Thursday, August 4, 2016

A rundown of a dozen or so of Lafferty's novels

A year or so ago someone asked me on Facebook where they should start with reading Lafferty. (I've been asked many times.) In response I went a bit overboard and said a little something about nearly every novel I've read by Lafferty. This is because the collections of his short stories are in such short supply. These days more and more people first encounter Lafferty through his novels, which are usually thought to be not the place to start. Yet many who start there become just as hooked as those who started with the short stories.

Anyway, I'm re-posting here more or less what I wrote on FB. I'm also doing this because I hear from time to time that my particular Lafferty blog is 'not for beginners' or something similar. Maybe this slightly helps the uninitiated.

Past Master (1968) features Thomas More as its main character. He's brought to a future utopia on another planet and there's a ton of wild stuff going on.  A band of nonconformist misfits traverse golden cities of perfection, horrifying cities of deprivation, and the freakish ecology of the planet's feral lands. I suppose the writing can be slightly uneven at times, but it's really genius, potent stuff and one of Lafferty's most overtly theological and political and philosophical works. It's also perhaps his most formally s.f. novel, though don't let that lull you into expecting the conventional.

Fourth Mansions (1969) is also richly theological and bizarre, drawing on Theresa Avila's mystical work Interior Castle and involving a bunch of weird psychic visionary stuff mixed with gumshoe news reporter stuff, almost like a comic strip meets medieval theology and the trippy 60s. I found it a little hard to get into on my first read, but most Lafferty fans think it's his best. I now think so too after subsequent re-reads.

Space Chantey (1968) is a very loose retelling of Homer's Odyssey in space, following the episodic adventures of planet-hopping astronaut-warriors (each chapter is basically a short story). It too reads almost like a comic strip or animated cartoon but, as with all of Lafferty's works, there's a richness (though lightness) of language and slyly buried philosophy that makes your back brain feel that there are deeper things going on. It's a deliciously fun romp.

The Reefs of Earth (1968) is perhaps the book most to my personal tastes out of the early novels, sort of Lafferty's take on a Southern Gothic novel (with the ostensibly s.f. premise of a family of aliens visiting earth) and featuring his characteristically Laffertian child characters, joyfully murderous and mischievous and yet somehow weirdly angelic. It's gleefully grotesque and just one of the weirdest things I've ever read (and surprisingly poignant on re-reads).

Arrive At Easterwine (1971) throws absolutely everybody on a first read and can seem like a fairly incoherent tangle until you see its very clear pattern emerge from all the raucous details (usually on a re-read). It's the 'autobiography' of a 'Ktistec machine' (a supercomputer named Epiktistes) but it sounds more like a Southwestern mystical philosopher sitting in wise judgment of humanity, showing them themselves and the cosmos as these things truly are, which can only look like madness to our unenlightened eyes. Something like that! But, like all of the above, it's very comic as well as dark, almost like conducting unscientific pranks as a means of experimental theology. (Epikt and the members of the Institute for Impure Science, who make up the cast of this novel, also feature in a number of Lafferty's seminal short stories, most of them collected in Nine Hundred Grandmothers.)

Okla Hannali (1972) is a historical novel of the Choctaw nation in the 19th century, as seen by following the life of its central eponymous larger-than-life character. It has some admittedly 'dry' material that sticks close to historical reporting at times, but this is liberally interspersed with Lafferty's characteristic tall tale style and humour and some western adventure bits and some mystical passages and poignant reflections on the loss of the Native Americans' original way of life and it all adds up to a very, very rich read, one of the few novels that made me feel teary as I read the last word and closed the book. Very powerful.

Not To Mention Camels (1976) is Lafferty madness at full throttle. It's sort of his Inferno, very diabolically witty and sharp but also dense and impenetrable, involving movement between several worlds (or versions of the world) by a particularly nasty politician. It has some of Lafferty's best metaphysical scenes, a great satirical theme on 'Media Lords' and the like, and it alternates between the language of analytic philosophy and very colourful and grotesque poetic imagery. But it's very hard to follow and at times perhaps a little too hellish for some. (But see on Aurelia below.)

Apocalypses (1977) is actually two short novels collected in one volume and it's territory not terribly far away from Not To Mention Camels. The first novel, Where Have You Been, Sandaliotis?, is a detective adventure of sorts, but in a metaphysical strain with lots of weird happenings and a fair amount of grotesquery and a central speculative premise that I found pretty awesome: that a new land mass has suddenly appeared where there was only ocean before, contiguous with the known mainland, and it appears to have inhabitants and history. It's all about whether it's real or not and about 'consensus reality' and the like. The second novel, The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney, is on the same theme about what's real or not but this time as relates to the 1st and 2nd World Wars (and a 3rd abrewing), which have somehow been wiped from the historical record (or we are in an alternate history in this tale) and are being brought (back) to the record by the eponymous character's Armageddon-themed operas. It's got some wonderful historical passages of the first half of the twentieth century, told punchily and amusingly, and some great metaphysical passages. I really, really liked it but it also made my brain properly hurt with its affirmation of mutually exclusive realities. Logic absolutely melts at points in this novel. Again, most Lafferty fans think it's one of Lafferty's greatest works.

The 80s novels go into freshly weird narrative territory for Lafferty. You can tell he'd gotten a second wind and was pushing his whole art practice forward to its final flourish. Most readers have dismissed them as too far off the deep end, but a few of us argue that they represent his mature expression.

Aurelia (1982) is sort of the gospel answer to the hellish Not To Mention Camels, again critiquing politics and media, but also offering a more compassionate and theologically rich euangelion and, as always, some great imagery and ideas. It's Lafferty's most overt treatise on Aristotelian-Thomistic Virtue Ethics and also his most overt work on a 'theology of monsters' since Fourth Mansions. We eventually get actual homilies from the teenage girl from another planet who is the protagonist of the novel, but it's a bizarre and bawdy ride (if a little difficult to follow), returning somewhat to the comic strip/cartoon s.f. quality of some of the early novels, though fusing this with new levels of weird philosophising.

Annals of Klepsis (1983) goes back to Space Chantey and Past Master interplanetary territory, but with heaps more colour and density and viscous metaphysical journeying (and those early novels weren't in short supply of these qualities so that's saying something). It's maybe my favourite Lafferty novel for its pure joyous riot of xenogeography (as well as being a quite serious meditation on historiography). Oh, and did I mention it takes place on a Pirate Planet?! I personally have never partaken of psychotropic or psychedelic drugs, but having read this novel twice, I'm pretty sure I never need to. (I say that with a big wink because I've argued from time to time that I think Lafferty's 'trippiness' is actually doing something quite different, and to my mind far better, than psychedelia.)

Serpent's Egg (1987) also returns to comic strip type writing to a certain degree, but with a Laffertian 'future history' type of tone (of a dystopian future mind you). It's language is more plain than some of Lafferty's work, but it's events and characters are anything but:  it features a number of juvenile talking animals (and a juvenile robot and angel) as protagonists in a future where they've been augmented to this state and it's chock full of little myths and fables of wit and wisdom and it goes into wonderfully phantasmagorical territory late in the book when the whales are making monuments on the ocean floor (a dream ocean that's formed in the middle of Oklahoma), etching enigmatic mosaics on the huge stones by means of telepathically controlled sea lice. Yep, that happens. It's a fascinating update on the Rebellion Against Utopia theme of his first novel Past Master.

East of Laughter (1988) is an incredible network of tall tales threaded through a group of people's quest, yet again, to discover what's really real, including themselves. Like Serpent's Egg, it's perhaps not quite as linguistically rich as some of Lafferty's works, but again has a corresponding and compensating vivacity of wonderful characters and events. This one's another riot of garish metaphysics and mystery, but this time in the field of European fairy tale and classical mythology, albeit in a contemporary (or perhaps future?) setting on Earth. It has some of my all time favourite passages from Lafferty. (Then again, I could say that about every single book I've mentioned.) It also has some deeply woven theology in it, akin to how that's done in Arrive At Easterwine. Like the rest, it's very weird and very wonderful.


