February 19, 1979 [Quintet]

The weather was sharp today, as though the air were made of innumerable, microscopic icicles, pricking my face for a millisecond before melting on my cheek--and I took that thin icy skin with me into the theater to see Robert Altman's Quintet, which warmed me up not at all, the science fiction ice age frosting even the lens as it watches Paul Newman step into the end of the world: first a bang, then a whimper.

I'd read that Altman used the old Expo '67 grounds up in Montreal, the decaying hommage to "Man and His World" hosed down until it looks like a sepulcher whited on the inside, the cold as real as the one I'd left outside, the fatal game of Quintet played because there's nothing else to do while waiting for the end.

I sat there and couldn't get out of my head Kobo Abe's novel Inter Ice Age 4. I'd seen the film version of his Woman in the Dunes, but barely knew of him--then about five years ago happened on his SF novel through the Science Fiction Book Club, cheaply made--but cheap enough to risk. And it made Vonnegut look like a calm and sober fellow, its ideas as sharp and dazzling as icicles, its own version of a watery end all ocean, no ice. Altman stays true to his central conceit: Everyone slows down, even Newman, the only hero we can pick, half-befuddled by the indirect suicide of a game he learns like building a fire: a necessity before anything. But Abe's book kept nudging me, knowing we might not make it to Quintet, that our own Inter Ice Age has been going on long enough to warm everything but our hearts. I was almost glad to rejoin the winter outside--but as I sit here, I know where Abe's novel sits on my shelf, its predicting-computer only the start of the last thaw.


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