 edition)

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