Wednesday, December 16, 2009

A Travelogue of the Laffertian Landscape, part 4: Never was the World Outlook so bright, and never had the girls been so pretty

I didn’t actually own a collection of short stories by Lafferty until several years into reading him. I simply looked for one Lafferty story at a time in s.f. mags and multi-author anthologies of the 70s/80s at second hand bookshops (reminiscent of the title to his story ‘One At A Time’!). I’d buy dirt cheap 70s anthologies that looked interesting, especially if edited by someone I respected, like Brian Aldiss. That’s how I came across the story ‘Parthen’ in Best SF: 1973, edited by Aldiss and Harry Harrison.

This story (built on the momentum of having read the previously discussed ‘And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire’ [see part 3]) did the trick of hooking me completely. A particular part toward the beginning had me laughing uncontrollably, reading one line again and again, each time erupting afresh in giggles and guffaws—tears in eyes, hand slapping thigh—the works. I’ll get to that in a moment. First, the story begins thusly:

'Never had the springtime been so wonderful. Never had business been so good. Never was the World Outlook so bright. And never had the girls been so pretty.'

Lafferty had a real knack for a cracking opening paragraph to a story. Indeed, the story that follows often cannot live up to its gem of an opening. But this story definitely does. In fact, reading through this story afresh I find it is one of his (perhaps somewhat rare) ‘perfectly’ written stories. The prose just does not falter, right through to the end. It is confident and lyrical; the writing produces an exquisitely taut chord that rings true when plucked (read). It may not be one of his very deepest (though it undoubtedly has depth), but it is one of his most finely crafted in my opinion.

(But always remember, whatever encomiums I employ to describe Lafferty, you must ever be prepared for him to live up to the glowing praise in the queerest way when you actually read him for yourself. I’m firmly convinced he was a great writer, but he was a weird writer! A fact which, for people with tastes like mine, only adds to the esteem we heap on him.)

I still didn’t yet realise how characteristic these few opening lines of ‘Parthen’ were of Lafferty’s wry, consistently anti-utopian satire. And that he usually employed ridicule in such magnanimous-yet-cranky terms—that is, he harangued humanely. That’s why so many people love him irrespective of whether they agree with his ethical, religious, or political framework.

I don’t know how he pulls it off, but these opening lines (especially if seen within his wider work) drip with sarcasm and a certain deep cynicism and yet they evince what seems to be Lafferty’s genuine zest for life, even at its worst. It is not life itself or even certain persons or groups of people, but rather the philosophical (and hence, ethical) thinning of the zest that he objects to crankily (he called himself the ‘cranky old man from Tulsa’). But as I say, so many readers who might even be ideologically on the receiving end of his withering criticism find themselves warming to him because of his affirmation of being human and of life, even when facing a darkness, even when accusing you in particular of supporting a structure that creates that darkness. This is his genius. This is what people of all stripes love him for. The story continues:

'It is true that it was the chilliest spring in decades—sharp, bitter, and eternally foggy—and that the sinuses of Roy Ronsard were in open revolt. It is admitted that bankruptcies were setting records, those of individuals and firms as well as those of nations. It is a fact that the aliens had landed (though their group was not identified) and had published their Declaration that one half of mankind was hereby obsoleted and the other half would be retained as servants. The omens and portents were black, but the spirits of men were the brightest and happiest ever.

'To repeat, never had the girls been so pretty! There was no one who could take exception to that.

'Roy Ronsard himself faced it in a most happy frame of mind. A Higher Set of Values will do wonders toward erasing such mundane everyday irritations.'

The ostensibly light humour, the fun-having sarcasm and lampooning of ‘new moralities’, the effortless and unobtrusive introduction into the narrative of a well-worn s.f. trope (‘the aliens had landed’) all combine to create simple, pleasurable entertainment… and no one really suspects (or is only marginally wary of) the bite beneath the ink! And Lafferty just goes on light-footedly satirizing and, indeed, simply joking around:

'There is much to be said in favor of cold, vicious springtimes. They represent weather at its most vital. There is something to be said for exploding sinuses. They indicate, at least, that a man has something in his head. And, if a man is going to be a bankrupt, then let him be a happy bankrupt.

