Even a mere glance through Stay, John Clute’s latest collection of book reviews, short stories, and lexicon entries, (or through any of Clute's books, really) will convince you that you are in the presence of genius.
But a genius of what type? The type that can turn a million candy wrappers into a surprisingly convincing small-scale replica of a rocket ship, or the type that zips to the heart of a zeitgeist faster than the rest of us? Is this genius a fox, a hedgehog, an anorak? Does it sing in seemingly effortless perfect pitch, or is its singing, like that of a dog, remarkable simply for being at all?
The desire to taxonomize is inevitable after reading even a few pages of Clute. He is a wild literary Linnaeus: obsessively compulsed to categorize. As someone generally uninterested in taxonomy, I have struggled to learn to read Clute appreciatively. I used to want to shoot his clay pigeonholes, to mock his neologistic frenzies, to clothe the emperor. But then I realized I was enjoying his work too much to do so. Clute’s imperative to categorize is contagious. I’d passed through the portal and made my way into Cluteland.
The castle of Cluteland is the lexicon. If there were such a thing as Doctor of Diction, John Clute would have an honorary one from every honorable university in the world. We can talk about Clute’s analyses and opinions and concepts and structures, taking them or leaving them by the wayside, but the feature we can never avoid in any such discussion is his words. While Clute has won numerous awards and honors over the years, it seems to me the most fitting and perfect was bestowed on him by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer with their 2009 Last Drink Bird Head Award (for Service to the SF/F Community) for “Expanding Our Vocabulary.” True, true, irrefragably true! In Cluteland, the desire to categorize becomes contagious, yes, but the most magnificent plague is the delight in words.
One of Stay's most valuable features is that it reprints (with revisions) Clute's 2006 The Darkening Garden: A Short Lexicon of Horror, originally published by the (late, lamented) small press Payseur & Schmidt. While not as impressive in its girth and erudition as Clute's contributions to The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, The Darkening Garden is a marvel because it is pure essence of Clute: a tone poem skein of idiosyncrasies born out of the primordial ooze of other texts, strung together via clever lines of demarcation. Consider, for instance, this description:
In terms of the prescriptive four-seasons model of the narrative structure of Horror which governs most of the entries in this lexicon, Sighting, the first stage in that model, signals the moment when the protagonist (or the narrative voice of the story) begins to recognize a Thickening (which is the second stage) in the texture of the world, just as the Wrongness (stage one in the equivalent Fantasy model) is an augur of the Thinning (stage two) of the old world into a condition of desert Amnesia. (331)
Model is a valuable word here, for that is what Clute creates, and what he is a master of. Working through the complexities of Clute’s sentences can require some exertion, but it is generally rewarding, not only for the pure sonic and grammatic wonder, but for the way ideas are dictated to dance.
Clute does not usually draw his sentences out of Gertrude Stein’s Oakland, California: there’s a there there, even if the there looks, on first encounter, like splat of nowhere and eye of newt. Think of the model as a sculpture, as an art object, as something that can exist for itself and by itself, that can be as much imagination as fact. Clute admits that his model in The Darkening Garden is not a definitive or exhaustive description of horror, but rather a cherrypicking in favor of the shape he wants to make: “It should be noted that little attention is paid in this lexicon to texts which frustrate the model, or can be seen as stalled at some point in the grammar, or which parody the model” (313). It is the model and not what lies outside the model that matters most.
Clute believes the model has heuristic uses, and it may, but they are surely minor. If we evaluate his models for their use-value, we miss their wonder. We do not evaluate the contraptions imagined by a Rube Goldberg or a Heath Robinson for their ability to adhere to the mundane any more than we value a Bugatti Veyron for its ability to convey us to the post office.
All roads in Cluteland digress across allusions, whims, and cross-references—well before the Internet, he was hyperlinking. It is often in the digressions that he is at his most insightful and amusing, a truth as well for his stylistic comrades, the critics John Leonard, Greil Marcus, and Lester Bangs. Clute is of their generation, a generation of free jazzers and psychedelic rockers, a generation for whom brief notices in the back pages of mimeographed culture rags could be conceived as sites for art. Leonard and Bangs are dead, but Marcus and Clute carry on in defiance of the overwhelming demand for nonfiction to cower in the shadow of fiction’s artful dodges, for reviews to be commodity commentary accompanied by star rankings, for everything to be clear and interchangeable and useful and monetizable and acronymical and brandable and listacle.
Clute’s desire for his models to be maps for hermenauts and blueprints for actual structures—to be, in other words, useful—works against his talents as an artist. His best contraptions are the ones most his own, and the flow of his ideas dies when stopped and chopped. Contagious as his tendencies may be, essence of Clute cannot be bottled for sale at the writer’s workshop canteen. This is obvious when we see people try to take up his vocabulary. In the key of Clute, fantastika, polder, vastation, fustian, etc., all make music together because they are part of music-making models, but transferred to the dull thrum of everyday writing, they blow clunks. Watching other people wield Clute’s idiolect is like watching toddlers play with sex toys: at once funny, gross, and embarrassing.