And there are a half dozen or more novels from early to late that I haven't even mentioned here!  I hope people will augment this list with their own impressions and opinions about the novels in the comments section.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

Reading the Argo Cycle part 3 - The Human Race is Made Up Entirely of Glowing Geniuses (some initial thoughts on the complete 'The Devil is Dead' trilogy)


Well, I finally read the very last words of the very last book (Argo) of the so-called The Devil is Dead trilogy, which is the novelistic centrepiece to Lafferty's Argo Cycle (the total cycle consisting of the three novels of this trilogy, Archipelago, The Devil is Dead, and More Than Melchisidech: Tales of Chicago, Tales of Midnight, Argo, plus a short novel, Dotty, plus a few novellas, plus a handful of short stories; and, as if all this weren't enough, the cycle tangentially connects to another short novel, The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny, and to a tetralogy known as the Coscuin Chronicles).

These last words of the trilogy that I've read were Lafferty's closing essay explaining the book's alternate endings. It's titled 'AN ESSAY EXPLAINING THE ALTERNATE ENDINGS OF THE BOOK OF ARGO In The Course of Which I'm Obliged to Explain The Detailed Workings of The World Itself' and it's nearly worth the price of the whole trilogy.  We'll come to it another time, however.

But the final words of the first or primary ending of Argo (and really, to me, the true conclusion to the trilogy - the remainder is, though vital, meta) go like this:

"The world is a kaleidoscope, ever-changing, ever-enchanting, did you know that, My Reflection? And one best strides happily laughing and singing through it. And the fact that one is striding through the hot ashes of Hell every step of the way is no reason to be less merry. If one looks down and sees that he is no more than ankle-deep in Hell, let him continue with a happy heart. But if he sees that he is more than knee-deep in Hell, then he must, then he must, what must he do then, pale reflection of me?" 
"I don't know," said the creature with its paler face of Duffey. 
"Maybe that's when he should leave the land for a while and walk on the water," Melchisedech declared. "Remember, Reflection, that man in his original nature was able to walk on water. He is still able to do it, but sometimes he forgets that he is." Then Melchisedech Duffey turned and ran to the city singing happily. 
"I lied to him and I lied to myself," said the unhappy Angel who wore Duffey's face. "No, no, I'm not certain at all which one of them I serve. I'm afraid to be certain or even to think about it. Is it God or the Devil that I serve in my confusion and darkness?" 
But Melchisedech Duffey, singing happily, was into the city in the bright morning. And he didn't hear the creature at all. (Argo, pp. 133-134)

It's a mysterious, beautiful, and hopeful conclusion, yet fraught with a tension that is characteristic of the entire trilogy.  You can easily see why it's often quite difficult to reflect on such a complex, ambiguous work.  But reflect we shall!

I've read the essays by Dan Knight and Robert Whitaker Sirignano on More Than Melchisedech (collected in Feast of Laughter vol. 2) and an unpublished essay by Andrew Ferguson on the Argo Cycle.  These each contain tasty tidbits of insight, but it seems to me that they also each skirt round really tackling the overall shape and theme(s) of The Devil is Dead trilogy (never mind the whole cycle). I'm not really going to buck that trend in this blog post.  I'll mostly be skirting like the rest. But I do hope that at the end of this whole 'Reading the Argo Cycle' blog series, when I've had a chance to lay out lots of long bloody slabs of prose from each of the books and reflect on these passages, that I'll have acquired the courage to take a shot at something like a more comprehensive review that tries to grasp what in the world the trilogy's all about.

For now, let me sketch a few thoughts.  First of all, I think it's worth noting that these books are examples of Lafferty's historical fiction.  They're mostly set in middle America (USA) but there are recurring episodes abroad, mostly on islands and coasts, including Mexico, South America, Africa, Australia, and the South Pacific.  They roughly take place from around the 1920s to the early 1950s. More Than Melchisedech's first book, Tales of Chicago, dips into slightly earlier territory for the Bildungsroman-like moments of Melchisedech Duffey's early biography.  And MTM's third book, Argo, dips forward into several possible near futures.  But the bulk of the first two volumes of the trilogy, Archipelago and The Devil is Dead, take place in WWII and post-WWII eras, the 40s and 50s.  After Duffey's early years are accounted for in More Than Melchisedech, the action, if I remember correctly, moves progressively through the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s.  (So if you wanted to read the trilogy in exact chronological order, I think you'd have to do something like start with Tales of Chicago and then alternate between chapters of Archipelago and Tales of Midnight, then read The Devil is Dead and then finish with Argo.  Reading those latter two volumes directly together strikes me as an exciting prospect as they are the two most adventuresome.)

That said, the trilogy is decidedly a historical fantasy of sorts.  Sometimes it hews closer to something like magical realism, where the marvels are woven closely into a 'mundane' narrative.  Many pages can go by with little to no hint of the marvelous (aside from Lafferty's language or characters or sense of oddball farce and satire or poignant meditations on time and humanity).  Other times it is closer to a 20th century myth or fable or legend, by turns soaring close to epic heroic fantasy only to slip, often suddenly, into something like the grotesqueries of the New Weird or Bizarro fiction.

In fact, it now strikes me that the trilogy progressively transitions from least fantastical to most fantastical.  Archipelago is the most like magical realism (I'd rather call it mythical realism) and thus the furthest away from a work of fantasy per se.  (I know some balk at the distinction between magical realism and fantasy, averring that the former is simply ashamed of being the latter.  But I taste something different between the two modes, though both trade in the super-mundane.) Archipelago occasionally shifts into pure fable and at times it asserts preternatural qualities of time and personhood. But the bulk of it narrates, though oddly, the regular lives of (albeit unusual) people.

Specifically marvelous episodes are also sparse in The Devil is Dead, but its plot and premise are far more thoroughly fantastical, involving a separate race of quasi-human beings with preternatural powers (this could also, of course, be considered science-fictional).  I seem to recall there is some body swapping and other normally impossible elements.  Its narration also involves far more fabulistic language, where characters are referred to as mermaids and gargoyles and devils and so on in a way that hovers strangely between metaphor and myth and realism.  Its plot mechanics are also overtly heroic and questing and quixotic.  Thus the whole feels much more like a fantasy, even a high fantasy of sorts, but one peopled by 'low' characters, a working class heroic fantasy if you will.  And quite charming for that.  (I would add also that, though it's narratively the tightest book of the trilogy, it's also the most intentionally disorienting, having a sense of dark but often humorous mystery along the lines of something like David Lynch's Twin Peaks.)

More Than Melchisedech can exhibit both of its preceding volumes' modes, sometimes magically real for chapters at a time, describing rowdy urban merchant life among friends and colleagues in the first half of the 20th century with the occasional insertion of a monster man (Finnegan's father Giulio) or perhaps a bit of clairvoyance or the like in a manner similar to Archipelago (but coming across as less psychologically rich than Archipelago and in something more of an almost slapstick mode).  When MTM is more in the quixotic mode of The Devil is Dead, it is also far more overtly a full-on fantasy. Events become utterly magical or miraculous, where Melchisedech can clap his hands together to produce gold coins or can summon black giants to his aid, sometimes seen by others and sometimes not, but effective nonetheless.  And while The Devil is Dead is no stranger to the grotesque or uncanny, MTM ratchets this up even closer to borderline horror (but again in something closer to slapstick, hence the feel at times of something like Bizarro fiction).  These fantastical and grotesque elements seem to increase in each book of MTM until the final book, Argo, is a complete science fiction/fantasy/horror tale.