'When the girls are as pretty as all that, the rest does not matter.

Lafferty also had a knack for odd description of odd things and would go into great detail unexpectedly, frequently thereby disclosing his considerable (in the main arcane) erudition. We have been informed that the girls are unusually and perhaps even unbelievably pretty and many an author might leave it at that. But Lafferty’s next line is ‘Let us make you understand just how pretty Eva was!’ And Eva is the first in a rapid succession of lovely women he sketches. And what you would expect to come next? What kind of description in what kind of terms? No one would do it like Lafferty does:

'She was a golden girl with hair like honey. Her eyes were blue—or they were green—or they were violet or gold and they held a twinkle that melted a man. The legs of the creature were like Greek poetry and the motion of her hips was something that went out of the world with the old sail ships. Her breastwork had a Gothic upsweep—her neck was passion incarnate and her shoulders were of a glory past describing. In her whole person she was a study of celestial curvatures.

'Should you never have heard her voice, the meaning of music has been denied you. Have you not enjoyed her laughter? Then your life remains unrealized.

Let me pause and suggest the following exercise to you: some day, once you’ve read and enjoyed Lafferty for a while, try typing out a paragraph you always found humorous. What an effect it has! I grinned as I began. The grin widened into a (probably frightening-looking) smile. Little involuntary giggles began erupting. By the time I was done I was quietly but firmly belly-laughing, shoulders gently convulsing. I had to savour a few of the lines again, then laughed yet louder, sighed. No doubt there was a twinkle in my eye that if my wife or one of my children had entered the room and observed, they would have queried: ‘What mischief have you been up to?’ What a gift to write like that! (C. S. Lewis has wonderful moments where he achieves this and G. K. Chesterton many more.)

Even given that the grandiosity of this praise is necessary to the plot, what a wonderful way to describe the beauty of a woman! A quality I appreciate in Lafferty (and I’m not sure how many others would appreciate this) is that he did not describe graphic sexual scenes (unlike, say, his Catholic contemporary Gene Wolfe), though he by no means shrank from the subject on a number of levels – married, illicit, fulfilling, or unfulfilling. Elsewhere in this connection, Lafferty remarked:

‘Well, well, was there a seduction scene then? Enjoy or abhor such things according to your inclination, as the sage says, but it is contemptible to seek such vicariously.’

(From his novel The Devil Is Dead. He seemed consistently to disdain and subvert society’s appetite for pornography – see, for example, his story ‘Brain Fever Season’ – collected in Ringing Changes.)

As ‘Parthen’ shows, male-female relationships and gender inter-perceptions were often a central feature of Lafferty’s stories. Nor did he shrink from the sensual as I think the above passage shows. Indeed, here is deep respect and true awe in describing a woman’s physical dimensions. And this thus comes across as so original! Every s.f. writer in the 60s/70s experimental New Wave movement was busy gettin sexy and sexually liberated and Lafferty was diverse from them in this area as in so many others. Though he demurred from joining in the sex lib ethos, it’s clear he was no prude and his work regularly celebrated and explored the joys and perils of human sexuality.

And of course not only does this passage have beauty, but also mirth, even joy! Lafferty continues:

‘It is possible that exaggeration has crept into this account? No. That is not possible. All this fits in with the cold appraisal of men like Sam Pinta, Cyril Colbert, Willy Whitecastle, George Goshen, Roy Ronsard himself—and that of a hundred men who had gazed on her in amazement and delight since she came to town. All these men are of sound judgment in this field. And actually she was prettier than they admitted.