Once we move beyond the words, what becomes clear about Clute is that he is a man at odds. For instance, his recognition that the Enlightenment project of rationalizing the world can’t survive in these post(to-the-nth-power)modern days is at odds with his desire to fit the world, or at least its texts, into a taxonomy—there is no more emblematically Enlightenment project than the Encyclopedia in all its world-grasping imperial glory. In The Darkening Garden, Clute is insightful about how certain literary tendencies arose in the gaps between the Enlightenment’s ideals and realities, and he knows, of course, that none of his grand narrative theories can account for everything that is the case, but nonetheless, he will try, and he will labor on his Enlightenmentesque endeavors, all the while knowing his desires are doomed. Perhaps we should dub him John Quixote.
Clute’s doom is our delight, however, because if we separate ourselves from the need to judge his use-value or truth-value or any other value beyond the aesthetic and wondrous, we will discover that he is, at least within the form most fitting for his talent, what he has always been: an exciting and extraordinary writer, an artist floating in his own world.
Before The Darkening Garden, Stay offers us some rarities: Clute’s short stories, published occasionally over the decades (he has also published two novels, The Disinheriting Party and Appleseed). While it is often assumed that those people we call Critics are separate from those people we call Fiction Writers, this is procrustean pigeonholing, one that would never get past Cluteland’s border patrols. Within the small world of science fiction, some of the best early critics were themselves accomplished fictioneers: James Blish, Damon Knight, Judith Merril. Within science fiction, it’s actually easier to think of fiction writers who were critics than critics who were never fiction writers.
On the evidence of the stories here, John Clute is not a great writer of fiction, but his stories are also very much, to their credit, richly redolent of Cluteness. For me they lack the mysterious flame that gives fiction life, and are best described by Clute’s own phrase for someone else’s work as having “difficulty with the beat of Next that drives all great story” (168). Clute’s linguistic interests cause his science fiction tales to congeal into hermetic expressions that are admirably unique but don’t proffer much pleasure beyond the parsing—the effort of getting there exhausts the remnants of there there. His stories read a bit like science fictional relatives of the work of Greer Gilman, but without the alchemist’s magic that transmutes mysterious etymological matter into golden strands of momentum. The stories are, though, so determinedly playing their own tune that perhaps they will delight readers more successful than I at grooving on their wavelength.
The majority of Stay is not The Darkening Garden or the short stories, but rather two hundred pages of essays and book reviews, many of them first published here at Strange Horizons. They are arranged chronologically, beginning with a review from the late (lamented?) SyFy Weekly of Gwyneth Jones’s Spirit, or, The Princess of Bois Dormant and finishing with an introduction for a gallery exhibit in New South Wales in 2014. In between, there are excursions through the works of writers young and old, of fiction and non-, of novels, anthologies, story collections, and one movie (Under the Skin).
It is interesting to trace the lines of Clute’s thought through the labyrinth of the essays and reviews. He’s been writing reviews for over fifty years now—Stay marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of what was, he says in the introduction, his first SF review, of Philip K. Dick’s Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch in 1964—and the passion that has carried that project through the decades becomes clear in these pages, as Clute repeatedly seeks from his beloved sci-fi not escape, not comfort, not a way to pass some time, but something like transcendent Truth. This explains, perhaps, why his deepest commitment is not to fantasy and horror, which he’s certainly written about plenty, but to science fiction, the literature most fully enchanted by the techniques of verisimilitude. Science fiction is often said to be in opposition to realism, yet surely science fiction is the fiction that most fetishizes and worships the Real. All science fiction’s powers to sense wonder and to concretize metaphors derive from each story’s dogged insistence on the tale’s own reality. Science fiction in the mode of Hugo Gernsback, John W. Campbell, Robert Heinlein, and all their ancestors is a determinedly realistic mode, the textual equivalent to Samuel Johnson’s refutation of Bishop Berkeley’s idealist philosophy by the kicking of a rock. Against the assaults of unreason, slipping signifiers, fevre dreams, and the metatexts of postmodernism, science fiction stands on the threshold of irreality and refutes it thus. (Philip K. Dick is a science fiction writer in his desperate yearning for reality. His books are elegies for the Real.) Hence the title of this collection: reality, as Clute says in his review of Adam Roberts’ Jack Glass and M. John Harrison’s Empty Space, is what stays. “What truly distinguishes writers like these from postmodernists,” Clute writes, “is a conviction that ‘reality’ matters desperately, that it is worth any cost to gain sufficient skill to bleed yourself dry against the briars that scratch our eyes out in order to fail better at the task of telling it” and, he adds in a new note,—“of making it stay . . . ” (155).
