by Ted Gioia

Ah, let's mull over the great protagonists of
existential novels.  Okay, there's Doestoevsky's
guilt-ridden murderer Raskolnikov.  And that

disturbed scholar Roquentin in Sartre's Nausea.
Also Binx Bolling, the troubled 'Moviegoer' in the
Walker Percy novel of the
same name. Let's not forget
Joseph K., Zorba the Greek,
Holden Caulfield, Dean
Moriarty, the Underground

Oh, yes, and that talking bear
who plays the alto sax.  

What's that you’re saying?  
You don’t think a talking
bear deserves to be an
existentialist hero?  

You've gotta get with the times.  Trust me, the
days of Smokey the Bear and Gentle Ben are
long gone. Bears now have deep, angst-ridden
inner lives, and need to worry about more things

than preventing forest fires.  They have to
transcend the deceptive dualism of embodied
life.  They must tear the veil separating debased
perception from cosmic enlightenment.  Some-
times they even need to learn the chord changes
to Charles Mingus’s
"Reincarnation of a Love-

Okay, maybe not all bears, but at least one—the
protagonist of Rafi Zabor's
The Bear Comes
.  Who can blame him for his brooding
bear nature.  He doesn't even have a proper
name, and just goes by 'The Bear'—that would
be enough to give an identity crisis to even the
most psychically integrated mammal. But our
bear has other problems to deal with.  He is the
only talking bear in Manhattan, and is struggling
to break into the jazz scene.  Authorities want to
capture him and administer more tests than a

Kaplan SAT prep center. His record label is
guilty of bear-baiting in the first degree. His

girlfriend is embarrassed to be seen with him
in public.

Can’t a talking bear get a break?  

But a growing cadre of fans are fascinated by the
novelty of an alto-playing animal, and friends and
fellow musicians offer their support—if jazz
players understand anything, it's the concept of
the excluded minority facing hostility
discrimination.  The bear's friend Jones tell

him:  "I wonder if the Indians in these parts had
a myth about Participating Bear, the van-riding
saxophonist of the American dream….The
audience is just starting to latch on to you, you

know.  I sense a groundswell.  I intuit recognitions
….Jazz people, they're such outsiders you're the
kind of mythology they can relate to.  You're a
dream figure, you're their hip little secret.  I think
they’re beginning to catch on."

But the validation the Bear most craves comes
from fellow hornplayers.   Fortunately Ornette
Coleman shows up a gig and offers advice
clothed in Delphic obscurities: "I think you play
quadripedally, so what would a quadripedal tone
be if you didn't transpose it to two-footed music

…By the way, I wouldn’t worry about the
audience leaving.  They used to walk out on me
all the time."

A host of other real-life jazz artists appear in
this book—Lester Bowie, Charlie Haden and
Billy Hart, among others—and lend a helping
paw, from time to time, to our beleaguered hero.  
And though the star attraction in a novel of
this sort must be, face it, the talking bear, Zabor
also takes us on a rich fictional tour of the
culture and exponents of modern jazz. Without a
The Bear Goes Home ranks among the
finest jazz fiction I've read, and belongs on
any short list of the best music novels of
recent decades.

Yet readers almost didn't get this gem. Parts of
the novel first appeared in
Musician magazine as
far back as 1979, but author Rafi Zabor took a
long hibernation, and the
The Bear Comes Home
didn't get completed and appear in book form
until 1997.  Perhaps the writer, like his hero, had
his own existential issues to address. As a result,
the novel that could have been an exciting debut
of an up-and-cominh young talent didn't show
up on the shelves until Zabor was in his fifties.
Yet the work still demonstrated stunning talent,

albeit no longer of the youthful sort, and the
book beat out far better known competition—
that same year saw the publication of Don
Underworld, Thomas Pynchon's Mason
and Dixon
and Philip Roth’s American Pastoral
to win the 1998 PEN / Faulkner award.    

In the many years since the release of
The Bear
Comes Home
, Zabor has published very little, and
to only modest acclaim—his only follow-up book
is the now out-of-print memoir
, Wabenzi: A Souvenir
.  Even Zabor's exceptional
debut novel seems to fallen off the radar screens
of readers—a quick check of Amazon's sales
rankings shows that it doesn't even rank among
the top several hundred thousand sellers on that
site.  What a shame!  This is the real deal: a deep,
thought-provoking novel, with extravagant and
sometime breathtaking prose, richly conceived
characters, snazzy dialogue and vividly portrayed
incidents.  The brilliance here is often disguised—

like the Bear himself, this book sometimes puts
a comic mask, lumbering and indecisive, on its
profundities.  But make no mistake, this is no
three-ring circus, despite the performing bear
under the spotlight, and my opening gambit
above on famous existential novels provides a
more appropriate context for Zabor's work.