‘Too, Eva Ellery was but one of many. There was Jeannie who brought a sort of pleasant insanity to all who met her. Roberta who was a scarlet dream. Helen—high voltage sunshine. Margaret—the divine clown. And it was high adventure just to meet Hildegarde. A man could go blind from looking at her.’

I don’t know why, but I must have read this story over again half a dozen times in as many weeks and would seriously have tears in my eyes by the time I came to ‘the divine clown’ every time! I suppose different bits of Lafferty tickle different people in different ways, but this one just grabbed my funny bone and wouldn’t let go until I was aching every time. Indeed, people often refer to the happiness and joy they feel from reading him, no matter how dark or bloody certain aspects may be.

And Lafferty gives us this joyful pleasure always with a sting in the tail. The wives are understandably not taking it well that their men are all besotted with these new ├╝ber-women. The protagonist Roy Ronsard says to his wife:

‘“Have you noticed how many really beautiful women there are in town lately, Peggy?”

‘“Roy, I hope those aliens get every damned cucumber out of that patch! The monsters are bound to grab all the pretty women first. I hope they’re a bunch of sadist alligators and do everything that the law disallows to those doll babies.”

‘“Peggy, I believe that the aliens (and we are told that they are already among us) will be a little more sophisticated than popular ideas anticipate.”

‘ “I hope they’re a bunch of Jack the Rippers. I believe I could go for Jack today. He’d certainly be a healthy contrast to what presently obtains.”’

This thought that ‘Jack the Ripper’ would be better than the current lack of ‘manliness’ provides a snapshot of a lot of what Lafferty had to say in his work. His was a (imaginatively) violent reaction to the reductionism(s) of his (and our own?) times – reductionisms that pretended, ironically, to be on a ‘higher plane’ of values. The effects of these values play out this way in the story before us:

‘How could a man not ascend to the higher plane when such wonderful and awesome creatures as these abounded? But the damage was done when the men carried this higher plane business home to their comparatively colorless wives. The men were no longer the ever-loving husbands that they should have been. The most intimate relations ceased to take place. If continued long this could have an effect on the statistics.’

I won’t give away rest of this enjoyable (quite short) story. The light touch continues throughout both in terms of humour as well as social criticism and perhaps this story gives little hint of the sublimities Lafferty can reach. But it is one of my favourites and I think a fine and gentle introduction to the man’s oeuvre.

Next I shall mention a flurry of stories that I came along subsequently with much pleasure and with increasing interest in his critiques of theories of origins among other themes.

Friday, November 27, 2009

A Travelogue of the Laffertian Landscape, part 3: The Ants of God are Queer Fish (And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire)

The next Lafferty story I happened upon was the 1972 ‘And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire’ which the dust jacket to the anthology of the same name somewhat misleadingly calls a ‘chilling dip into the occult’. It was weird; it was surprising; it was effortlessly (unintentionally I reckon!) original; it was tasty and tantalising; like everyone else testifies when they first read him, it was like nothing I’d ever read. And it was overtly Christian! Right here in the middle of other ‘sf masters’ (as the intro claimed, placing Lafferty’s name in their midst) such as Robert Bloch, Roger Silverberg, and Philip Hose Farmer was this wonderfully subversive story that was G. K. Chesterton writing a bizarre science-fictional Screwtape Letters for the freshly and giddily post-Christian, drugged-up, rock-n-roll-institutionalised America! The story begins:

‘The Ichthyans or Queer Fish are the oddest species to be found in any of the worlds.’

If you know where he’s going with it and what he means by it, this in some ways sums up Lafferty’s whole take on things. Already, I was enjoying the taste of the style and was open to an entertaining story about aliens. Anyway, the story continues:

‘They are pseudo-human, perhaps, but not android. The sign of the fish is not easily seen on them, and they pass as human whenever they wish: a peculiarity of them is that they often do not wish to pass as human even when their lives depend on it. They have blood in their veins, but an additional serum also. It is only when the organizational sickness is upon them (for these organizing and building proclivities they are sometimes known as the Queer Builders or the Ants of God), that they can really be told from humans. There is also the fact that most of them are very young, or at least of a youthful appearance. Their threat to us is more real than apparent and we tend to minimize it. This we must not do. In our unstructured, destructed, destroyed society, they must be counted as the enemies to be exterminated. It’s a double danger they offer us: to fight them on their own grounds, or to neglect to fight them. They’d almost trick us into organising to hunt down their organization.’

