Book Review: The Eye of the Lens, Langdon Jones (1972)

Richard Jones1972

(Richard Jones’ cover for the 1972 edition)

4/5 (collated rating: Good) (*see note below)

Langdon Jones is best known for his involvement in New Worlds Magazine: he contributed stories (published 16 in various New Worlds venues), cover art, and edited the April-July 1969 issues.  One of his stories, “To Have and To Hold,” was slated to appear in the never published Last Dangerous Visions, and languishes unread and unknown.  Why Ellison doesn’t relinquish control of the copyright is beyond me…  Sadly, Jones’ output had all but dried up by 1969.  If anyone knows why, please let me know.

Three of the seven stories in the collection—“The Hall of Machines” (1968), “The Coming of the Sun” (1968), and “The Eye of the Lens” (1968)—form a loose triptych (the religious connotations of the term is purposeful).

*NOTE: Recommended only for fans of the most radical New Wave SF that graced the pages of New Worlds magazine.  Experimental, allegorical, and occasionally Borgesian, all the stories revolve around our perception of time and memory.  Even in the collection’s weakest moments—the purposefully melodramatic “The Garden of Delights” (1969) and filmic deconstruction via a sequence of images of religion in “The Eye of the Lens” (1968)—Langdon Jones demonstrates craft, willingness to experiment, and an eye for the image.

Brief Plot Summary/Analysis

“The Great Clock” (1966), short story, 4/5 (Good): Reviewed previously in Best SF Stories From New Worlds 3, ed. Michael Moorcock. [here]

“The Hall of Machines” (1968), short story, 5/5 (Masterpiece):  Part I of the “The Eye of the Lens” triptych.  Absolutely the best story of the collection and one of my favorites of the last few years…  An  observer researches the endless hall of machines, various earthly and human processes made mechanical, and speculates about the nature of the hall and presents “a picture that is far from complete, but which is remarkable in its specific detail” (38).  The entire hall and its machines is in motion, the Earth transformed mechanically, the world’s denizens move between and among the machines… Aquinas’ prime mover has set it all in motion, and it ratchets, wiggles, switches, twitches, manipulates, and cycles before the observer.  There are clear references to Borges’ story “The Library of Babel” (1941), notable the discussion of the nature of dimensions of the hall (is it infinite?), but Jones moves in other original directions.

The story is possessed by an almost meditative examination in excessive and obsessive detail of the workings of the machines, each reflecting in some way the process it embodies.  For example, the “Machines of Movement” in the “Interlocking Machine Room,” “on entering the room I found it to be full of giant metal crabs” (41) where “all the legs of these machines are connected by free-moving joints to the legs of the other units, and a movement of one causes an adjustment to the position of the other.  The whole room is in motion, and the machines twitch each other with an action that appears almost lascivious in nature” (42).  The Earth as a vast series of interconnected systems that trigger other systems, ad infinitum. 

One Machine of Death is “very large, sprawling, and complicated” and “appears to be completely functionless”—the researcher speculates that it “was constructed to be entirely symbolic in nature” (45), perhaps meant to end lives that no longer exist to end.  And another Machine of Death takes the form of a wall of metal, a single waste pipe exudes a stream of blood…

The Earth as Machine.  Beautiful, haunting, I will remember this story for a long time.

“The Coming of the Sun” (1968), short story, 4/5 (Good): Part II of the “The Eye of the Lens” triptych.  Structured as a series of paragraph poems or individual scenes, that relate thematically to each other and are organized in sequence.  A cellar fire and interrupts a series of events (a discussion in a lounge) or, separate fiery metaphors interrupt distinct events and situations.  A man observes a clock burn, other scenes are inspired by the music of Messiaen, the section titles ring poetic, “Dead Book Images Spin in My Mind Like Snow” (71), “Catatonic Sun, Fill My Valleys” (72)… What is the meaning of this descent into fiery imagery, the interruption of the mechanisms that hummed in previous triptych panel’s “The Hall of Machines”?   The Sun, the “eye that sees through reality,” the eye of God, rips our conceptions to shreds… This tone story, a hallucinatory stream of violent/shocking images, will not appeal to all.  In a way, these are the specific types of events that the machines in Part I metaphorically represent.

“The Eye of the Lens” (1968), novelette, 3.25/5 (Vaguely Good): Part III of the “The Eye of the Lens” triptych.  The least satisfying and powerful part of the triptych takes the form of a film, the eye/sun/God of part II “films” the sequence of metaphoric scenes involving “A girl. A florist. A holy man” (1975).  Jones even includes descriptions of the soundtrack, the extras, etc.  The feel of the film evokes Godard and various other proponents of the French New Wave.  The story culminates as the girl confronts Jesus on the cross and proclaims him a sham, “So I judge your Father, and Find him  guilty” (89).  As the lens viewing the film (creating the film) is God or some other omniscient power, various human cycles are observed—the girl questions her existence, descends into unhappyness, and finally, the world around her is reborn.  The triptych/the trinity is complete.