So the above thoughts are first attempts at plumbing the styles and modes and genres of the trilogy. What about themes or overall shape?  That's a lot, lot tougher.  You might well say that The Devil is Dead trilogy is Lafferty's most overt (albeit symbolic and emblematic) engagement with his own upbringing and pre-authorial years, an attempt to capture the half century that made him who he was; and then a transitioning into his most overt (and even more symbolic and emblematic) engagement with his life as an author, a creator of characters, a builder of worlds; and then finally, an engagement with his own mortality and hopes for immortality, both ontological and authorial.  That seems like at least one legitimate way to interpret the trilogy.  There's no doubt in my mind that Lafferty is essentially Melchisedech Duffey and that perhaps Finnegan is all that Lafferty hoped for his body of work and its best elements.  He knew that both he and his art were split-off (to use his own term in the trilogy) and uncertain and wracked by self-doubt and shortcomings and yet totally special and unique and powerful and game-changing masterpieces, if only they could come to full light and full realisation.  And as he reflects on the this trilogy of personal wrestlings in the form of universal yet idiosyncratic myth, he writes in his concluding essay that he has realised he has written the story of all persons whatsoever.  Every single person is a haunted, torn genius and so overflowing and multi-faceted that no one account (perhaps no one lifetime or timeline or corporeality) could possibly capture him or her.  And this resplendence and spectrality of character is what all people have in common.  No exceptions.  Their uncontainable and riven genius is what unites them across all times and locations.  And Lafferty means this quite literally, even while he states it in semi-symbolic and semi-ludic language. I'll conclude this post with his own words:

It is established that the human race is made up entirely of glowing geniuses. That's something. And it's pretty well established that the begeniused human race is totally ghostly in all the meanings of the word, that it is overflowing so that very often persons cannot be contained in a single body, that it runs pretty much on multiple and parallel tracks. It's agreed that every human person is really two or three different persons when in an overflowing mood. [...] In all meaningful moments a human may be seen in his multiplicity. [...] The people of the world are none of them common, are all of them geniuses, are all of them wonderful. So the power is always there, and the great overspilling of the multiplicity and the power. All the people are ghostly, and all of them are split or exploding people. They have rapport with all their fellows in time and in space, with all of them now in the world, with all of them who have been or will be in the world. (Argo, pp. 143-145)




Saturday, June 11, 2016

Lafferty's 80s novels

Academia and family have obviously kept me far too busy to keep up with this blog over the past many months.  (The last post was in late February!)  I've got so much to share on various fronts, but I always find myself tucking away a blog post idea that gets buried into the deep geological layers of ye ol' To Do list.  Today, I'm going to try to break that trend by posting here a comment I just made on a thread in the Lafferty Facebook group (East of Laughter: An Appreciation of R. A. Lafferty).  I really want to write about LaffCon1, which I just attended in New Jersey last weekend, but that too will have to wait.  (Spoiler: it was wonderful.)

Someone in the FB group asked when Lafferty's novel Sindbad: The 13th Voyage, published in 1989, was actually written by Lafferty.  Here's my rather hearsay and anecdotal response:

I once saw Andrew Ferguson write that all of Lafferty's 80s/90s novels were written sometime in the early 80s - 80 to 82 I think. Possibly some as early as 79. I remember Andrew writing that this was Lafferty's second wind sort of period where he landed on a newfound inspiration and approach and became very productive for a while in some quite new directions. Andrew argues that these later novels are not the incoherent mess that some readers have thought them, but are rather Lafferty's maturation as a writer where he finally broke into the new ground that all his earlier novels were urging readers to break into. I.e. think of the 'cliff hanger' endings of Past Master (1968) and Fourth Mansions (1969). Lafferty's novels written in the early 80s are the next and continuing chapters as it were. These late novels are the new worlds that were birthed through the struggles of his earlier novels. These new worlds are, admittedly, just as embattled and yet-to-be-finished as those of the earlier novels, but there are definitely new levels of perception and narrative experimentation happening. I think this groundbreaking creative aspect is also why the late novels remain somewhat 'choppy' (as Lafferty said in an interview) in style. Sometimes even knottier than the earlier novels. Even less commercially viable. But I'm pretty convinced it was because Lafferty had entered uncharted territory, even for him! And as a trailblazer he was bound to look rather 'primitive' (nay, primordial) in his slashing and hacking at the undergrowth he'd entered with this fresh spate of novels. I know Andrew's gonna cover this period in his biography of Laff (due out late 2017 perhaps?) and I hope to pick up his argument after it's published, developing the idea that Lafferty's late novels represent some of his best and most important work, at least as regards their groundbreaking aspect.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Skokie Who Lost His Wife

This is the way they tell it. 
A Skokie heard a Shelni jug flute jugging one night. 
‘That is the voice of my wife,’ the Skokie said. ‘I'd know it anywhere.’ 
The Skokie came over the moors to find his wife. He went down into the hole in the ground that his wife's voice was coming from. But all he found there was a Shelni playing a jug flute. 
‘I am looking for my poor lost wife,’ the Skokie said. ‘I have heard her voice just now coming out of this hole. Where is she?’ 
‘There is nobody here but myself,’ the Shelni said. ‘I am sitting here alone playing my flute to the moons whose light runs down the walls of my hole.’ 
‘But I heard her here,’ said the Skokie, ‘and I want her back.’ 
‘How did she sound?’ asked the Shelni. ‘Like this?’ And he jugged some jug music on his flute. 
‘Yes, that is my wife,’ said the Skokie. ‘Where have you hidden her? That is her very voice.’ 
‘That is nobody's wife,’ the Shelni told the Skokie. ‘That is just a little tune that I made up.’ 
‘You play with my wife's voice, so you must have swallowed my wife,’ the Skokie said. ‘I will have to take you apart and see.’ 
‘If I swallowed anybody's wife I'm sorry,’ said the Shelni. ‘Go ahead then.’ 
So the Skokie took the Shelni apart and scattered the pieces all over the hole and some of them on the grass outside. But he could not find any part of his wife. 
‘I have made a mistake,’ said the Skokie. ‘Who would have thought that one who had not swallowed my wife could make her voice on the flute!’ 
‘It is all right,’ said the Shelni, ‘so long as you put me together again. I remember part of the way I go. If you remember the rest of the way, then you can put me together again.’ 
But neither of them remembered very well the way the Shelni was before he was taken apart. The Skokie put him together all wrong. There were not enough pieces for some parts and too many for others. 
‘Let me help,’ said a Frog who was there. ‘I remember where some of the parts go. Besides, I believe it was my own wife he swallowed. That was her voice on the flute. It was not a Skokie voice.’ 
The frog helped, and they all remembered what they could, but it did not work. Parts of the Shelni could not be found again, and some of the parts would not go into him at all. When they had him finished, the Shelni was in great pain and could hardly move, and he didn't look much like a Shelni. 
‘I've done all I can,’ the Skokie said. ‘That's the way you'll have to be. Where is Frog?’ 
‘I'm inside,’ said Frog. 
‘That's where you will have to stay,’ the Skokie said. ‘I've had enough of both of you. Enough, and these pieces left over. I will just take them with me. Maybe I can make someone else out of them.’ 
That is the way the Shelni still is, put together all wrong. In his wrong form he walks the country by night, being ashamed to go by day. Some folks are startled when they meet him, not knowing this story. He still plays his jug flute with the lost Skokie Wife's voice and with Frog's voice. Listen, you can hear it now! The Shelni goes in sorrow and pain because nobody knows how to put him together right. 
The Skokie never did find his lost wife. 
This is how it is told.


~R. A. Lafferty, "Ride a Tin Can" (1970)



Art (fromthe story's original publication in IF Magazine) by Jack Gaughan.
Image found here: https://archive.org/details/1970-04_IF


What's interesting about isolating this passage (and two other similar passages I recently blogged from this story) is that it shows, simply by virtue of its authentic indigenous voice, how naturally sympathetic Lafferty was with the aboriginal imagination.  These micro-stories genuinely sound like tribal folk tales from around the world.  But, just as interestingly, what isolating such a passage doesn't show is that in this story Lafferty is actually writing overall in the voice of a rather traumatised anthropologist who is watching an indigenous people being wiped completely out. Lafferty shows real knowledge of this 'soft science' in the larger story as well, and of how the researcher on the ground must compete, often unsuccessfully, with larger stronger forces such as the scientific establishment and powerful commercial concerns.  It's a prime example of how Lafferty holds in one head a genuine 'native' sort of perspective as well as that of a 'modern' educated perspective, and one highly sensitive to 'post-colonial' issues at that.  The story is very dark and poignant beneath its rather joyful and rambunctious prose style.  That exuberance is authentic though, not mere style.  It is the joy of the oppressed refusing to die even if their bodies are slain (and eaten!) by the corporate cannibals. The story is grim, and yet this indomitable joy (though it can be silly in some respects, leading even to an undeserved credulity and trust that leads to death) is somehow crucial, a refusal to give the oppressor the very last inch of his conquest - your own bitterness.  That's how it's striking me at the moment anyhow.  It's one of his more complex tales in a way and will require further rumination and analysis.


Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Reading the Argo Cycle part 2 - Archipelago Ch. 1: Hans & Marie & the Poetry-Eating Squirrels

Well, I've begun reading the last book of the so-called The Devil is Dead Trilogy.  That is, I'm reading More Than Melchisidech Book III: Argo.  I will say this:  whatever the trilogy's ups and downs, strengths and weaknesses, mysteries and marvels and madnesses, it makes me want to re-read not only the trilogy itself but the entirety of Lafferty's oeuvre in light of it.  The Argo Cycle seems to be some kind of metaphysical template or manual or schema by which to better grasp what Lafferty's doing in everything else.  At times, in certain respects, it almost lacks substance in and of itself while seeming to promise to flesh out everything else, like a spirit or soul or ghost that is elusive and ephemeral in itself but utterly animating when inhabiting a body.  Lafferty said that he thought the entirety of his body of work kind of added up to one long unfinished novel that he called A Ghost Story.  The Finnegan/Melchisidech Trilogy (as I'd prefer to call it) and the Argo Cycle more generally seem to be something of the ghostly animus/anima of that Ghost Story.


Though there is some kind of elusive and insubstantial quality to this series in some ways, it nevertheless sparkles and flashes reasonably frequently with fulsome style and imagery and philosophy.  Take the following for example.  I quote the entire passage - which is part 6 of Chapter One of Archipelago (1979), the first book of the trilogy - so that you can see absolutely all that Lafferty's doing and layering in an extended scene like this.  Neil Gaiman, when recently asked what sticks out to him about Lafferty's writing, responded that first of all it is the sentences.  I couldn't agree more.  Even mere clauses within sentences can effervesce, delight, or gore in Lafferty.  That's why I have a whole Twitter account of Lafferty quotes.  I think he works wonderfully at the micro level.  But the following shows how you have to see him at larger, longer levels as well to catch all of his genius.

Hans Schulz is one of the mystical 'Dirty Five', a group of post-WWII army buddies whose lives and times (told in idiosyncratic Lafferty fashion) are the subject matter of this novel.  Each of the guys pairs off with a gal, most of them eventually marrying.  What would young love feel like to the Laffertian mind?  You need wonder no longer.  But this passage is so much more than romantic.   Lafferty's remarkable linguistic and cultural erudition are on full display here, interwoven with several micro tall tales tucked inside a larger one, and rustic local colour (by which enters Lafferty's ubiquitous ecology, in this case flora and fauna).  All this juxtaposes high and low registers very amusingly.  There's also narrative experimentation with voice and structure, an instance of Lafferty's frequently exemplified 'metafictional' habit (long before that word was hot and in a way that's on the opposite end of douchey; it's clever, but it's fun - not boring or snobbish or detached).  There are several wee punchlines to laugh out loud at, as well as the whimsy of the whole segment.  And, of course, there's one preternatural or paranormal aspect very casually asserted in an almost sleight of hand manner.  For my money, this is Lafferty firing on all cylinders.

Hans was in love. He was in love with Marie Monaghan. This had come swiftly to him who usually made up his mind slowly on important things. 
Marie might not have seemed exceptional to anyone else. She had regular, nice features, but her hair was too red and her face was too freckled. She was chubby by contemporary standards, though divine by classical. Hans’ feelings were classical. Marie's eyes were green, but were green eyes classical? Were any of the goddesses green-eyed? You couldn't trust Homer with colors. 
“—my uncle Homer Hochheimer,” it was Marie speaking in Hans’ mind, “he had a fortune but he missed it because he was color-blind. He had a purple cow and he thought she was black. He kept her till she was fourteen years old and then sold her to the butcher. ‘Man, you're throwing away a fortune,’ the butcher told him when the sale was consummated. ‘You've the only purple cow in the world and you've sold her for a pittance. I'll have a million pounds for her,’ and he did.” 
But to the green eyes, this would have to be solved. The paint is gone these two thousand years from the Greek statues that were colored in their prime, but they were still painted when Pausanes had seen them. Did he call any of them green-eyed? How would he call them green-eyed? Not chloros surely. Chloros was light yellow-green. Nobody would have eyes that were chloros. Prasino was a nice green, but was it classical? What was the Greek word for eyes the color of Marie's? In Romany it was sheleno, Gypsy green. And once in French vair, the green they sang: 
Nicolette had eyes of vair,
Something, something, yellow hair— 
But vair had become vert with the disintegration of the French soul, and it was no longer the green of the Troubadors: ignorant wise men even said that vair was a shade of gray. 
The Blessed Virgin was red-headed and green-eyed in early Flemish Annunciations. Witches were green-eyed. Lilith who was before Eve was a witch and therefore green-eyed. This would give primogeniture to the green-eyed women of the world. 
Belloc wrote the only stanza to green eyes, this little bit out of all the game-legged verses that have walked on anapest and pentameter on all the lesser subjects. 
“—Belloc? I mean my uncle Biloxi Brannagan. They called him that because he went ashore then. From his window he could see the top of an old piling and he thought it was the mast of his ship. ‘There's no hurry, she's still there,’ he would say. My aunt Gertrude, she's a Biloxi girl, never did tell him any different. He's still there. He never did catch his ship.’ Marie talked so in Hans’ mind as he waited for her at the Lotus Eaters. Then she came in person and sat down with him. 
“What are you doing, little Hans?” she asked. 
“I'm writing a poem about you. You can't see it. You won't scan and you won't rime; that's the trouble with you.” 
“Shakespeare had the same trouble, Hans dear.” 
“He did not.” 
“My uncle Shakes Pearson had the same trouble. We called him that because he always had them. He entered a jingle contest once. It was put on by a chewing tobacco company and he had to write a limerick. He drank pop-skull whisky and he shook all the time. His verse would go like this:—‘There was an old lady from Gacko—Who doted on chewing tobacco—’, then Shakes would get the shakes after so much effort and have to go after more pop-skull. When he got back the squirrels would have eaten what he had written. They lived so far back in the boondocks that they didn't have any paper and he wrote on bark with oak-ball juice.” 
In the company of Shakes Pearson, Hans did not feel so incompetent, so he let go with one of the stanzas he had written: 
“The muses sang when Eve was small,
And they were but diurnal;
But you were long before them all,
For you're at least eternal.” 
“You make me seem old,” said Marie. “Am I the eternal one? Well, Shakes would get another piece of bark and start again: ‘There was an old farmer who grew it—And never had leisure to chew it—’, then Shakes would get them again and go off for more pop-skull. And when he came back it would be as before: the squirrels would have eaten his epic.” 
So Hans read again: 
“I dreamed of you before we met,
I never was without you;
And all the masters praise you yet,
For they all wrote about you.” 
“I thought they were referring to me, Hans, but I didn't know that anyone else knew. Well, Shakes would start another one (all our family are very persevering): ‘There was an old farmer named Glugg—who was always cutting a plug—He'd whittle and whittle—till it was too little—’, then Shakes would go off for more of the same before he got to the last line.” 
So Hans read more boldly: 
“But here the brighter pearls are strung
And rings for all your fingers:
I'll sing you as you ne’er were sung
By all the Minnesingers.” 
“That's nice, Hans. So Shakes would start another one: ‘When I was a cocky young Jacko—we made our own chewing tobacco—We chopped up old sacks—and boots and boot-jacks—’, then he'd go off for more of it, and what do you think the squirrels did to his opus while he was gone?” 
“Ate it up. We poets have a hard time.” He continued: 
“And though the globe become a shell
You still will be the leaven,
And I'll remember you in Hell
When you forget in Heaven.” 
“That's Swinburnish, which is the next thing to swinish, and untrue, dear,” said Marie. “We shall be together: I have decided that. Well, Shakes killed himself. His is the only blot on our escutcheon. And the only note he left said ‘Miriam’ (I'm name after her), ‘You've got to do something about those damned squirrels.’ She never did know what he was talking about or why he killed himself. I'm the only one in our family who understands these things.” 
“Why didn't the squirrels eat that last note too?” 
“Naturally when they read it they were frightened and ran away.” 
“Are there squirrels in Australia, Marie?” 
“Not that I know of. Are you trying to trap me? If I'd said wallabies I'd have had to explain what a wallaby was. And besides, wallabies can't read, so there goes the story. I have a letter from Loy to Finnegan. I stopped by the house to kiss the boys good morning. They weren't up yet so I brought their mail to them.” This was the letter: 
Cambeltown, New South Wales
Thursday, February 11, 1943 
John Solli:
Dear Finnegan: 
Margaret and I will be in town tomorrow. If you haven't any more girls, we'll see you and have a big picnic. And if you do have some more girls, bring them, and we'll get two more boys and join you and Marie and Hans. And bring the other Dirty Fiver that we didn't meet and we'll get him a girl too. No news. The garden I planted in November is all weeds. Papa wouldn't hoe the damned thing. But he killed the fatted calf for his prodigal daughter yesterday. 
Meet us at the train at 7:45 AM (yes, I said AM). I know that you think it's decadent to get up in the morning and I know that you're right. But it isn't necessary that you be wide awake; I like you better the way you are. 
Margie says to tell you that she loves you too. She wants you too now. She switched to you just because I did. But tell Vincent we both still love him also. We love Hans, we love Marie, we love your friend Casey whom we haven't yet met. Meet us tomorrow. 
Love— Loy Larkin
Me too— Margaret Murphey

