I didn’t intend to collect Barry Malzberg paperbacks. When I started buying mass market sci fi by lot, an editor I admire asked me to keep an eye out for Malzberg titles (presumably to pass along to him). Well, I did, and the more of them I picked up, the more my intent to let them go weakened. Earlier this week, I finally got around to reading one of them, and man, I’m just as grateful for the nudge towards Malzberg’s work as I am sorry to inform my friend that, nope, I’m keeping these things.
The Day of the Burning (Ace, 1974) is my introduction to Malzberg, and it begins with the hilariously detached protagonist, George Mercer, screwing his girlfriend in his apartment decorated with depictions of Christ’s passion. Sort of. Except there’s an entity only Mercer can see at the foot of his bed who watches the proceeding and offers discouraging commentary as everything rightfully becomes increasingly tense, awkward, and disappointing. The entity—Paul, Mercer calls him—really doesn’t play as big a part in this novel as you’d think, or maybe it just seems that way, since the reader enjoys (presumably) Paul’s inappropriate invasion of Mercer’s life and Mercer’s cynical acceptance of the weird arrangement.
Oh, and in case you hadn’t noticed: Paul, passion (in at least two senses), Mercer’s identification with Christ… yeah, there’s some heavy-handed imagery in Malzberg’s novel, but it does seem to avoid being on the nose since Mercer responds in exactly all the wrong ways to his magnificently important mission to save the world by way of his employment in a federal assistance office. There’s something to be said about the story of Christ being a story of failure, and whatever could be said about it echoes throughout this novel.
Ultimately, I found The Day of the Burning refreshingly bitter, human, and mocking of the utopian techno-future that sci-fi sometimes annoyingly advocates. Also, Malzberg can write. He’s one of those writers one could cite to challenge the ridiculous division between “literary” and “genre” fiction. I fell in love with his long yet precise sentences, the way he can make you laugh while stirring an empathy for the character’s ridiculous circumstance. He’s a writer with a clear love of the language, someone I imagine William H. Gass would’ve enjoyed if the venerable old man would’ve dared to peek over his copy of Stendhal every once and a while (not entirely fair, I admit, but you know what I mean).
It isn’t, however, perfect. Clocking in at a brisk 166 pages (not counting the quaint, full-color cigarette ads clocking in around page 64… “Try the clean, crisp taste of Kent Menthol”), it doesn’t have much room to be. Still, I would’ve preferred a tighter ending, one more in line, perhaps, by Mercer’s dryness. It’s hard to watch his indifference deflate. Then again, the rage of the ending, the bloodcurdling darkness, faintly echoes the termination of the Venus mission that whispers almost subliminally in the background—I can’t help some giddiness at the stirrings of cosmic horror here and there.
Yes, it was good—magnificent, I’d even say. I’m expecting more gems in the Malzberg catalogue.
Justin A. Burnett