Introduction to Mythomania by Sylvia Leah Berkman (1907-1992)
Professor of English, Wellesley College

Paul Payack is a writer of great originality, seriousness, and imaginative zest, to the highest degree intellectually curious. At the age of twenty-seven he has already produced a substantial body of prose fictions (to define his work loosely and approximately), beginning with his first collection, A Ripple in Entropy of 1973. It is worth considering this collection in some detail, since it illuminates both the quality of his talents and the subsequent course he has winnowed out in his development through the following four years.

A Ripple in Entropy presents a great variety of fictional modes. notably, a majority of the pieces are rather long, 1000 words or so, with a clearly established central character, progressive action, a climatic resolution: that is, the established ingredients of the orthodox short-story form. In this mode, one of the most impressive stories is “And Caesar Will Tremble”. Here a humble and irrelevant old woman stands among those witnessing the Crucifixion, clinging to her fluctuating faith in her own redemption by means of Christ’s redemption through God the Father; and staggering before the blinding betrayal of that faith through Christ’s ultimate comprehension of His own radical betrayal on the Cross. In this carefully developed tale, one finds most of the elements of Paul Payack’s later work: the historic scene remote in time and place; the balanced prose, with its tincture of archaisms achieving further distance; the whole import of the narrative condensed in the unadorned final sentences. I do not mean to say that this story is flawless: it bears some marks of youthful striving, some lapses of tone; but it is fundamentally steady, arresting, and sure.

Other fictional modes in the abundance of this early collection are the unvarnished parable, the adaptation and extension of Old Testament lore (such as the expulsion from the Garden of Eden), the pithy epigram, the brief, almost bald, summation of crucial experience that attains its power through its very stark reductiveness, the invocation of traditional events gleaned from mythologies, encyclopedias, and histories (concerning Prometheus, Julius Caesar, Zarathustra, among others).

What distinguishes this work, and continues to distinguish even more forcefully Paul Payack’s later work, is the nature of the creative intelligence from which it stems. This is an intelligence cool yet engaged, composed, witty, immensely concerned with the broad pivotal elements of human experience (“life, death, etc.” in Virginia Woolf’s words, as well as the minute arcane details of human behavior through uncounted centuries: a short note on the historical position of the onion in varied cultures, for example, or the fateful propensity for disaster darkening the Fridays of the world.

In Paul Payack’s following works an increasing concentration of focus is achieved. The “tales” become shorter, often reduced to a single modest paragraph, at times even to an epigrammatic sentence of two. Verifiable historical reference dwindles and disappears. Time and place are still remote, but the locations now partake of a dreamlike antiquity, an imagined region peopled (if at all), by imaginary figures. Characters are merely indicated in the abstract: “an idiot,” “the man,” “he,” “this certain gnostic,” “the future King.” The result is to poise the tale in the everlasting, so to speak, shorn as it is of all human specificity.

Equally, the thematic concerns are now more closely and coherently allied: the mysterious nature of godhead as it evolves in unrelated spheres; the human imperative for some form of divinity to worship, and the ultimate erosion and dispersal of this divinity; the heinous evil of human control exerted by the powerful upon the powerless, of human violence, destructiveness, even though eventually this evil and its issue scatter into motes of dust. Indeed, the broad presiding these in these collections is that of irremediable mortal transience and oblivion. “Star-Splitter” (in
Solstice, 1976), stands as a particularly fine example of these several trends, “I am the writer of epitaphs,” it opens; and goes on, dispassionately, to rehearse the doomed capriciousness of any human survival through an act of commemoration in the face of the inexorable shrouds of oblivion which must descend. Here the measured prose cadences admirably echo and confirm the theme.

In the present collection, Mythomania, it seems to me, Paul Payack has come into the fluent command of all his highly specialized gifts. Though the range here is wide, both in subject matter and in form, one is conscious of an underlying creative temper — or should one say temperature? Command ensures freedom, and a spirit of
freedom invests the whole — freedom of imagination, of irony, humor, wit. One finds further a larger freedom into the admission of feeling, as in the beautiful “Most Staggering Event in the History of the Planet,” imbued as it is with sympathetic admiration for “the mother of all the vascular creature which would come to breathe upon the planet … the first living thing to crawl out of the sea.”

One can think of this command, this freedom, as a buoyant current animating the whole, flowing out of a deep wellspring of self-confidence. One realizes that the author feels ready to embark, with delight, on any subject, in any form, that his curiosity directs, from a pithy two-line dialogue exchange to a substantial narrative. Now he can consider mortal ugliness and evil with trenchant gaiety (“A Crack in the Cosmic Egg”); or regard a saint’s conclusion that the wasteland of religious is “nothing more than a conspiracy of cartographers” (“Computer Misprint”); or elaborate on the folly of human egocentricity in the detailed, precise game of chess included in “The Sands Below.” Or … but let the reader explore the variations for himself. Inherently, the thematic substance of Mythomania, reinforcing that of its predecessors, is searching and grave; but now as one reads one participates in the vigorous deft skill as the author blends the several notes of his instrument into a native harmony.