Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Tarzan Alive (Philip Jose Farmer, 1972)

Edgar Rice Burroughs is the longest and most influential thread that can be traced through my life.  His writing has had a far more profound effect on me as a human being than any other author, or heck, any other interest I've pursued has.  His characters still shape my interactions with others to this day, and while John Carter of Mars is my ideal, Tarzan is not far behind.  So becoming aware of Farmer's fictional biography of Tarzan, I knew it was a must-read, and I picked it up at Pulpfest this year.  I think I devoured it in about three days; I'd intended to pass it along to my father on Saturday, but lines of communication got crossed and we never ended up meeting for dinner.  While not the Edgar Rice Burroughs addict I am, he's read some and he enjoys pulp literature - and most importantly, he loves the Flashman Papers, so I figured this would be right up his alley.

How does one review a biography, let alone a fictional one? It's not like I can assess the accuracy or factuality of Farmer's work - not without going through Burke's Peerage in detail, which I am absolutely not prepared to do.  I've recently picked up most of the Tarzan series in paperback (over the years I've read about half the series at various times, but never the whole canon), and I plan to make that a big project here at Paperback Perils in the coming months, going through the entire series in order - and I may be referring back to Tarzan Alive while doing so.

But back to the book at hand, Farmer takes the conceit of Tarzan being a real human being whose exploits were fictionalized by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and takes off running with it.  He combs through the published works and sifts the information, deciding what material is "accurate" reporting on Burroughs' part, and what's "fiction" added to convince the public at large that Tarzan is a fictional character, in order to protect "Lord Greystoke's" privacy.

He also speculates extensively on the nature of the Mangani, the "great apes" that took him in as an infant and raised him, deciding that they were most likely a relic species of pre-human hominid, either australopithecine or pithecanthropoid in nature.  Given that even in the first novel, Burroughs is explicit in stating that the Mangani are neither chimpanzees nor gorillas, and that they have a complex language and social structure, I think this is a fair conclusion to draw - that the Mangani are not "great apes" as we know them today, but sit somewhere closer to Man on the family tree.

The sections on Opar made me sad.  I've never thought of La as an evil woman, just a profoundly unlucky one, and Farmer hammered that point home.  I think La really did love Tarzan, and he played very cavalierly with her heart while looting the forgotten treasuries of the city.  That she probably didn't live to see 50, and while Farmer never says it, I suspect it was a disease brought to Opar either by Tarzan or someone following in his stead that drove the Oparians extinct, and that just makes her situation all the sadder.

Crom, look at me, getting maudlin over fictional characters.  While La has not held the profound place in my heart that Dejah Thoris has over the years, she's still played a role in my early understanding of the interaction between the sexes - and she's a darn foxy lady, too, just look at the Frank Cho illustration I have behind the title of my blog.

Most importantly, it is in Tarzan Alive that Farmer first develops one of his most famous ideas - that of the Wold Newton Family.  According to Farmer, a meteorite that collided with the Earth at Wold Newton in 1795 bathed seven couples in ionizing radiation, causing mutations that would be reflected in a "nova of genetic splendor" and lead to the births not only of Tarzan, but of Sherlock Holmes, the Shadow, Doc Savage and many more.  Farmer would continue to develop this idea in his second fictional biography, Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, which I'm currently reading courtesy of Meteor House, the publishing company dedicated to keeping the memory of Philip Jose Farmer alive.  
Readers of Paperback Perils will be aware that some Wold Newton Universe material has already been covered, in the form of Time's Last Gift, Exiles of Kho, and Hadon of Ancient Opar.   Meteor House and its authors have been extraordinarily generous in supplying me with review copies of several other books in the Wold Newton sphere, so you will be seeing a lot of coverage of the concept here.

Beyond the material, Tarzan Alive is the single most enjoyable biography I've ever read; Farmer's prose is rich and engaging, completely free of the dryness so frequently found in "real" biographies.  It energizes the reader, at least in my case, as opposed to wearing on them.  The book is a literary adventure, an exercise in what Farmer termed "creative mythography" that revived, in me at least, the same sense of wonder and pounding pulse-rate that reading books like Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar or Tarzan and the Leopard Men first awoke in me many years ago.

1 comment:

  1. I think I've read all of Burroughs Tarzan books (I might be missing one or two) and I loved this book when I first encountered it (In the late 90s -- I just checked and no one has checked it out of our library since I did).