(Stephen Fabian’s cover for the 1976 edition)
A TANTALIZING FRAGMENT/THE CONCEPTUAL CORE: “‘Don’t you understand what is going on here? [Scop] said, “Don’t you realize that we are living not in a present but in a dream of waste, an extension of all the terrors of the past; don’t you realize that we live awash in blood?” (105).
WHOSE BLOOD?/THE HISTORICAL JUNCTION: John F. Kennedy is assassinated on November 22nd, 1963 by Lee Harvey Oswald. Abraham Zapruder, a private citizen, films the death from the Grassy Knoll in Dealey Plaza, Dallas. Jack Ruby kills Oswald, who was awaiting trial, on November 24th. James Earl Ray assassinates Martin Luther Jing, Jr. on April 4th, 1968. Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated by Sirhan Sirhan on June 5th, 1968.
Scop wants all three to never have happened.
THE RESULTING FUTURE: The Kennedy assassinations feature heavily in Malzberg’s fiction. What is this “dream of waste” (105) the extends from this historical juncture? They embody a loss of American innocence, a moment where all was changed and violent spectacle prevailed as entertainment and the reality of the world. A regimented future… A future replete with “slaughter games,” where the uncivilized mob watches in glee–“creatures so brutalized and broken by the poverty of their lives”—and pantomime the violence and revel in fits of lust (51).
ENTER SCOP, A BITTER MAN/CYPHER AND HIS DELUSIONS: Scop, a “bitter man” (7), journeys illegally into the past to prevent the assassinations from occurring. He cannot simply seize the assassins and remove them from the area for that “would leave a void in time which would be filled by even more diastrous events” (38). Rather, he must convince them via their own violation to change their plans. But, people in the past do not seem to have volition: “possibly the rumors are true; all of them are hypnotized into doing it” (36).
Scop daydreams about how the Masters will agree completely with his time-traveling aims: “Scop laughs also, the two of them laugh hopelessly in the dim clamp of the enclosure where joy fills Scop’s head for he knows that he has made his case to the Master and all will be changed” (14). Of course, even in the delusion the hopelessness seeps through. The pieces in this world are immobile: Scop trying to alter has merely reinforced the future (26). In a typically beautiful turn of phrase Malzberg has Scop proclaim: “One man may change the course of history, may change the nature of the rooms in which we inhabit” (39). This bearer of “truth” is alone in the world—truth is even embodied in his name, Scop is short for scopolamine, a truth serum.
But there are more layers. One of the women he encounters in the past near the JFK assassination, Elaine Kozciouskos, is one of Scop’s prior lovers (disguised in her journeys into the past) and has her own agenda. And then Scop dreams… And we learn of Scop’s past in the regimented future of brutal games. We learn the true extent of this future as a “dream of waste” (105).
FINAL THOUGHTS—IS THERE REDEMPTION IN THIS NIHILISTIC CYCLICALITY? Without doubt Scop (1976) should be read by fans of Malzberg. But, this not the place to start as only in the last third—the dreams of Oswald, the ramblings of a bureaucrat—does his sheer originality transfix. This is my twelfth Malzberg novel and I place it in the bottom third or so. It is not as inventive as Beyond Apollo (1972) or Revelations (1972) nor does it have the sheer beauty of Guernica Night (1975) or the condensed and painful (but brilliantly wrought) emptiness of The Gamesman (1975). In Scop there is a certain tiredness permeating the first half, it lacks the relentlessness that defines so much of his work—until the viewpoints shift between characters…
As with all of Malzberg’s novels, the nihilistic scenario where truth is doomed from the beginning is seen through a lens of black comedy embodied by the first line: “Scop. (1995-?) A bitter man with bitter eyes and a bitter mouth set bitterly underneath a bitter forehead that leaked bitterness […]” (7). The faster one understands the black comedy elements of Malzberg’s affective “tonescapes” the true craft of these visions emerge.
That aside, Scop fits nicely into the paranoid assassination films of the 70s that both contributed and fed off of the JFK obsession–for example, the remarkable underrated gem, The Parallax View (1974) and the even lesser known Executive Action (1973). One cannot help but suspect that the release of the entire Zapruder film in 1975 inspired Malzberg to render Scop’s obsessions.
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