Before sending you off, let me pay my respects to
a few of the more remarkabe scenes.  The bear's
attempts to teach a songbird to perform a

Thelonious Monk tune are both wise and witty
by turns. The interludes focusing on the
musicians' cut-rate tour of second-rate
nightclubs captures a subculture slice of
Americana life on the road that you didn’t get
in Kerouac or Kesey.  And after reading the
pages dealing with the bear's time in captivity,
you won't look at the city zoo the same way

But the best moments in
The Bear Comes Home
dig into the inner life of jazz musicians on the
bandstand.  This is the pièce de résistance, the
reason why this novel is so unique and
compelling.  And Zabor saves his best for last.
In the final pages of his novel, he presents a
fifteen-page account of a single thirty-minute
jazz solo (over the chord changes of a John
Coltrane tune) and this pull-out-all-the-stops
finale not only ranks among the best music
writing, but represents some of most ambitious
prose you will find anywhere.  

When he finally puts down his horn, our
existential bear comes out of his trance and
wonders: "Was it any good?  Did he really
pull it off?"  I can’t speak to the music, but as
for the writing, the answer is a resounding
'yes'.   What a shame that this talented
novelist hasn't granted us an encore.

Ted Gioia writes on music, literature, and popular
culture. His newest book is
The Jazz Standards: A
Guide to the Repertoire.
The Bear Comes Home
by Rafi Zabor
Click on image to purchase
The Year
(click here)
conceptual fiction
Exploring the Non-Realist Tradition in Fiction
Welcome to my year of magical
reading.  Each week during the
course of 2012,  I will explore an
important work of fiction that
incorporates elements of magic,
fantasy or the surreal.  My choices
will cross conventional boundary
lines of genre, style and historical
period—indeed, one of my intentions
in this project is to show how the
conventional labels applied to these
works have become constraining,
deadening and misleading.

In its earliest days, storytelling almost
always partook of the magical. Only
in recent years have we segregated
works arising from this venerable
tradition into publishing industry
categories such as "magical realism"
or "paranormal" or "fantasy" or some
other 'genre' pigeonhole. These
labels are not without their value, but
too often they have blinded us to the
rich and multidimensional heritage
beyond category that these works

This larger heritage is mimicked in
our individual lives: most of us first
experienced the joys of narrative
fiction through stories of myth and
magic, the fanciful and
phantasmagorical; but only a very
few retain into adulthood this sense
of the kind of enchantment possible
only through storytelling.  As such,
revisiting this stream of fiction from a
mature, literate perspective both
broadens our horizons and allows us
to recapture some of that magic in
our imaginative lives.

The Year of Magical Reading:

Week 1:
Midnight's Children by
Salman Rushdie

Week 2:  The House of the Spirits by
Isabel Allende

Week 3:  The Witches of Eastwick
John Updike

Week 4:  Magic for Beginners by
Kelly Link

Week 5:  The Tin Drum by Günter

Week 6:  The Golden Ass by

Week 7:  The Tiger's Wife by Téa

Week 8:  One Hundred Years of
Solitude  by Gabriel García Márquez

Week 9:  The Book of Laughter and
Forgetting by Milan Kundera

Week 10: Gargantua and Pantagruel
François Rabelais

Week 11: The Famished Road by
Ben Okri

Week 12: Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Week 13: Winter's Tale by Mark

Week 14: Dhalgren by Samuel R.

Week 15:  Johnathan Strange & Mr.
Norrell by Susanna Clarke

Week 16:  The Master and
Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Week 17:  Dangerous Laughter by
Steven Millhauser

Week 18:  Conjure Wife by Fritz

Week 19:  1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

Week 20:  The Hobbit by J.R.R.

Week 21:  Aura by Carlos Fuentes

Week 22:  Dr. Faustus by Thomas

Week 23:  Orlando by Virginia Woolf

Week 24:  Little, Big by John Crowley

Week 25:  The White Hotel by D.M.