-------------------------------------------------------------------------


The passage is somewhat the classic 'I wish he'd stop writing verses about me long enough to kiss me' act, but it also shows a male-female dynamic that Lafferty visits again and again in the couples that frequently cross his fiction, where the man is a bit of an over-theoretical windbag while the woman is wry, witty, insightful, sensible, and cheeky.  Lines that sneak up on me and make me smile, chuckle, or guffaw (thanks especially to what precedes them) are:  'Hans’ feelings were classical'; 'Something, something, yellow hair'; 'I thought they were referring to me, Hans, but I didn't know that anyone else knew'; 'We poets have a hard time'; and, of course, 'Naturally when they read it they were frightened and ran away'.  And what a wonderful phrase: 'out of all the game-legged verses that have walked on anapest and pentameter'.  The ending of their conversation exemplifies Lafferty's recurring investigation of what makes storytelling storytelling, tall and otherwise.  And I left in the transition to the letter because that's how Lafferty ends his numbered chapter segment, creating yet more formal stylisation, appending a written personal letter to a scene of dueling love poetry and tobacco jingles and tall yarns all nested inside a dialogue that was preceded by a linguistic rhapsody.  I'm almost glad that the entire novel's not written this way.  It might (might) be too much.  But there are plenty more interwoven experimentations and styles and registers in the remainder.  To more of which we'll turn next time.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Shelni Who Turned into a Tree

This is how they tell it.

There was a woman who was neither Shelni nor Skokie nor Frog. She was Sky Woman. One day she came with her child and sat down under the Shelni tree. When she got up to go she left her own child who was asleep and picked up a Shelni child by mistake. Then the Shelni woman came to get her own child and she looked at it. She did not know what was wrong but it was a Sky People child.

‘Oh, it has pink skin and flat eyes! How can that be?’ the Shelni woman asked. But she took it home with her and it still lives with the Shelni and everyone has forgotten the difference.

Nobody knows what the Sky Woman thought when she got the Shelni child home and looked at it. Nevertheless she kept it, and it grew and was more handsome than any of them.

But when the second year came and the young Shelni was grown, it walked in the woods and said ‘I do not feel like a Sky People. But if I am not a Sky People, then what am I? I am not a Duck. I am not a Frog. And if I am a Bird, what kind of Bird am I? There is nothing left. It must be that I am a Tree.’ There was reason for this. We Shelni do look a little bit like trees and we feel a little bit like trees.

So the Shelni put down roots and grew bark and worked hard at being a tree. He underwent all the hardships that are the life of a tree. He was gnawed by goats and gobniu; he was rough-tongued by cattle and crom; he was infested by slugs and befouled by the nameless animal. Moreover, parts of him were cut away for firewood.

But he kept feeling the jug music creeping up all the way from his undertoes to his hair and he knew that this music was was what he had always been looking for. It was the same jug and tine music that you hear even now.

Then a bird told the Shelni that he was not really a tree but that it was too late for him to leave off growing like a tree. He had brothers and sisters and kindred living in the hole down under his roots, the bird said, and they would have no home if he stopped being a tree.

This is the tree that is the roof of our den where we are even now. This tree is our brother who was lost and who forgot that he was a Shelni.

This is the way it has always been told.


-Excerpted from R. A. Lafferty's short story “Ride a Tin Can”, first published in Worlds of IF, 1970; also collected in Strange Doings, 1972


The Shelni Who Lost His Burial Tooth

It is told this way.

There was a Shelni who lost his burial tooth before he died. Every Shelni begins life with six teeth, and he loses one every year. Then, when he is very old and has only one tooth left, he dies. He must give the last tooth to the Skokie burial-person to pay for his burial. But this Shelni had either lost two teeth in one year or else he had lived to too great an age.

He died. And he had no tooth left to pay with.

‘I will not bury you if you have no tooth left to pay me with,’ said the Skokie burial-person. ‘Should I work for nothing?’

‘Then I will bury myself,’ said the dead Shelni.

‘You don't know how,’ said the Skokie burial-person. ‘You don't know the places that are left. You will find that all the places are full. I have agreement that everybody should tell everybody that all the places are full, so only the burial-person may bury. That is my job.’

Nevertheless, the dead Shelni went to find a place to bury himself. He dug a little hole in the meadow, but wherever he dug he found that it was already full of dead Shelnis or Skokies or Frogs. And they always made him put all the dirt back that he had dug.

He dug holes in the valley and it was the same thing. He dug holes on the hill, and they told him that the hill was full too. So he went away crying for he could find no place to lie down.

He asked the Eanlaith whether he could stay in their tree. And they said, no he could not. They would not let any dead folks live in their tree.

He asked the Eise if he could stay in their pond. And they said, no he could not.

They would not allow any dead folks in their pond.

He asked the Sionnach if he could sleep in their den. And they said, no he could not. They liked him when he was alive, but a dead person has hardly any friends at all.

So the poor dead Shelni wanders yet and can find no place to rest his head.

He will wander forever unless he can find another burial tooth to pay with.

They used to tell it so.


-Excerpted from R. A. Lafferty's short story “Ride a Tin Can” (1970)


Monday, February 8, 2016

Lafferty News (Issue 5)

The biggest Lafferty news of late is that he is finally being published again.  Only e-books for Kindle are available so far, and only in the U.K., but rumour has it that this announcement will be followed by further announcements of physical books, USA releases, and also a brand new Best Of Lafferty. I'm guessing these developments will happen within the year, but that's just a guess.  The electronic 'covers' of the new releases seem like fairly slapped together stock art, and I think they'll tend to be misleading to potential readers.  It seems as if the publishers are just trying to reach out to common denominator SF/Fantasy fans and such folks are likely to be disappointed, or at least confused, when they start to read what's 'under' these covers.  The artwork should reflect the oddity and idiosyncrasy of the product.  These images are certainly indicative of Lafferty's cosmic themes, but you'd never guess from these covers that those cosmic themes are going to be narrated in the folksy, 'outsider art', experimental, oral tall tale sort of way that Lafferty has.  Here's hoping the physical releases will feature something more original and appropriate to each book's content.  You can see the blurbed book descriptions HERE.


