I was in Texas a couple of months ago, so I took along this novel for its Texas setting.
I had been looking at it for years in Uncle Hugo’s Science Fiction Bookstore. An atypical plot and setting for Harness made me reluctant to buy it, and I also hadn’t read all of his earlier novels. (I still haven’t read The Catalyst and Krono.) I finally bought it about a year-and-a-half ago.
Review: Cybele, with Bluebonnets, Charles L. Harness, 2002.
Harness’ last novel is atypical and familiar, charming and enticing in its episodes, and memorable in its overarching story of a deep love that survives death.
Harness’ final novel is a masterpiece in that it skillfully weds his most characteristic theme, what George Zebrowski’s introduction calls “the denial of death and the power of hope”, to a plot that transforms the “dreams and what-might-have-beens” from Harness’ life to “artful alternate realities”.
The milestones of Harness’ early life are here. Birth in Colorado City, Texas in 1915, a move to Fort West (which seems to be Fort Worth in its proximity to Dallas), Texas; an early interest in chemistry; a brief foray into seminary at the behest of his mother; employment as a fingerprint technician in the red light district of Fort Worth; employment at the U. S. Bureau of Mines during World War II, and eventually becoming a patent attorney. Oddly enough, Harness makes no reference to the early death of his older brother which shows up in other novels.
There are asides on Texas history and chemistry – lots of chemistry since Harness was a trained chemist.
There are nods to Edgar Allan Poe and classical music.
There is a deep, passionate, erotic love ended too early and perhaps transmuted. This is, after all, a sort of Grail story.
My first real contact with Cybele Wilson where I could daily undress her with adoring lascivious adolescent eyes, was in high school. She was my chemistry teacher.
She was well named. In ancient Phrygian mythology Cybele was the Goddess of Nature. Miss Cybele Wilson was a very special teacher and a very beautiful woman. I was sixteen, nearly seventeen, and she was not yet twenty-four. Sure, I had a crush on her.
So Joe Barnes opens his account. The next 145 pages recount Barnes’ life from 10 to 30 and his relationship with Cybele. We will hear of Barnes’ mother; the Brothers of St. Joseph, an unorthodox order who guards what they claim is the Holy Grail in a Texas town; Diana Mulligan, madam of a brothel; Sandt, a derelict who hangs out in the brothel; a local minister; classmates and co-workers of Barnes. It’s one of those plots where characters wind through Barnes’ life, each guaranteed at least two appearances.
Harness fans will appreciate this as his most personal story.
Grail completists (in about 1984 I saw a bibliography of Grail stories – it was already thick then) will, of course, want to look at it.
Those looking for a short, moving love story or coming-of-age novel will also appreciate it. At such a short length, it will perhaps wet the appetite of Harness neophytes for the grandeur of his classic science fiction novel The Paradox Men.
Additional Thoughts and Criticisms (with spoilers)
It isn’t just me that thinks highly of this novel.
George Zebrowski, long a Harness promoter, said
For those of us who have read Harness, this novel can only confirm to us what we all know: that at the heart of all his works, both personal and literary, there lives a wonderful human being, whose eager, questing response to his own humanity and to the raw universe has earned him high praise for sharing his vision with his readers. Perhaps this novel will reveal him to be the major American writer whom we read in the words.
Gene Wolfe’s blurb to the publisher:
There are perhaps a thousand wonderful books. Most of us are fortunate if we so much as hear the titles of them in the course of a lifetime. Very few of us ever touch the covers of more than half a dozen. This is one of them. If you do not buy the copy you are holding, you are not likely to see one again.
Rich Horton, who seems to have come closest of anyone I’ve seen in having a web page devoted to Harness, said
It’s a highly readable book, interspersed with almost folksy anecdotes of life in Texas during the 30s, of “Fort West” history, of weird chemical facts and pranks, and of the mysterious “Cup” that might be the Holy Grail. The structure is a bit slack, and the typical Harness hyper-romanticism sometimes fails to convince, but it’s still a nice book, worth reading especially for Harness fans.
Due to much of the home library packed away in boxes, I can’t get at the additional reviews of it I have around, but I may quote more later.
The reincarnation of Cybele into the body of Harness’ daughter as well as the notes he finds from the now dead Cybele at crucial moments seems a variation on the time travel theme of so many Harness stories as well as another working out of a plot destined in some sense.
Some Harness stories conclude with a trial. Here the climax is the birth of Harness’ daughter and the narrator’s bar exam.
Poe not only get’s referenced. One episode is takeoff on Poe’s “The Purloined Letter”.
The earlier Harness novel this most reminded me of is Redworld. Its hero leads a similar life to Barnes though on an alien world. As Horton does, I wonder if Harness had an early affair with an older woman in Fort Worth’s red light district. However as John Clute noted in his obituary for Harness, he was a private man who did not even attend science fiction conventions, so it is unlikely we will ever know.
Thomas McNulty’s blog Dispatches From the Last Outlaw also has a nice appreciation of the novel
Given that this novel is now 14 years old and that you probably haven’t heard of it, those appreciations – like so many appreciations of so many works – seem to have done little good.
There are also some interesting World War One references – especially to one German chemist – that I hope to come back to at a later date.