[Those who know VOTM will see the blatant influence on my lyrics – ok, plagiarism on my part!]
So, this is not a story about aliens after all. Not conventionally anyway. This is a poker-faced but laughing-eyed, satirical but deadly serious tract for the times, and for those with eyes to see it, a ‘religious’ tract at that! And it was couched in freshly self-ironic yet taunting terms like ‘Queer Fish’ and ‘Ants of God’! I was suddenly wide awake and fully engaged, grim-browed and glint-eyed, bent on seeing just where this was going.

Here I face a narrative problem. I want to quote half the story! It deserves a lengthy chapter all to itself in some critical book! So I deem. Let me just try to point out a few more things about this story so as to end this entry and move on to the rest of my Laffertian journey and to thoughts on his wider work.

This opening to the story is one of a handful of something like excerpts from a professional scholarly journal that punctuate the story (a trope Lafferty often uses). At first the ‘scholars’ sound like scary bureaucratic social architects but slowly their identity morphs into demonic personages writing about the much-needed extermination of these pesky Queer Fish and all they stand for. (Hence the Screwtape Letters comparison above.) But immediately it moves on to proper storytelling as well:

‘Judy Thatcher was moving upcountry in a cover of cattle.’

Need I say more? Nobody writes like that! A ‘cover of cattle’? Come on! If that’s not totally awesome I just don’t know what is. This is Lafferty’s Oklahoman/Iowan uncool ‘coolness’. I’m from Indiana, not either of the coasts, so maybe that’s why I get it. But I’m pretty sure I’ve heard plenty of voices from East and West coasts that chime in with approval. Even some Brits. Definitely the Japanese seem to love him. (When you read more Lafferty and watch, say, Japanese animated films, you can probably see quite readily why.)

The cattle are further described as ‘wobble-eyed and unordered’ which is a condition we eventually see has afflicted every living thing on the planet except the birds and the few and scattered Queer Fish. Who’s Judy Thatcher?

‘Judy was a young and handsome woman of rowdy intellect. She had, by special arrangement, two eyes outside of her head, and these now travelled on the two horizons. These eyes were her daughter, travelling now about two miles to the East and right of her on a ridge, and her son moving on another ridge three miles to her left and West. She was a plague carrier, she and hers. All three of them were Queer Fish.’

This is a Chestertonian Hemingway or Steinbeck (or maybe even Louis L’Amour)! But no, it’s Lafferty. Some people seem to get tired of hearing it, but he’s truly one of a kind. (S.f. scholar John Clute: ‘With R. A. Lafferty… comparisons are more than usually misleading. He stood alone.’) Still, approximate and tentative and even facetiously tenuous comparisons can’t hurt. I actually think Laff himself, in describing his own characters or in comments they make, gives us the vocabulary we need to delineate his style. A ‘rowdy intellect’ is one of many such descriptives that captures well the man’s mind. In fact, he later describes Judy writing a letter ‘with great sweeps of writing in a rowdy hand out of a rowdy mind… Yet she wrote with difficulty, for all the free-handed sweep of her writing. There are things hard to write, there are things impossible. She dipped her calamari pen in lampblack and in grace and wrote to somebody or something that might no longer be in existence.’

Bang! There it is for sure. This is Lafferty’s writing very well described indeed and we shall return to this thought in a later entry. But for now just know that he’s a rowdy, sweeping, grace-dipped intellectual of a writer writing things hard to write, and things impossible, perhaps written to someone or something now extinct. If that doesn’t make you hurt inside with a good hurt, sad inside with a good sadness, pierced inside with sweet aching joy, roused inside with glee and grit, well, friend, read on and pray for grace!