Japanese Lafferty fan and scholar, Kenji Matsuzaki, shared on the East of Laughter Lafferty Facebook group the following information:  'According to the LOCUS February issue, "R. A. LAFFERTY’s new collection The Best of R.A. Lafferty sold to Malcolm Edwards at Gollancz, along with classic SF novels Space Chantey, Past Master, and Fourth Mansions; another 18 books were resold to Edwards for e-book publication as part of Gollancz’s SF Gateway intiative, all via Eddie Schneider at JABberwocky Literary Agency in association with John Berlyne at Zeno Agency."'

Next in news is that the long awaited third volume of Lafferty's complete short stories, The Man Underneath, is out from Centipede Press.
Thanks to photos shared by Felipe Guerrero in the Facebook group, I think we can see that this is the most beautiful edition they've made yet.  I'm waiting with baited breath to get my copy (which takes a few months longer to get in the UK).














The story selection is a very good one, but it still has that overly random feel to it that each of the TOCs has had in this series.  It feels as if it's not curated at all, having no sensitivity for how stories might sit side by side with one another or how the experience of reading them straight through the book might be enhanced by some selection of which flows into which.  Oh well.



Finally in Lafferty publishing news, volume 3 of Feast of Laughter: An Appreciation of R. A. Lafferty has hit the streets as well.  It's available on Amazon for a number of countries.  For a list of those, plus a link to the free pdf, see http://www.feastoflaughter.org/.  It's longer than ever and packed with goodness: more reprints of essays on Lafferty from years past, academic and otherwise; new essays, also academic and otherwise; new stories, poems, and artwork; more reflections from Lafferty translators; an interview with Harlan Ellison about Lafferty; letters between Lafferty and Alan Dean Foster (who, incidentally, wrote the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens tie-in novel); a rare and excellent Lafferty non-fiction piece, 'Tell It Funny, Og', and one of my all-time favourite short stories by Lafferty, 'Configuration of the North Shore'.  I once again contributed an essay (on Lafferty and monsters) and a short story.  







Michael Swanwick kindly wrote about our efforts with FoL on his blog:
Feast of Laughter has to be one of the most extraordinary fannish feats of recent years. It's a full-length book/zine containing new and reprint essays, appreciations, letters, whatevers pertaining to the man who was easily the most original science fiction writer of the Twentieth Century --Raphael Aloysius Lafferty. 
R. A. Lafferty, "Ray" as his friends called him, was, during his lifetime, recognized as one of the giants of the field. Now, alas, he's close to forgotten. 
But not quite! Some of the great man's friends and admirers have been working hard to reignite Lafferty's reputation. This volume of Feast of Laughter is the third collection of Laffertiana and it is a must for all serious Lafferty fans.

Feast of Laughter volume 4 is now underway and the content we have so far promises to be just as amazing.  The most exciting feature in the forthcoming volume for me is definitely that we obtained permission and rights to include a never-before-published short story by Lafferty, 'The Rod and the Ring'.  It's a great one too.  There is the usual open call for submissions, but with a special emphasis this time round on what our editor in chief, Kevin Cheek, is calling 'Lightning Essays':  around 300 to 600 words 'About Lafferty's writing, life, legacy, influence, or a personal reminiscence about your experience reading Lafferty'.  Again see http://www.feastoflaughter.org/ for details and where to send your submissions.

Lastly, if you haven't heard, the first ever 'LaffCon' is being held in New Jersey this June. Michael Swanwick also kindly mentioned LaffCon1 in his blog post above, at which he will be the Guest of Honor. I hope to make it myself if I can garner travelling funds from my university.  We shall see.


Note the hilariously clever 'Join us' paragraph at the bottom of the flyer - better image HERE (art by Anthony Ryan Rhodes, wit by John Owen).  

Welp, that's all for now!  Very exciting times for all things Lafferty.


Sunday, February 7, 2016

Reading the Argo Cycle - part 1

There's lots of Lafferty news afoot, but I'm not up for cataloguing it all in a Lafferty News post today. Most of you will probably be aware of it anyway.  Regardless, I will come back to that in a different post on a different day.  As you can see, with post-graduate work underway I have a lot less time to blog.  So with a spare moment today I'm going to talk about the Lafferty I've been reading.

I managed to get hold of physical editions of the complete Argo Cycle or Argo Mythos (well, all the novels anyway - the short stories in the cycle I only have piecemeal in print and the rest electronically).  This includes the so-called The Devil is Dead Trilogy:  Archipelago (1979), The Devil is Dead (1971), and More Than Melchisidech (1992).  The last novel of the trilogy was released in three volumes:  Tales of Chicago, Tales of Midnight, and Argo, each amply illustrated with some pretty wonderful art from Ward Shipman.  And there is one standalone novel in the cycle, Dotty (1990), which I was also lucky enough to obtain.  Except for The Devil is Dead, which was released widely as a mass market paperback back when Lafferty was actually recognised as a giant among his peers, the rest is in very limited small press editions that are all but unavailable now, and what is available normally costs more than I'll probably ever be able to afford.  But a very generous long time reader of this blog, whom I hadn't corresponded with before, gave me a great, affordable deal on all five books.  I was able to move on the kind offer thanks to the generosity of those who contributed to my PhD fundraising campaign, which exceeded its goal.


So, I've now read Archipelago, and cracked straight into The Devil is Dead to try to get the feel of reading the books as a series.  This is my second read of Devil (the first was over a decade ago) and I'm nearly finished.  I'll then head straight into the first volume of Mechisidech:  Tales of Chicago.  I hope to do a number of posts on Archipelago, with copious quotes since it's unavailable to most Lafferty fans out there.

First impressions:  the opening made me think this was going to be Lafferty's Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.  But after a handful of fairly dense pages, the novel settles into a more straightforward style, if not a conventional narrative.  Here's how Chapter One, 'In a Southern City', begins:

All this begins in a southern city and at nine o’clock in the morning, the same hour at which the world was made. It was a Thursday when originally man was not. 
Indeed, in these latter days there were few people in the streets and not many in the pubs. But beer was available (barley and hops had been made on the third day), and the morning had a freshness as in the earliest weeks of the world, as the older people remember them. A fast wind was driving the clearing clouds, and the pavements were wet. (When the world was first made it was as though it had just rained.) 
The first man in the world was drinking the first beer. He was Finnegan (not in name, but in self), and he looked at himself in the bar mirror. He saw for the first time that first face, and this was his appearance: he had a banana nose, long jumpy muscles along cheek and tempora, and a mouth in motion. He was dark and lean, like a yearling bull. His eyes had a redness that suggested a series of stormy days and nights, were not previous days and nights impossible. He was a little more than half Italian and a little more than half Irish, as was Adam his counterpart in a variant account. 
His mind was clear but not of a pattern. He was rootless and renegade. A moment before this, he had been in the Garden. Then he raised his eyes from the drink. The Garden was gone, and he was in the middle of the World. Finnegan looked at the World with new-made eyes, and he doubted that he would ever find a place in it.

It makes me feel as if Lafferty is signalling that he's setting up a very epic work in both narrative and philosophical scope.  The book of Genesis from the Hebrew canon is, of course, a key 'intertext' here. But there is a deep sense of amnesia and cyclical recurrence not found in the founding narrative of the Bible.  This is very much a post-creation scenario, in the thick of an old and weary world, and yet the sheer freshness of the Genesis account is intruding in the introduction to this strange man Finnegan.  The antidiluvian world feels as if it were there just yesterday; the Garden of Eden has just slipped from view as Finnegan looks up from his drink.  To see this fallen world as suddenly appearing from its unfallen state only a moment before is certainly to see it 'with new-made eyes'. Even though I've heard that Lafferty was very much not a fan of James Joyce, it's hard not to hear echoes of the 'riverrun' opening of Finnegans Wake here.  They're either totally unintentional resonances, showing like minds in spite of themselves, or it's Lafferty taking on Joyce directly to somehow combat and/or subvert him if he was indeed no fan.