Week 26:  Neverwhere by Neil

Week 27:  Alice's Adventures in
Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

Week 28:  Fifth Business by
Robertson Davies

Week 29:  The Kingdom of This
World by Alejo Carpentier

Week 30:  The Bear Comes Home
by R
afi Zabor

Week 31:  The Color of Magic by
Terry Pratchett

Week 32:  Ficciones by Jorge Luis

Week 33:  Beloved by Toni Morrison

Week 34:  Dona Flor and Her Two
Husbands by Jorge Amado

Week 35:  Hard-Boiled Wonderland
and the End of the World by Haruki

Week 36:  What Dreams May Come
by Richard Matheson

Week 37:  Practical Magic by Alice

Week 38:  Blindess by José

Week 39:  The Fortress of Solitude
by J
onathan Lethem

Week 40:  The Magicians by Lev

Week 41:  Suddenly, A Knock at the
Door by Etgar Keret

Week 42:  Cloudstreet by Tim Winton

Week 43:  The Obscene Bird of
NIght by José Donoso

Week 44:  The Fifty Year Sword by
Mark Z. Danielewski

Week 45:  Gulliver's Travels by
Jonathan Swift

Week 46:  Harry Potter and the
Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling

Week 47:  The End of the Affair by
Graham Greene

Week 48:  The Chronicles of Narnia
by C
.S. Lewis

Week 49:  Hieroglyphic Tales by
Horace Walpole

Week 50:  The View from the
Seventh Layer by Kevin Brockmeier

Week 51:  Gods Without Men by
Hari Kunzru

Week 52:  At Swim-Two-Birds by
Flann O'Brien
Follow Ted Gioia on Twitter at

Conceptual Fiction:
A Reading List
(with links to essays on each work)

Home Page

Abbott, Edwin A.

Adams, Douglas
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Aldiss, Brian
Barefoot in the Head

Aldiss, Brian

Aldiss, Brian
Report on Probability A

Allende, Isabel
The House of the Spirits

Amado, Jorge
Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands

Amis, Martin
Time's Arrow

The Golden Ass

Asimov, Isaac
The Foundation Trilogy

Asimov, Isaac
I, Robot

Atwood, Margaret
The Handmaid's Tale

Banks, Iain M.
The State of the Art

Ballard, J.G.
The Atrocity Exhibition

Ballard, J.G.

Ballard, J.G.
The Crystal World

Ballard, J.G.
The Drowned World

Barth, John
Giles Goat-Boy

Bester, Alfred
The Demolished Man

Blish, James
A Case of Conscience

Borges, Jorge Luis

Bradbury, Ray
Dandelion Wine

Bradbury, Ray
Fahrenheit 451

Bradbury, Ray
The Illustrated Man

Bradbury, Ray
The Martian Chronicles

Bradbury, Ray
Something Wicked This Way Comes

Brockmeier, Kevin
The View from the Seventh Layer

Bulgakov, Mikhail
The Master and Margarita

Bunch, David R.

Burgess, Anthony
A Clockwork Orange

Card, Orson Scott
Ender's Game

Carpentier, Alejo
The Kingdom of This World

Carroll, Lewis
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

Chabon, Michael
The Yiddish Policemen's Union

Chiang, Ted
Stories of Your Life and Others

Clarke, Arthur C.
Childhood's End

Clarke, Arthur C.
A Fall of Moondust

Clarke, Arthur C.
2001: A Space Odyssey

Clarke, Susanna
Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Crowley, John
Little, Big

Danielewski, Mark Z.
The Fifty Year Sword

Danielewski, Mark Z.
House of Leaves

Davies, Robertson
Fifth Business

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.

Delany, Samuel R.
The Einstein Intersection

Delany, Samuel R.

Dick, Philip K.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?

Dick, Philip K.
Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said

Dick, Philip K.
The Man in the High Castle

Dick, Philip K.

Dick, Philip K.