The conviction that “‘reality’ matters desperately” seems to be one Clute shares, but it causes him problems because it puts him at odds with much contemporary science fiction. Again and again in the reviews in Stay, we glimpse Clute’s disenchantment with genre core samples. Reviewing Jonathan Strahan’s anthology Engineering Infinity, Clute writes that “If there was solace and delight in the book (in retrospect there was a bit), or maybe even a hint of a clue of how to describe the experience of living here in the future, it had gassed through me like phlogiston” (118). (Using phlogiston here is yet another example of Clute’s marvelous diction, for the word refers to an idea from seventeenth- and eighteenth-century chemistry, an idea important to the early development of chemistry as we know it, but useless for the last few centuries. The sort of science fiction Strahan published in Engineering Infinity, such a word implies, is an archaic remnant of an outmoded idea.) In another review, Clute wonders why we should bother to read Karl Schroeder’s Lockstep, “whose megatext models are pure twentieth century, and which features a protagonist less deft with the gurrils than Richie Cunningham, oh Happy Days?” (218). Again and again, Clute shows, whether intentionally or not, that science fiction as science fiction cannot escape the twentieth century, its era of glory, the last time its dreams had much oomph or relevance. Why bother, indeed.
Though reviews are what Clute is perhaps best known for, and represent the longest endeavor of his career, book reviewing does not seem to me to be his natural habitat. This is not to say he’s bad at it—far from it—but rather that the form confines him, and not always in the productive way that the formal requirements of lexicon and encyclopedia entries free him through constraint. Clute’s reviews are at their best when the material under review allows him to expand on his ideas without riding a hobbyhorse off into the sunset. When he reviews anthologies, for instance, he often gives us all the virtues of both the book review form and his own perspective, because anthologies inevitably provide some sort of argument to bounce off of, even if it’s just the argument that the stories collected within the book belong together. The varied contents of an anthology allow Clute to mix and match at will, to paint his abstract expressionist portrait of the book without being stuck to one set of characters, settings, plots. His review of two urban fantasy anthologies is a marvel, for instance—it’s got plenty of ineffable Cluteness, plus real insight not only about the books themselves, but about the “urban fantasy” label and how anthologies and labels work together, for better and worse.
Sometimes, Clute collapses into the black hole of his own compulsive obsessions. The worst piece in the book is a review of Andrew Milner’s Locating Science Fiction, a book Clute calls “the finest general assessment of sf theory yet published” (197), which is like praising someone for being the finest collector of balls of twine in northwestern Duluth. But this is not to disagree with Clute in his assessment of Milner’s perfectly unobjectionable book, because it’s not the assessment that’s so awful here, but rather the fact that John Quixote can’t hold himself back from charging at a windmill, in this case a monster he’s mistaken for MLA citation. You read that right. The terrible giant of John Quixote’s imagination is a citational practice. More than that, a citational practice he doesn’t understand and can’t be bothered to learn much about, but which nonetheless apparently causes him enough deep, existential grief to write about it for pages.
It’s pointless to argue with a man attacking a windmill. All I will say is: Yes, Milner’s citations in Locating Science Fiction are cumbersome and ugly, and some of Clute’s points about why are absolutely correct, but Milner and Liverpool University Press are at fault there for not paying enough attention to clarity and precision, which the MLA, at least, encourages in their guidelines. In any case, the many citational systems out there all really do have a logic to their madness, even if their logic is not that of Cluteland. Clute’s own use of bold typeface for dates (not to mention the awful all-caps and italics for new parenthetical notes) is annoying, and he himself gives us horrors such as this:
Here is Thomas Mann, ending Doktor Faustus: Das Leben des Deutschen Tonsetzers Adrian Leverküln, Erzählt von Einem Freunde (1947 Sweden; trans H. T. Lowe-Porter as Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend 1948 US), a Pact-With-the-Devil tale ostensibly about Germany . . .  (330)
Those citational briars scratching out our eyes would be cut back quite nicely by the simple addition of a Works Cited page, or even a footnote. But doing so might please Cluteland’s mortal enemy, the Illuminati-like MLA.
Clute’s review of Milner’s citational system is revealing because it shows us that what we value in Clute (the idiosyncrasies, the passionate gabble of garble, the impossible dream of a unified field of taxonomical perfection) comes from the same engine house of compulsive obsession that makes him, at times, vexing. It takes a great eccentricity and a truly weird passion to carry a person through the sorts of work Clute does, wending his way through junkyards of tales often dully written and clumsily conceived, and if we value the work he does, we must also value the moments when John Quixote saddles up a word-powered Rocinante to save us all from evil giants, whether they be hiding as windmills or unfortunate citational practices—mere brambles, really, in the delightful cartography of Cluteland.
Matthew Cheney's work has appeared in a wide variety of venues, including English Journal, Weird Fiction Review, Locus, SF Site, Rain Taxi, and elsewhere. He was the series editor for three volumes of Best American Fantasy, and is the co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His weblog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a 2005 World Fantasy Award. You can also find his work in our archives.