At any rate, this opening filled me with wonder as well as the obvious confusion and tension it exhibits, especially with this man who already doubts he'll ever find a place in the world as it is. (The physical description of Finnegan is wonderful too.)  The sense of dialectic continues:

But he was not alone. He had a companion named Vincent. Vincent, however, was neither rootless nor renegade. His mind, not so clear not so deep as that of Finnegan, did have a pattern. He had not known the Garden. He was born in the World, and he would always have a place in it. 
In principio,” said Finnegan, “creavit Deus masculum et feminam, that is to say, God made the first pair a man and a woman.” 
“But the earliest stories always begin ‘There were these two guys in a bar,’ ” Vincent contradicted. “I'd say it in Latin if I knew how.” 
“The two versions cannot be reconciled, and I worry about it,” Finnegan said. “But, every time the world begins, it does begin with two young men in a pub. All things else are subsequent to this.”

Two guys in a bar vs. 'male and female he created them'.  Interesting.  And funny.  Lafferty is, of course, doing his usual exploration of just how storytelling and stories work.  How do you start them? How do you do a Beginning, when really everything's always already in the Middle?  He seemed genuinely obsessed, vexed, and impassioned by how narratives work and his whole career seems to be a philosophical exploration and explication of the puzzle, Lafferty's exploration itself being in story form since this was the natural apparatus with which he was endowed.

But after this enigmatic introduction things start to get a little more pedestrian.  This is appropriate, of course, for Lafferty wants the mundane world to take over this supra-mundane entrance into it.  The tale transitions nicely this way:

Beer before breakfast, and you'll have sudden luck all day. Toohey's, Tooth's, K. B. Lager, the same beers they had in Paradise: it hadn't all been a dream. The boys left the pub but they didn't leave the pubs; there were many of them to visit.

After this the tale is one of war buddies playing drinking pranks in their time off.  Then it moves episodically to the events of the war buddies leaving the war and returning home, and then their lives back in the States.  We'll come to that in time.  But suffice it to say that many more moments of philosophy, etymology, and philology, peppered with some wonderful moments of myth and folklore, feature throughout the ostensibly mundane main narrative.

Before concluding this post I want to note that moving in to The Devil is Dead was very much an experience of moving into a very different kind of narrative.  Archipelago is a rather meandering account of the lives of five friends (the Dirty Five) and their associates, somewhat centred on the task of theological zine-making - yep!  Whereas Devil is a tight, fast-paced adventure narrative through and through.  Archipelago does its philosophising directly in long-ish asides, digressions, and dialogue.  Devil does most of its philosophising through the strange events of the narrative itself and the reeling psychology of those experiencing the events.  Devil does totally work as a standalone. Archipelago is not needed as a 'prequel' or anything like that.  But you do understand a number of the references in Devil more if you've read Archipelago, though knowing the people and events referred to does not necessarily illuminate the central and unresolvable mysteries of Devil.  I'd say Archipelago is crucial to the Lafferty completist or scholar or truly geeked out fan of Lafferty.  Such people would not want to miss some of the passages and themes in Archipelago.  I'd also say it's crucial to understanding the very, very strange and fascinating character of Finnegan (as I'm sure the rest of the cycle will prove to be as well).  In fact, that's my favourite aspect of Archipelago on this first go:  further insight into Finnegan, one of Lafferty's greatest creations I'm beginning to think. Archipelago doesn't always follow Finnegan's POV or life.  He's off stage for a lot of it.  But when it does feature him it's always fascinating and illuminating, at the same time only deepening the mystery of just what or who he is.

More to come.

(photos by my wife, who also supportively suggested I spend the overflow of funding on rare books - the gal's a keeper!)

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Excerpt from 'Boomer Flats'

I'm studying Lafferty's short story 'Boomer Flats' right now for my forthcoming essay for Feast of Laughter volume 3.  Just had to share the following excerpt.  Up to this point in the story, the style has been fairly plain (but Lafferty's prose at its plainest still tends to be graceful, taut, and often lyrical - even if the difficult concepts and narrative experimentations sometimes obscure his generally mellifluous style).  I suspect the sudden change in style here reflects the new and strange and heightened setting the characters have suddenly found themselves within, for they have entered a sort of 'shadow' town not shown on maps, in search of monsters. 

Dr. Velikof Vonk twinkled his deep eyes in their orbital caves: perhaps he cogitated his massive brain behind his massive orbital ridges: and he arrived, by sheer mentality, at the next step. 
“Have you a menu, young lady?” he asked. 
“No,” she answered simply, but it wasn't simple at all. Her voice didn't go with her prettiness. It was much more intricate than her appearance, even in that one syllable. It was powerful, not really harsh, deep and resonant as caverns, full and timeless. The girl was big-boned beneath her prettiness, with heavy brindled hair and complex eyes. 

“We would like something to eat,” Arpad Arkabaranan ventured. “What do you have?” 

“They're fixing it for you now,” the girl said. “I'll bring it after a while.” 

There was a rich river smell about the whole place, and the room was badly lit. 

“Her voice is an odd one,” Arpad whispered in curious admiration. “Like rocks rolled around by water, but it also has a touch of springtime in it, springtime of a very peculiar quality.” 

“Not just a springtime; it's an interstadial time,” Willy McGilly stated accurately. “I've noticed that about them in other places. It's old green season in their voices, green season between the ice.” 

The room was lit only by hanging lamps. They had a flicker to them. They were not electric. 

“There's a lot of the gas-light era in this place,” Arpad gave the opinion, “but the lights aren't gas lights either.” 

“No, they're hanging oil lamps,” Velikof said. “An amusing fancy just went through my head that they might be old whale-oil lamps.”

“Girl, what do you burn in the hanging lamps?” Willy McGilly asked her. 

“Catfish oil,” she said in the resonant voice that had a touch of the green interstadial time in it. And catfish oil burns with a clay-colored flame. 

“Can you bring us drinks while we wait?” Velikof of the massive head asked. 

“They're fixing them for you now,” the girl said. “I'll bring them after a while.” 

Meanwhile on the old pool table the Comet was beating the hairy man at rotation. Nobody could beat the Comet at rotation. 

“We came here looking for strange creatures,” Arpad said in the direction of the girl. “Do you know anything about strange creatures or people, or where they can be found?” 

“You are the only strange people who have come here lately,” she told them. Then she brought their drinks to them, three great sloshing clay cups or bulbous stems that smelled strongly of river, perhaps of interstadial river. She set them in front of the eminents with something like a twinkle in her eyes; something like, but much more. It was laughing lightning flashing from under the ridges of that pretty head. She was awaiting their reaction.

Velikof cocked a big deep eye at his drink. This itself was a feat. Other men hadn't such eyes, or such brows above them, as had Velikof Vonk. They took a bit of cocking, and it wasn't done lightly. And Velikof grinned out of deep folk memory as he began to drink.
~R. A. Lafferty, 'Boomer Flats' (1971) 

I think it's a pretty good example of Lafferty's odd yet robust prose when he really lets it out of its cage (though he can wax even richer and wilder than this).  The dialogue sparkles, humour abounds, yet the language becomes injected with imagery of the huge and redolent, hinting at a dark, green, muddy, deep vitality beneath the effervescent chatter.

This exchange between the 'eminent scientists' and Crayola Catfish (the waitress) is followed by plenty more fearful wonders and laughing horrors in 'Boomer Flats', but the high-ish prose style here starts to crack and recede, probably to reflect one of the characters' stubborn unbelief in the redemptively monstrous nature of the place and people they've encountered (and which they discover is in themselves as well).

The description of Velikof's eyes here also reminds me of some passages in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian where men's eyes are described similarly, as caves and the like, but I'm not going to go hunt up the exact references right now.  Here too the woman's voice is said to call forth deep geological time, green spring times between ice ages - deep geology being another theme dear to McCarthy also, especially in Blood Meridian.  Both McCarthy and Lafferty share a tendency to describe human features - soulish as well as bodily - in the imagery of landscapes (as well as other aspects of ecology).  Another example from Lafferty that springs to mind is the enthralling description of a man's large and contoured hand at the opening of his short story 'Hands of the Man' (1970).  