Disch, Thomas M.
Camp Concentration

Disch, Thomas M.
The Genocides

Doctorow, Cory
Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom

Donoso, José
The Obscene Bird of Night

Ellison, Harlan (editor)
Dangerous Visions

Ellison, Harlan
I Have No Mouth & I Must Scream

Esquivel, Laura
Like Water for Chocolate

Farmer, Philip José
To Your Scattered Bodies Go

Fuentes, Carlos

Gaiman, Neil
American Gods

Gaiman, Neil

Gibson, William
Burning Chrome

Gibson, William

Grass, Günter
The Tin Drum

Greene, Graham
The End of the Affair

Grossman, Lev
The Magicians

Haldeman, Joe
The Forever War

Hall, Steven
The Raw Shark Texts

Harrison, M. John
The Centauri Device

Harrison, M. John

Heinlein, Robert
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

Heinlein, Robert:
Stranger in a Strange Land

Heinlein, Robert
Time Enough for Love

Helprin, Mark
Winter's Tale

Herbert, Frank

Hoffman, Alice
Practical Magic

Huxley, Aldous
Brave New World

Keret, Etgar
Suddenly, A Knock at the Door

Keyes, Daniel
Flowers for Algernon

Kundera, Milan
The Book of Laughter and Forgetting

Kunzru, Hari
Gods Without Men

Lafferty, R.A.
Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Dispossessed

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Lathe of Heaven

Le Guin, Ursula K.
The Left Hand of Darkness

Leiber, Fritz
The Big Time

Leiber, Fritz
Conjure Wife

Leiber, Fritz
Swords & Deviltry

Leiber, Fritz
The Wanderer

Lem, Stanislaw
His Master's Voice

Lem, Stanislaw

Lethem, Jonathan
The Fortress of Solitude

Lewis, C. S.
The Chronicles of Narnia

Link, Kelly
Magic for Beginners

Malzberg, Barry N.
Herovit's World

Mann, Thomas
Doctor Faustus

Márquez, Gabriel García
100 Years of Solitude

Markson, David
Wittgenstein's Mistress

Matheson, Richard
Hell House

Matheson, Richard
What Dreams May Come

McCarthy, Cormac
The Road

Miéville, China
Perdido Street Station

Miller, Jr., Walter M.
A Canticle for Leibowitz

Millhauser, Steven
Dangerous Laughter

Mitchell, David
Cloud Atlas

Moorcock, Michael
Behold the Man

Moorcock, Michael
The Final Programme

Morrison, Toni

Murakami, Haruki

Murakami, Haruki
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the
End of the World

Nabokov, Vladimir
Ada, or Ardor

Niffenegger, Audrey
The Time Traveler's Wife

Niven, Larry

Noon, Jeff

Obreht, Téa
The Tiger's Wife

O'Brien, Flann
At Swim-Two-Birds

Okri, Ben
The Famished Road

Percy, Walker
Love in the Ruins

Pohl, Frederik

Pratchett, Terry
The Color of Magic

Pynchon, Thomas
Gravity's Rainbow

Rabelais, François
Gargantua and Pantagruel

Robinson, Kim Stanley
Red Mars

Rowling, J.K.
Harry Potter & the Sorcerer's Stone

Rushdie, Salman
Midnight's Children

Russ, Joanna
The Female Man

Saramago, José

Sheckley, Robert
Dimension of Miracles

Sheckley, Robert

Sheckley, Robert
Store of the Worlds

Shelley, Mary

Silverberg, Robert
Dying  Inside

Silverberg, Robert

Silverberg, Robert
The World Inside

Simak, Clifford

Simak, Clifford
The Trouble with Tycho

Smith, Cordwainer

Smith, Cordwainer
The Rediscovery of Man

Stephenson, Neal
Snow Crash

Spinrad, Norman
Bug Jack Barron

Stross, Charles

Sturgeon, Theodore
More Than Human

Sturgeon, Theodore
Some of Your Blood

Swift, Jonathan
Gulliver's Travels

Thomas, D.M.
The White Hotel

Tiptree, Jr., James
Warm Worlds and Otherwise

Tolkien, J.R.R.
The Hobbit

Updike, John
The Witches of Eastwick

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Mixed Men

Van Vogt, A.E.

Van Vogt, A.E.
The Voyage of the Space Beagle

Van Vogt, A.E.
The World of Null A

Vance, Jack

Verne, Jules
Around the Moon

Verne, Jules
From the Earth to the Moon

Verne, Jules:
Journey to the Center of the Earth

Vonnegut, Kurt
Cat's Cradle

Vonnegut, Kurt
The Sirens of Titan

Vonnegut, Kurt

Wallace, David Foster
Infinite Jest

Walpole, Horace
Hieroglyphic Tales

Wells, H.G.
The First Men in the Moon

Wells, H.G.
The Island of Dr. Moreau

Wells, H.G.
The Time Machine

Wilson, Robert Anton & Robert Shea
The Illuminatus! Trilogy

Winton, Tim

Woolf, Virginia

Zabor, Rafi
The Bear Comes Home

Zelazny, Roger
Lord of Light

Zelazny, Roger
This Immortal

Special Features
Notes on Conceptual Fiction
When Science Fiction Grew Up
Ray Bradbury: A Tribute
The Year of Magical Reading
Remembering Fritz Leiber
A Tribute to Richard Matheson
Samuel Delany's 70th birthday
The Sci-Fi of Kurt Vonnegut
Curse You, Neil Armstrong!
Robert Heinlein at 100
A.E, van Vogt Tribute
The Puzzling Case of Robert Sheckley
The Avant-Garde Sci-Fi of Brian Aldiss
Science Fiction 1958-1975: A Reading List

Links to related sites
The New Canon
Great Books Guide
Postmodern Mystery
Fractious Fiction
Ted Gioia's web site
Ted Gioia on Twitter

SF Site
Graeme's Fantasy Book Review
Los Angeles Review of Books
The Millions
Big Dumb Object
SF Novelists
More Words, Deeper Hole
The Misread City
Reviews and Responses
SF Signal
True Science Fiction
Tor blog

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