Essays and Criticism
Harlan Ellison, in his introduction to his collection of short stories Shatterday, states that his writing is all about telling people that they are not alone in their suffering of the ‘‘mortal dreads’’ of living on this earth. ‘‘That’s my job,’’ he writes. ‘‘To stir the soup, to bite your thigh, to get you angry so you keep the conversation going. . . . Then I can translate it into the mortal dreads we all share and fire them back at you transmogrified, reshaped as amusing or frightening fables.’’ Ellison has a vision, and he wants to share that vision as passionately as a revivalist preacher wants to share his vision of salvation. And because of this, Ellison’s writing takes on a didactic tone. He believes that his vision is true. And if it is true for Ellison, it is true for everyone, because he believes that ‘‘we are all the same, all in this fragile skin, suffering the ugliness of simply being human, all prey to the same mortal dreads.’’ And his job is to make sure that everyone gets his message.
In his story ‘‘Jeffty Is Five,’’ Ellison’s vision spotlights the message that the people of this world should not eradicate the past in the name of progress. Ellison wants to hold onto the past to such an extent that he creates a child who will not age. In order to convince his readers that there is a good reason to prevent the aging of this child, Ellison makes lists of all the good things from his past. Once he lists the good things, he then contrasts them with the things of the present, which are all cast in the shadows of the glorious past. Candy tasted better in the past. Not only did it taste better, it was wrapped in better paper. And not only did it taste better and was wrapped better, it cost less and was bigger in size. Candy of the present is worse than tasteless. It has also been deceptively shrunk in size and is soggy in the middle. Lest the reader not get his message, Ellison adds that it is ‘‘not worth a penny much less fifteen or twenty cents.’’
It is this overindulgent, hit-them-on-the-head type of writing that brings out the negative aspects that the term didactic sometimes implies. In Ellison’s story, for example, the past is good. The present, at best, is questionably passable. And Ellison keeps repeating this same message.
Ellison continues in his story with his narrator reminiscing about when he was a child. The radio programs were ‘‘swell’’ (he later compares them to the present status of radio, being filled with loud, awful music and ‘‘banal housewives and insipid truckers discussing their kinky sex lives with arrogant talk show hosts’’). His simple box of sixteen crayons is so much better than the complex color schemes that children of today have to deal with. This sounds like a bit of contradiction, doesn’t it? Whereas more chocolate is better on one hand, on the other hand, it is better if there are fewer crayons. In other words, whatever was in the past is better, whether it was less or more. For Ellison, it seems that just the fact that it is something that no longer exists makes it better. Ellison appears to...
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