Here in 'Boomer Flats' you can see the clear connection Lafferty is making between ecology and people, between the non-human and human, troubling a complete disjunction, re-enfolding subjects into objects. Notably in this story, outside of the excerpt above, Lafferty folds regional fauna and humanity together as well, especially catfish and bears.  These kinds of anthropo-eco boundary blurrings and hybridities are part of what I mean by the  'ecomonstrous' and what I'm researching in Lafferty's writing.  (The PhD is now 100% funded by the way, thanks to the generosity of a lot of kind and supportive folks out there.)


('Boomer Flats' was first published in IF magazine, then the collection Does Anyone Else Have Something Further To Add?; but I'm obviously not the first to see the story's eco implications as it was also later included in this 1994 anthology)




Monday, September 7, 2015

A Prelude to Lafferty's Weirder Tales

I want to review Lafferty's short story 'For All Poor Folks At Picketwire' (1975) next, but I feel compelled to try to get this off my chest first.  It's probably completely unnecessary for a lot of readers, but it's something that puzzles and intrigues me.  Feel free to demur from or expand on the view expressed below.

Since I first started publicly writing about Lafferty in 2009, I've claimed that Lafferty is weird, odd, strange, experimental, and bizarre in a way that the first-time reader is just not going to expect. Nothing will have prepared you for how Lafferty goes about being offbeat, even 'crazy'.  I know that people often hear about 'the Lafferty madness' (as the likes of Harlan Ellison and Samuel Delany called it when Lafferty's fiction emerged on the scene in the 1960s) and they understandably think of the experimentations of the likes of Captain Beefheart perhaps, or the paranoid but fascinating open and subversive universe of the likes of Philip K. Dick perhaps.  Or you name it.  Whatever your background makes you think of when you hear the claim that someone is utterly original and 'insane' and the like, that thing you're thinking of, it's almost guaranteed to not be an apt comparison or preparation for Lafferty.

Even as I say all this - that no one is like Lafferty, nothing can prepare you for his brand of weirdness - you're getting the wrong idea!  Why?  Because when we hear such encomiums we generally think of one of two things (or both).  We think either of something crazy in a really cool and 'hip' sort of way, something experimentally-minded college students might get into maybe, or something a well-(if-defiantly-)dressed 'alternative' crowd of one variety or another might champion. I get that.  I was a teenage punk rocker and never grew out of it.  When I think of crazy and original, I think of bands like The Birthday Party or The Fall (or in an alterna-metal direction, Mike Patton and his projects Mr. Bungle and Fantomas).  If you're thinking speculative literature, you might think Neil Gaiman or China Mieville.  If film, maybe David Lynch or the wackier and wilder aspects of the Coen brothers or Tarantino.  But Lafferty's work is not (or not immediately) like all this, not soaked in these kinds of aesthetic assumptions and expressions.

On the other hand, the 'crazy-original' claims might make us think of really 'out there' bizarro examples like maybe Daniel Johnston or the aforementioned Captain Beefheart.  If film, then maybe the likes of Terry Gilliam or John Waters.  This impression is closer to the mark.  But in most of these cases there can still be an aura of (usually countercultural) 'coolness' about the weirdness.

Now don't get me wrong.  I often exclaim 'Cool!' in response to what I read in Lafferty.  But I mean it the way I meant it as a kid in the 80s - an expression of sheer enthusiasm for something that strikes me as in some way excellent.  Not as a confirmation of something's 'hipness', something's trendy now-ness, even by 'alternative' or 'indie' standards.  Nor do I mean to deny that Lafferty is deeply countercultural in his own way (indeed, he's probably better called counter-ontological so reality-bending is his work and perspective).  Lafferty was indeed what he called a 'queer fish', swimming crankily but joyously against the mainstream.

I also don't want my denial that Lafferty is 'cool' to give the impression that his weirdness is 'geeky'. Lafferty isn't comic-con weird either.  Lafferty can, in certain respects, fit in both worlds - the geeks and the hipsters.  Yet he is a misfit in both as well.  That was seen to be the case when the 1960s/70s New Wavers of U.S. science fiction - Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delany, and the like - championed Lafferty.  They never lost their love of Lafferty's work, but they eventually didn't know how to categorise him as he was clearly not of or in the fold.  All in all, Lafferty is by turns too literary, too genre, too experimental, too dark, too comic, or too difficult for various groups.  That's why his work has tended to generate its own category of literature (what Theodore Sturgeon called 'lafferties') and its own following of Laffertyans or Laffertians, a diverse fan base comprised of all schools and allegiances, the unifying commonality being that they are struck and captured by Lafferty's unique genius.

So what should you think of when you hear that Lafferty is 'a genius, an oddball, a madman' and 'a genre in himself' (Neil Gaiman) or that 'Lafferty has the power which sets fires behind your eyeballs' (Zelazny) or that Lafferty 'bends or breaks normal story restrictions apparently at will' and has 'the most unfettered imagination' (Terry Carr) or that 'Lafferty is fun, sophisticated, and utterly insane', 'a madman, a wild talent' (Reader's Guide to SF)?

Well, maybe start by thinking of the likes of Amos Tutuola or Black Elk.  Like them, Lafferty is a native primal force, an individual that grows out of the fecund soil of an ancient communal worldview and speaks the cosmic magical vision of a people, stamped with his own idiosyncrasy, sure, but overflowing with more than what one individual could ever imagine or convey.  Yet Lafferty had more than one soil to grow out of - not only his family's Irish-Catholic soil, but also the Southwestern American Frontier and the lives and lore of his Native American neighbours.  If you cut Lafferty, he bleeds all three.

Further complicating this possible resonance, Lafferty was classically educated in Augustinian and Thomist traditions, well-read in history and theology and philosophy, knowledgable of the hard and soft sciences, abreast of some major 20th-century developments in thought such as Jungian psychology and Teilhardian cosmology. Lafferty was a largely self-taught but impressive polymath. So his weirdness is going to be not only primally visionary like Tutuola and Black Elk, but also inevitably book-learned (albeit inclusive of some cranks and conspiracy theorists).  So maybe when you hear about Lafferty's mad experimentation you should be thinking also of Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.  Or in a slightly different register, the wildnesses of Chesterton's buoyant dialectics and carnivalisations.   (The weirdest parts of Kafka might be appropriate here too, but minus the unmitigated bleakness.)

Yet Lafferty is even more than the above hybridity of Mystic and Man-of-Letters (+ a pinch of crackpot) suggests, for he also embodies regional and class (Oklahoma and blue-collar) dialects, dictions, and perspectives that liberally salt his visions and sophistications with homespun wit and wisdom.  And these perspectives puncture a whole helluva lot of pomposity and intelligentsia-speak along the way (though they don't foreclose Lafferty's own arcane and sesquipedalian theorisings, which are frequently embedded into his stories).  I suppose Lafferty might be a bit of a Mark Twain in his knowing and humorous use of colloquialism, except that he comes across as more thoroughly from these classes, child of an extended frontier family as he was.  This sincere rusticism is one crucial way in which Lafferty will surprise many a reader expecting The Cool Weird from him.

Now, all that said, once you've encountered and immersed yourself in Lafferty a while, it's not altogether unlikely that you will indeed end up thinking of him as a literary-yet-rustic Beefheart or Lynch, an 'outsider artist' and auteur in one.  And dammit, Lafferty's weirdness is cool!  So utterly cool, what would've made us 80s kids exclaim with approbation:  'Bad!'  And it does get crazy weird and beautifully bizarre and sometimes disturbing.  And its weirdness is deep, because Lafferty, like Lovecraft, is playing for keeps.  This is a cosmic view of things that gets beneath the surface into the ontic architecture of existence.

All right, let's get back to reading these stories one by one.
'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)