“The Time Machine” (1969), novelette, 4/5 (Good): A time machine or some powerful force that solidifies memory… A man in a cell gazes at a photograph of a woman, and “the time machine, by operating in terms of relationships of pattern, is able to crystallize the attention of the observer, producing a concrete déjà vu, and in the solidity of its wheels and pistons, we find reflecting the tangibility of the universe, in all its states and being” (101).  The man experiences his intense relationship anew… Although, their love affair, as a construct of the past, of time crystal, “was now like a piece of sculpture […] may be looked at closely, details expanding [..]” (98).  Is using the time machine to relive the past punishment? Is the prisoner in the cell delivered from his captivity through some projection of the machine?

“Symphony No. 6 in C Minor ‘The Tragic’ Beethoven II” (1968), short story, 3.5/5 (Good):  Jones’ stories often have a documentary feel about them: the style can be observational, or even educational despite the often violent subject matter.  This story, taken from the invented “Philips’ ‘Forgotten Masters’ Series” (121) recounts the life of Ludwig van Beethoven II, born the year after his namesake’s death, via musical quotations from his single masterpiece, the text from his lost Mass, and selections from his diary and various autobiographical works (Scenes from an Unhappy ChildhoodDiary of a Sad ManAngst and Music).  Beethoven II is a suicidal piano prodigy who maims his hand in a door, loses his parents to typhoid, and writes mostly abysmal and unplayable works with depressing titles—The Pathetique and Marcia Funebre).  After a failed suicide attempt he writes his single masterpiece…

I suspect a more discerning reader with a greater knowledge of Beethoven than myself will notice how Jones plays and reorients particular details and even musical moments of Beethoven’s life for his rather more pathetic Beethoven II.  The titles all indicate a humorous engagement with 19th century music and its proponents.  Beethoven II’s profound insignificance in the face of his namesake stretches even to his once ornate tomb, which gets destroyed during the war.  A story about fleeting greatness, and how we might only touch it vaguely, and have that moment erased by the vicissitudes of time.

This story reminded me of Borges’ “An Examination of the Work of Herbert Quain” (1941)—both analyze and invented figure’s works and attempt to offer some assessments.  In the former, Borges concludes the Herbert Quain might be deserving of the negative option of his works.  In “Symphony No. 6 in C Minor ‘The Tragic’ Beethoven II” reveals the struggle of the writer to grapple with a piece of a flawed piece of music.  And the text of the lost Mass at the end is utterly abysmal (the intro hints that this might too be on purpose).

“The Garden of Delights” (1969), novelette, 3/5 (Average):  In the introduction Jones states that this story caused the “final banning of New Worlds in Australia” (11).  Also, “the melodrama is intentional” (11)….  Both of these statements come as little surprise considering the incestuous undercurrents that grow unabated in “The Gardens of Delights.”  At first glance, the premise is a standard one: man returns home, wanders the once occupied rooms, the grounds, reflects on memories both good and bad.  Robin’s experience runs the gamut of emotions: “He had a brief moment of near-panic—a strong desire to turn round and leave, and never return to this place” (139).  As Robin wanders the grounds + the room where his mother died + and the garden with its collapsed walls, it becomes increasingly difficult to untangle “real event,” memory, what could have been, what was, and thus how the house itself might allow the reveal to be possible…

For more book reviews consult the INDEX

THFTHLNSBW1980

(Michael Heslop’s cover for the 1980 edition)

THFTHLNSDN1973

(Uncredited cover for the 1973 edition)

17 thoughts on “Book Review: The Eye of the Lens, Langdon Jones (1972)”

  1. Now you’re talking – I read ‘The Great Clock’ in New Worlds back in the day – the real deal!

    1. Tempted to pick up the collection? New Worlds is definitely the magazine I want to start (eventually) to collect. My type of SF! (at least the issues under Moorcock et al).

  2. Starship Sofa #146 (a podcast magazine) has an interview with him where he says “I stopped being able to do it”. The LDV story follows the interview although I haven’t heard it. It was supposed to be reprinted in a magazine/anthology called Prototype X #3 in 2011, but the only thing I can find online is a Prototype X #2.
    I liked ‘The Great Clock’ and ‘The Garden of Delights’ (the latter especially) when I first read the book in my teens. I think the rest of it was way over my head although I hope to reread them all soon as I wend my way through the Compact Books and large size New Worlds magazines (#142-201).

    1. I wish I owned a few New Worlds magazines. It is definitely the one I’m most interested in and I should start collection (I’ll probably work my way through the Best Of anthologies first)… Thanks for the podcast info, I’ll check it out. Ah, I definitely want to hear the Last Dangerous Visions story!

  3. “Sadly, Jones’ output had all but dried up by 1969. If anyone knows why, please let me know.”

    Langdon Jones became active in local politics in Bracknell, you can learn more about him on his web site – http://www.langjones.com. Like Langdon, Pamela Moline (“The Heat Death of the Universe”) also had a story accepted for the Last Dangerous Visions, “Dreamwork, A Novel”, hopefully the universe will still had some heat left by the time it is published.

    1. I have the very solid 1973 paperback edition — with the fantastic gears. Also, as the book is called “The Eye of the Lens” there’s a well designed eye that introduces each story…

      But yes, pick up a copy!

    1. Thanks for stopping by! As you can tell from the review, I enjoyed the collection. I also tracked down the Starship Sofa interview he did and listened to the unpublished story which would have appeared in Last Dangerous Visions.

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