Review: Meet the master of the multiverse in The Best of Michael Moorcock

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

Like a dusting-up of windblown leaves, flower petals, rags and jester's caps comes the cloud of names: Elric of Melniboné, Corum, Count Brass, Oswald Bastable, Jerry Cornelius, Jherek Carnelian, Una Persson, Shakey Mo, Hawkmoon, Von Bek ... and, most fancifully of all, Michael Moorcock. Out of that whirlwind of names, most of them belonging to embitterered heroes and lost souls, his stands out as that of a conjurer. Moorcock is the wielder of the wandlike pen that has magicked up a list of characters who are, paradoxically, altogether memorable and almost too many to remember.

His most famous, of course, is that sword-wielding antihero whose albino visage has looked out on readers from ornately fey paperback covers for decades now. The tale of sword and sorcery becomes, under Moorcock's hands, something different from the sagas of brutal spellcasting and impassioned violence, as it had been from the pen of that talented Texan, Robert E. Howard. Moorcock—an English-born writer who is also now a Texan, as it happens—never limited himself to such fantasies, however. Concurrently he has been writing space fantasies, satiric science fiction and edgy sorts of near-future or post-historical stories of psychedelia. His shifts between fictional forms have always seemed not so much like progression as a hopping, skipping and jumping: he will be one kind of writer one moment, then a different one in the next—and then back again. That changeability, that full embrace of eclecticism, quickly became one of his trademarks—and still remains one. The name of series character Cornelius/Carnelian even invokes the chameleon.

This changeability has made it frustratingly hard for us as readers to gain a firm sense of who the true Moorcock is. Where do we shelve all these books in our mental libraries? Since some of us have been wondering for decades, I have the feeling that many who pick up The Best of Michael Moorcock (Tachyon, $14.95) will do so in hopes that it will strike the clarifying, unifying note—at long last.

Since some among Moorcock's shorter works do seem to encapsulate, in small, the man and his writings, this ample collection may be just the right Grail Cup for your quest-ending quaffing.

The Best of Michael Moorcock of necessity ranges widely across the fictional map. It begins with a recent, reflective story of Elric, moves on to another featuring a Cornelius sidekick, then settles into the territory overseen by a pedigreed tangle of characters—the von Beks/Beggs—before jumping back to a point early in Moorcock's career with his single most famous story, "Behold the Man," that early winner of the Nebula Award. Several stories along the way have no trappings of the fantastic or the future, while others take place in the near future, or an alternate present, such as the trio of shorts that make up "My Experiences in the Third World War" or the longest selection here, "The Cairene Purse."

"Behold the Man," now best known in its novel version, appears here in its award-winning novella form. It remains a compressed, vivid and intriguing portrayal of a man, Karl Glogauer, who obsesses over both Christianity and Jungian psychiatry. He is an amateur in the practice of the latter. After befriending a fellow Jungian enthusiast—who happens to have developed a time machine—Glogauer takes a test journey into the past, aiming for the year 29 A.D. He makes it, crashes his time machine, crawls out of the wreckage—and is recognized instantly as an Egyptian magus worthy of the attentions of John the Baptist. In Glogauer's journey to discover the historical truth of Jesus, he finds himself taking the place of the one he seeks. Glogauer is empowered with prophetic insight because of his knowledge of the Bible and history, and capable of "miracles" through his treatments of psychosomatic illnesses among the stricken souls he meets.

A story now more than 40 years old, "Behold the Man" remains intriguing for the intelligence with which Moorcock handles his subject matter, and for the story's treatment. Moorcock relates it in fragments, sprinkling snippets of Glogauer's 20th-century life among the passages relating his progress in the ancient Holy Lands. "Behold the Man" cannily juxtaposes a realistic story of an ordinary man—one whose labor is to embody a monumental myth—with a symbolic story of actual rebirth. The rebirth is there from the beginning, since the story opens with the spherical time machine cracking open to release Glogauer onto the desert sands—in essence presenting the image of an egg releasing its new life. Glogauer goes on to work his way through a series of transformative events while wavering between madness and sanity.

This justly famous story is not perfect in all its aspects, with perhaps its greatest weakness lying in the presentation of the story's only significant female character: Monica, Glogauer's argumentative counterpart in the 20th century. Through her disparaging comments against Glogauer, the reader comes to understand Glogauer's ideas and aspirations. She is a fictional artifice, a mere structural device, however—which is unfortunate, when so many of the numerous, hirsutely male Holy Land characters do seem to have traces of real life being breathed into them.

Among the more compeling stories here is the novelette "London Bone," a story that transforms the conservative revolution of Thatcher's England into the story of a man who profits enormously from the discovery of strangely mineralized bits of carved bone buried in the soil of London itself. To possess a bit of bone becomes stylish among the well-to-do: and this covetous, acquisitional hunger among the wealthy launches protagonist Raymond Gold into a realm of almost unimaginable wealth.

Perhaps the single most powerful work in this collection, however, is "The Cairene Purse," a novella that immerses the reader in an Egypt of the imminent post-oil future. A man named Paul Pappenheim is in Aswan seeking his archaeologist sister, Beatrice. She had made a major discovery, but seems to have become mixed up with flying-saucer nuts. His search takes him through different levels of tangled Egyptian society, while his sister's experiences take him into realms where his ability to believe fails him. This is an intricate and exotic story of failed bridges𔃀between materialism and faith, between the past and the future.

The book has its oddities, including its presentation of story after story ending in the death of the main figure: Shakey Mo in "A Dead Singer;" Edwin Begg in "Lunching with the Antichrist," Charlie in "The Opium General" and Karl Glogauer in "Behold the Man." Even the butterfly dies at the end of the non-fantastic vignette named after it: "A Winter Admiral." Something, it seems, must die in a Moorcock story—be it only an idea, a dream or even the impossible child of a fantastic union.

Where my quest for that clarifying, unifying Moorcockian note ended, by the way, was in the exemplary "The Cairene Purse." You may well find it elsewhere—perhaps in those reflections upon power and unbridled free markets in "London Bone," or in that still-razor-sharp "Behold the Man."

As large as this collection is—it presents you with more than 400 pages of good reading—The Best of Michael Moorcock had its origins in an even heftier manuscript organized by its editor, Moorcock expert John Davey. With the help of the current Weird Tales editor and her novelist husband, Ann and Jeff VanderMeer, the book became more manageable while still offering us a remarkable window through which to gaze in upon a fascinating writer.

I am all for its omission of Stormbringer in favor of London bones and Cairene purses. You may feel otherwise. But you owe it to yourself to see if you do.