"Everybody's backed by a second narrative. Everybody's nickname is Ace."
-Albert Goldbarth, "Everybody's Nickname"
"We can rig a supernove in a super laptop jiffy."
-Goldbarth, "Budget Travel Through Space and Time"
According to poet Albert Goldbarth, we are double. The spring issue of Georgia Review (vol. 61, no. 1), contains an essay by Goldbarth that is an addictive blend of the pulp science fiction works of Ace Books, Allen Ginsberg's Howl, life in Midwest cities, cognitive neuroscience, and a woman named Gaea. The essay is both a nostalgic reminiscence of Ace Books' double novels and an inquiry into how our lives are always bifurcated--or, as Goldbarth puts it, how they are always "backed by a second narrative." Using Ace's double novels as his primary canvas, Goldbarth paints a convincing landscape of the multiple world in which we all seem to live. (And the essay is sectioned off from the rest of the magazine, printed in full-color, on glossy, and with the essay's own cover page--Georgia Review obviously sees they have something special here.)
From the start, Goldbarth's essay crackles with linguistic vigor and an obvious love of pulp writing. The work begins with quotes from covers of some Ace books: "MAROONED ON A WORLD OF MONSTERS! SHOWDOWN ON THE SUN'S LAST PLANET!" Goldbarth's appreciation for the zany plot manipulations and punchy titles of Ace books is infectious. Along with a penchant for outlandish other-worldly language (also apparent in his book of poems Budget Travel Through Space and Time), the writing of Goldbarth the essayist has, luckily, much in common with Goldbarth the poet--so we still get such lines as "What thin spit and ephemeral synaptic flimmer bind these halves together," metaphors such as, "If she were the earth, then she had two orbiting satellites: my eyes," and nicely extended conceits, such as the driving one of mankind's essentially dualistic life, from brain science to personal narratives to the literature we enjoy.
Reading Goldbarth's essay about these thirty-five-cent sci-fi novels from the early American 20th century--novels unabashedly titled The Dark Destroyers, and with cover blurbs like "NO PLACE ON EARTH TO LIE DOWN!"--it is difficult to tell exactly how serious Goldbarth is being and how much he is just having a good time. Not that it matters, and maybe that is some of what the essay is driving at: it is in such fun-books, genre fiction, tall tales, that we can see much of our own psychosis and narratives written back at us bald and alive.
Goldbarth's main point is compelling and difficult to miss: we lead multiple lives, often unnoticed or unappreciated by us. "The brain is butterflied into its left-right hemispheres:" he writes, dovetailing an appreciation of Ace double novels to the dual nature of the human brain. "Sometimes, in a certain aspect, they work with a uniform will; at other times, these wings have seemingly landed here, each from a different world, and become hinged arbitrarily." Goldbarth mentions often (in relation to himself and others) how we tragically disregard our other selves ("A CHASE THROUGH ALTERNATE WORLDS!"), sometimes at our own peril.
And, on top of such a swashbuckling-wham-banging ride of an essay, Goldbarth also includes an illuminating and fascinating story about how--thanks to Allen Ginsberg and his muse, Carl Solomon--some of the beat writers were first published by none other than Ace Books. Goldbarth describes his own youthful reaction to these long lost gems of pop-literature: "...almost all 262 of the gaudy lilies published as 'Ace science-fiction-doubles' were gilded with lovely, punchy, overly zaftig descriptions. 'PRESENT AND FUTURE CLASH IN A WORLD OF THE PAST!' You betcha. Resistance was futile."
At the end of the essay, there is the sudden desire to wish that this was only a first chapter to a longer book on the world of pulp culture, fiction, and doubleness by Goldbarth. Maybe (hopefully) there is more to come on the subject. For now, we are left with this, engaged once more to see our lives, not only in the canon taught to us in school, but also in those works of fiction which captivated our youth: "I look at that earth, through time and wine and a thousand compounded emotions, and I look until there are many earths, or anyway many planets, zooming amazingly through the skies of those books I used to read for just thirty-five cents. In one, the aliens clobbered us. In another, we emerged triumphant. Whoever the 'aliens' were by then--whoever 'we' were."