Wednesday, May 25, 2011

These Milk Glands Were Made for Walking - #32

STORY: "The Night He Cried" by Fritz Leiber

FROM: THE BEST OF FRITZ LEIBER (Nelson Doubleday, 1974)

BASICALLY: Over-the-top sci-fi parody of the hard-boiled detective story "perfected" by author Mickey Spillane. In Leiber's story, a heptapus (think octopus, but with only seven appendages) from Galaxy Center has come to Earth disguised as a sexy broad to correct author Slickie Millane's misconceptions about the purpose of sex. Ever prone to violence and misogyny, Slickie alternately tries to seduce and kill her. Good-naturedly reconstituting itself after each attempt on its life, the heptapus drinks too much scotch and bungles the mission to hilarious results.

This may be my new favorite story. I'm fickle, so that'll probably change, but for now, I'm in lurve lurve lurve. "The Night He Cried" is utterly silly and beyond funny. Even if you're unfamiliar with the literature being parodied, as I was, Leiber's vision of a bumbling but well-intentioned alien trying to reason with a completely insane tough guy is pure gold. I also love what Leiber has to say about this story in his Afterword.

I wrote "The Night He Cried" because I was distantly angry at Mickey Spillane for the self-satisfied violence and loveless sex and anti-feminism he was introducing into detective fiction and because he had the temerity to publish a couple of stories in the fantasy field, about which I have a parental concern. My rage seems remote, now, yet the point was valid.
Writing a story to make a point is a tricky thing. Obviously, no one likes to be preached to. Nor are readers likely to care about some writer's personal vendetta. And specificity can be dangerous—Slickie Millane as author of the Spike Mallet novels is really only funny if you know that Mickey Spillane wrote the Mike Hammer novels.

But I don't think Leiber's story suffers from any of these problems. First off, preachiness is absent. Though Leiber explains in his Afterword that he was reacting to Spillane's anti-feminist themes, he didn't respond by writing A Very Impassioned Story About Feminism. I'm a feminist—it's by no means a dirty word—but even I wouldn't want to read that story. Nor Stories About the Evils of War, the Wrongs of Colonialism, or the Decline of America's Educational System. What I do want to read is a story—something that involves me in its world, makes me care about its characters, and entertains me. Leiber's piece works because the story takes priority over the message.

Secondly, even though it references an "enemy" more or less by name, Leiber's story is saved from seeming petty by virtue of its sheer ludicrousness. The most grotesque elements (the hyper-sexuality, the misogynistic violence) are part of what's being parodied and come from the source material. Leiber doesn't go after Spillane personally—there's nothing in the story that might be read as a commentary on Spillane's religion, for example, which was Jehovah's Witness. Instead, it's very clear that what's being mocked is the tough guy propaganda machine. Leiber destroys the idea that anyone, including some pulp writer, could resemble the one-dimensional, morally-unconflicted hero of Spillane's trashy novels.

All this might make it sound like Leiber's lampooning is only funny if you know something about Mickey Spillane, but I don't think that's the case. The hard-boiled detective is a well-known type, even if many modern readers won't recognize its specific roots in Spillane. And the story never takes itself seriously. A sense of zany fun keeps the focus firmly planted on the action, not on some other story you're not reading. After Slickie Millane has shot in the gut what he thinks is a mouthy dame, she has reconstituted herself and awaits him in his convertible. 
There was a burst of juke-box jazz. Footsteps tracked from the bar toward the convertible. I leaned back comfortably with my silver-filmed milk glands dramatically highlighted. 
"Hi, Slickie," I called, making my voice sweet and soft to cushion the shock. 
Nevertheless it was a considerable one….Then with a naive ingenuity that rather touched me, he asked huskily, "Hey, have you got a twin sister?"

What it all comes down to is that, whatever else he might be doing during the course of his story, Leiber never forgets his audience. This story sets out to entertain and that's what it does. The fact that it's making cultural commentary or trying to drive home a point is just an added bonus—the story makes sure to succeed on its own terms. Leiber shows writers that they don't have to avoid putting a direct message in their fiction, but that they'd better make it worth the reader's while. Go find yourself a copy of this gem and read it, because it's superfun.


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