It’s always a treat to delve into any of Ray Bradbury’s work. It’s imaginative, evocative and very literary. It’s easy to tell the diehard readers from the casual observers: the diehards read Bradbury and LOVE it. And get it.
I’ve noticed when I talk about the written word with some readers, there are those for whom the written word is just there to convey information. “Show me the scene and let me see what happens” they seem to be saying, and for those readers, a book is no different than an instruction manual for a blender. If the writing doesn’t say exactly what it means, then it must not be very good writing – for that reader.
Well, I’m hear to tell you, sorry, that’s not what fiction is.
I won’t argue that clarity isn’t necessary, of course it is, but fiction rides the fine line between conveying information and implying context or mood or an aesthetic. It uses metaphor and subtext to do this.
Ray Bradbury’s work is a perfect example of this. He is the master of metaphor and every action in his work happens in subtext – between the lines (or to be really, really clear you have to understand what the words are implying, not just saying). In his short piece “The Man Upstairs” he never tells you what anyone is feeling and it’s very rare to hear any character’s thought. Instead he shows their feelings and thoughts through their actions and their various comments and you, the reader, have to interpret what’s actually going on.
“The Man Upstairs” as a story that takes place in 1926. The point of view character is (as is often the case with Bradbury stories) a little boy about eight or nine years old. He lives with his grandparents in their boarding home. The grandmother runs the boarding home and the grandfather works as the chief editor at the local newspaper. One day a strange man arrives and takes a room upstairs. The little boy, Douglas, can’t explain why he doesn’t like him, he just doesn’t. Bradbury doesn’t go through much detail to explain why either or even how. All the text does is say that when Douglas sees the man he takes a step back (“he stepped away”). That’s all that Bradbury felt he needed to say to convey to the reader that this stranger is not to be trusted. A young, innocent boy won’t trust to be near him, neither should you.
Douglas is pretty innocent. He obviously has a limited understanding of how the world works. He watches his grandmother in fascination as she guts a chicken and dresses it for dinner. He asks if everyone has the same stuff inside as the chicken and his grandmother explains that it basically the same, a bit larger and in different places. Then he brings up the woman down the street with the large belly like his grandfather.
The conversation goes something like this. Douglas(pointing to the chicken): “Grammy, am I like that inside?” Grandma: “Yes. A little more orderly and presentable, but just about the same…” Douglas: “And more of it!” (he rubs his belly, proud of his guts). Grandma: “Yes, more of it.” Douglas: “Grandpa has lot more’n me. His sticks out in front so he can rest his elbow on it.” (Grandma laughs and shakes her head.) Douglas: “What about Luce Williams down the street, she…” Grandma: “Hush child!” Douglas: “But she’s got…” Grandma: “Never you mind what she’s got! That’s different.”
That is all that is mentioned of the woman and her belly, but it’s easily implied that the grandmother is too embarrassed to explain that the woman is having a child outside of wedlock.
Where did I get that? In the subtext of course. I added that Douglas “rubbed his belly.” Instead Bradbury just wrote, “proud of his guts”, but it sounds like the boy is presenting his belly which can also be interpreted as guts (a good thesaurus and/or dictionary will tell that). Also when Douglas mentions that grandpa can rest an elbow on it, I think of the old expression of someone having a gut so large that it can be used as a shelf or a table, so it’s not a far leap to say that Luce Williams has a large gut too, even if Douglas never says so. She’s the next comparison to the chicken’s innards and Douglas’s belly. Grandma’s reaction to the child’s question, something she doesn’t want to talk about with him, tells me everything I need to know. Grandma thinks that this is an inappropriate topic for a child. The rest is elementary. All without mentioning the word pregnant, or any lecture on the topic which the grandmother wouldn’t be having with an eight year old anyways.
There is a moment in the story that I just call open magic where the boy sees his grandmother as more than just an elderly woman, or the manager of the boarding house, but as someone with magical power: “It was a wonder when Grandma brandished silver shakers over the bird, supposedly sprinkling showers of mummy-dust and pulverized Indian bones, muttering mystical verses under her toothless breath.”
The metaphor is on the inside being surrounded by the true thing as opposed to the opposite where it is the other way around. When Douglas says: “Grandma is a witch”, he isn’t implying that she’s an elderly woman who does things that are so amazing that they seem to be magical. No, Douglas literally sees Grandma as a witch. This is an innocent child’s point of view of Grandma and how he feels about her. He can’t see her as a regular, powerless human, because she’s Grandma – all powerful and magical. She can transform a dead bird into delicious food. The subtext is superficial at this point, because we are only looking at the world through a child’s eyes, someone who doesn’t have a sophisticated understanding of the world. At least, not yet.
Subtext is Bradbury’s style. Almost nothing happens in the story and there’s very little to show the reader on the surface (those looking for blender instructions will be very disappointed in it). The story is as the title states an exploration of “the Man Upstairs”. But it never says directly who he is. None of the characters when they meet him is sure who the stranger is or what about him makes them uneasy. Some character barely even notice their uneasiness.
For Douglas the stranger is frightening like lightening. (There’s a scene where the boy stands in the stranger’s room helping him and he reminds him of the fearful cold light that illuminated his room during a lightening storm.)
Bradbury uses his description of the stranger to tell us how Douglas feels about him. “Cold grey eyes…gloves rich and thick and grey on his thin fingers, and wore a horribly new straw hat.” It’s not just new, it’s horribly new as if deliberately chosen to blend in. When Douglas goes into the room that the stranger is leasing, he pauses at the threshold, “The room was changed oddly, simply because the stranger had been in it a moment.” How “oddly”? We don’t know, Douglas only says that it used to bright and flowery when the woman lived there. Even the stranger’s umbrella leaning against the bed is “like a dead bat with its dark wings folded.” But that’s as direct as the language gets. Bradbury never says who or what this stranger is, instead the language he surrounds him with not only makes us, the reader feel eerie about him, but gives us clues. Grey is his main coloring, not unlike a corpse. A dead bat hangs in his room. (No, not literally, remember metaphor? A thing that represents a thing.) Later, perhaps to be more overt, Bradbury has Douglas watching the stranger through a stained glass window as he arrives back at daybreak. Douglas watches him through the red portion. Hint, hint.
The word vampire gets mentioned by the boarders as they sup around the table, but it’s only superstitious conjecture about the women in town who have gone missing or found violently killed. We never see pointy teeth, or blood sucking or anyone skulking about vampire-like. Everything supernatural happens on a sub-textual level as if there was something magical underneath the surface of the text. The blender instructions are telling us one thing, but something else, something incredible is happening underneath them, something we merely have to imagine, something we have to dig deeper for in order to understand.