Peter S. Beagle, The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche and Other Odd Acquaintances (Tachyon Publications, 1997)

 

Peter S. Beagle lives and writes in a universe where anything can happen, and probably will. He is also one of those writers whose books should carry a warning label.

However, I can't tell you what the warning label should say. Perhaps "Watch for Turns of Phrase." Phrases do turn, in unexpected ways that just carry the reader along and not until later do we realize that was a very surprising thing to say. Or maybe "Danger! Perfectly Normal Bizarre Events." They are very bizarre, but in Beagle's hands are perfectly reasonable, almost expected, even though we have no idea what will happen next.

That said, it is only fair to point out that The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche is a survey course in Beagle. Included are stories and essays dating from as early as 1957 to pieces first published in this volume. (The 1957 story is "The Telephone Call," which Beagle cites as the first fiction he ever got paid for, and which, as he quite rightly notes, reeks of Catcher in the Rye. "In 1956 it seemed to me...that the only way to write real people was in the manner of J. D. Salinger.")

The stories are about many different things, but in one sense are all facets of a single story: people who might be slightly unusual encountering situations that are radically abnormal and then just dealing with them.

"Professor Gottesman and the Indian Rhinoceros" (which, through one of those permutations that seem to happen around Beagle, is the title story, even though the title is different and the rhinoceros does not quote Nietszche) offers an exquisite example. Professor Gottesman is a Swiss-born philosophy professor in a "middle-sized Midwestern American city, where he worked at a middle-sized university, teaching Comparative Philosophy in comparative contentment." On a trip to the zoo with his visiting niece, the Professor meets an Indian rhinoceros who claims to be a unicorn, which I suppose is, strictly speaking, the absolute truth. The rhinoceros moves into the Professor's house and after a bit of sorting out they live together contentedly, until the real world finally intrudes. Meanwhile in "Julie's Unicorn" (the collection's other unicorn story, assuming you believe the rhinoceros) Beagle drops us neatly in the middle of the lives of Julie Tanikawa and Joe Farrell (Beagle's fictional version of himself), two people who live in the Bay Area and become involved in the rescue of a unicorn from a medieval tapestry. But the unicorn — tiny enough to fit in Joe's pocket as they make their escape from a museum that sounds suspiciously like the Getty moved several hundred miles north — has its own ideas as to its proper disposition, in spite of being adopted by Julie's cat, NMC ("Not My Cat"), and NMC's six kittens.

In between these two, in this first section titled simply "Stories," we are treated to a grand ball at which the guest of honor is the beautiful and innocent Lady Death; the story of Lila the Werewolf, in which Joe Farrell (this was his first appearance) takes his girlfriend's lycanthropic quirks more philosophically than he does her somewhat overbearing mother; and "The Naga," a tale that comes to us from the ancient kingdom of Kambuja, beyond the exotic lands of the Indus, by way of Pliny the Elder.

The second section, "Early Stories," includes "The Telephone Call" (mentioned above) and "My Daughter's Name is Sarah," a story that Beagle says in his introduction to this section was his first attempt to write from the point of view of someone who was much older than he. He pulled it off beautifully.

"Essays," the last section of the collection, reveals Beagle-the-nonfiction-writer as a thoughtful man, gentle, generous, passionate, one who never lost that little spark of wonder that we all start with.

The entire collection is suffused with that particular magic that seems to belong only to Peter S. Beagle: although there are others who have their own close variations, including Patricia A. McKillip, who contributed an introduction ("Under the Zucchini") to this collection and remarks on something that gave rise to the first warning above: Beagle pulls poetry out of ridiculously sublime places, turns of phrase and juxtapositions of images that seem to come from some secret treasure house to which only he has the key. Even his introductions to the sections of this collection are worthy of note.

To anyone familiar with Beagle's work, this collection is a must-have. For those who have yet to encounter him, perhaps this caveat is most appropriate: "Warning! Magic Ahead."

[Robert Tilendis]

illustration from section of Michael Dashow's cover art for Tachyon's The Rhinoceros Who Quoted Nietzsche




Some Notes From Behind The Curtain [courtesy peterbeagle.com ]: