Review: This is me, Jack Vance!

Jack Vance image (found on Wikipedia) -- Vance has loved boats and travel his entire life
Jack Vance (found on Wikipedia) -- he has loved boats and travel his entire life

This is me, Jack Vance! is an odd title for a pretty odd book. I have been a fan of Jack Vance for over thirty years, and for most of those years I have considered him my favorite writer by virtue of a single gendankenexperiment — suppose every writer in the world were to have a new book released, which one would you pick up and read first?

Overly analytical readers (if you haven’t introduced yourselves, please do — since we may be kindred spirits) will observe that this experiment does not necessarily discern what one might consider the “best” writer. Greater writers may be prone to writing difficult or lengthy books, and while one might admire their works greatly, one would not necessarily reach for them at any hour of the day for light entertainment. Vance’s books are not, to use a phrase that was in vogue when I was younger, “deep and meaningful” — they are generally both slim and entertaining. One evening many years ago some friends of mine and I (all of whom I had successfully hooked on Vance) were arguing over the names of the planets in the Rigel Concourse (part of the setting of Vance’s “Demon Princes” series) and — in an attempt to settle the argument — I resorted to the text, found the answer, and promptly reread all five books before going to sleep. Of more modern SF writers, Iain Banks — say — is equally light, but hardly so economical.

Well, that is more than enough of me. This is me is a sketch outline of an autobiography that comprises, roughly speaking, three parts. The first covers Vance’s early life, looking for and generally finding work pretty much anywhere around California during the Great Depression. This part is interesting chiefly in that it gives you some idea of the sources of several story threads repeatedly figuring in Vance’s novels — childhoods surrounded by mystery and tragedy (an improbable number of his classmates came to sticky ends, including one unsolved murder), the child raised by one parent, the well-born character who finds himself hard up and struggles to earn back a more comfortable place in society, and the scheming and cheating of relatives (unpleasant aunts in particular). It’s clear that Vance is no stranger to tough, even dangerous, work, and exactly the kind of cautiously self-reliant character who is often the hero of his stories. Several of Vance’s most amusing anecdotes are self-deprecating accounts of his misadventures in the California mining industry.

The narrative goes into fast forward when Vance joins the merchant marine — in large part to avoid the draft — and aside from some sketches of certain port visits tells us little of how he spent most of WWII. We learn almost in passing that his writing career began, in essence, with the enormous amount of spare time available to seamen.

Things slow down again when Vance returns to California, enters university, courts various women, and eventually meets and marries Norma, who becomes both his life and career partner. Vance’s account of married life becomes more-or-less a travelogue (he did much of his writing “on the road” when money was available, and travelled extensively in Europe, the Pacific, Asia, and Africa) omitting any detail of his life in the US, unless it is parties or visits to other parts of the country. The travel stories are interesting (again, Vance’s descriptions of food, strange lodging places, and dishonest innkeepers are frequently hilarious and — it seems clear — based on extensive personal experience) but even they are very sketchy.

When Vance goes blind in the 1980s, his life — in the narrative sense — ends, since he cannot travel, there is little more for him to say. The final part of the book is a very cursory discussion of his work habits and writing ethos. There’s probably little more that he could reveal about his writing than he does say (he himself has little time for writers who write about writing) — perhaps the most enlightening information for me was that, for as long as he could see, he wrote longhand (Norma typed his longhand drafts, he then revised them by hand, she retyped, he checked, and they submitted).

It seems to me that writing longhand perhaps imposed a discipline and brevity on his work that typing might not have. Indeed, when he switched to using a computer system to accommodate his failing eyesight the resulting books (notably Lyonesse and Cadwal) are suddenly much longer — although I think most readers would count five of the six books among his best work (the third Cadwal book is relatively weak and almost unnecessary).

Overall, I’m happy to have read This is me, but I found it a very melancholy experience — perhaps because its dedication immediately impresses upon the reader that Norma — the love of Vance’s life — died in 2008. Vance says somewhere that he always avoided dictating his books, but this is how he wrote This is me, and it seems to have turned out all right. It’s interesting that his authorial voice is a constant — I would not have guessed that Lyonesse was written by a nearly blind man working at a computer while the books just preceding it (e.g. The Book of Dreams) were written in longhand and This is me was dictated.

The only hints of changes in methodology are the creeping in of uncharacteristic errors in his very late works (e.g. This is me repeatedly states that he could not stand the title given to To Live Forever, and a footnote explains something or other the second time it appears in the narrative rather than the first). It’s easy to see that, as a writer, Vance is remains a consummate professional and composes each sentence carefully in his head before committing bits to memory.

There’s very little in This is me that the close reader of Vance’s books would not have guessed, barring particular details. Indeed, I had even guessed some of the particulars (e.g. The Gray Prince — perhaps Vance’s most “deep and meaningful” book — was published very close to the time the Vances travelled in South Africa and Rhodesia — which he drily notes was subsequently renamed by native people not wishing to memorialize Sir Cecil Rhodes). I wonder if The Anome coincided with a visit to Thailand — he was certainly in the area at roughly the right time, but he makes no mention of the book or any such visit.

So, it’s an entertaining book (modulo the general air of sadness mentioned earlier), but neither enormously enlightening nor compelling. There are no salacious details — indeed Vance has nothing nasty to say about anyone (the closest he comes is a matter-of-fact account of transactions with a Greek landlady, and perhaps the side-by-side descriptions of Poul Anderson and Frank Herbert, which tend to leave the latter in a poor light). Oh, and there’s one extremely funny non-account of Norma’s reaction to mixing Guinness and liquor. If you’re not a fan of Jack Vance, I doubt this book will turn you into one — and if you are a fan, I doubt it will add much to your mental image of The Author. Like everything by Vance, it’s beautifully written with his trademark concise-but-evocative descriptions and wry humor, but like most of his later works — i.e. everything since Cadwal — it feels underdone and unsatisfying, almost as if he got tired of the exercise before he was really finished.

Vance has said both in This is me and elsewhere that this is his last book, and that there are no more stories left in him. If so, farewell Jack Vance, and thank you.