Judy’s juvenile son Gregory is presently tempted by a junior demon called Azazel and they’re both a bit embarrassed by it because it’s both of theirs first time and they end up laughing it off a bit. But Gregory does successfully resist temptation in the end and the demon departs a bit miffed, promising ‘The show isn’t over with boy’.

It’s just this sort of matter-of-fact and rather irreverent theological supernaturalism seamlessly woven into his stories that characterises Lafferty’s genius for being theologically orthodox in a contemporarily heterodox manner. That’s why so many non-Christians read him and don’t know whether he’s comin’ or goin’! Whatever pre-beliefs we bring to it, we just eat it up. Why not? Something this good can’t be all bad, can it? I honestly feel sorry for atheists and other ‘unbelievers’ who read Lafferty with pleasure. They must feel so guiltily tempted toward the (to them) dark side! As C. S. Lewis said, ‘a young atheist can’t be too careful what he reads’! Nor can any non-Christian of any age for that matter! I know not everyone sees these theological underpinnings right away. As the aforementioned Encyclopedia of SF notes: Lafferty’s ‘conservative Catholicism has been seen as permeating every word he writes (or has been ignored)’. But I wonder whether readers can really understand or even truly enjoy Laff’s work without coming to some kind of terms with his faith. Again, Clute: ‘unlike almost anyone else in the field, his Roman Catholicism governed not only the surface of his work, but its deep structure as well.’ More on that in later entries. Suffice it to say the dialectic he sets up in the following two paragraphs from later in this story should make the stakes pretty clear:

‘There has been a long series of “Arrow Men” or “Beshot Men” who have been called (or who have called themselves) Sons of God. These Comet-like Men have all been exceptional in their brief periods. The Queer Fish, however, insist that their own particular Mentor “The Mysterious Master and Maker of the Worlds” was unique and apart and beyond the other Arrow men or Comet Men who have been called Sons of God. They state that he is more than Son of God: that He is God the Son.’

But what we’re reading here is another of the demonic-bureaucratic journal entries and it goes on to argue the other side:

‘We do not acknowledge this uniqueness, but we do acknowledge the splendor and destroying brilliance of all these Arrow Men. To us, there is nothing wrong with the term Son of God. There is not even anything wrong with the term God, so long as it is understood to be meaningless, so long as we take him to be an unstructured God. Our own splendor would have been less if there had not been some huge thing there which we unstructured. This unstructuring of God, which we have accomplished, was the greatest masterwork of man.
‘The second greatest masterwork of man was the unstructuring of man himself, the ceasing to be man, the going into the hole and pulling the hole in after him; and the unstructuring, the destroying of the very hole then.’

Hmm… Lafferty seems to be taking us to the future in order to see our present times. Then the devil-scholars show their hand:

‘We who were made of fire were asked to serve and salute those who were made of clay. We had been Arrow Men ourselves. Our flight was long flaming and downward, and now it has come to an end. We destroy ourselves also. We’ll be no more. It is the Being that we have always objected to.’

And this is their sinister-sweet invitation to us all:

‘What, have you not lusted for rotted mind and for rotted meat? Here are aphrodisiacs to aid you. Have you not lusted for unconsciousness and oblivion? You can have them both, so long as you accept them as rotted, which is the same as disordered, or unstructured, or uninstituted. This is the peaceful end of it all: the disordering, the disintegrating, the unstructuring, the rotting, the dry rot which is without issue, the nightmare which is the name of sleep without structure. Lust and lust again for this end! We offer you, while it is necessary, the means and the aids to it.’

Well, it’s ominous to be sure, yet the story ends on an achingly transcendent note, bizarre and completely without banality or cheese or hoaky religiosity. Not a false note is rung. But that’s for a future entry!

Next: I encounter another story, belly-achingly humorous, and find myself hooked for good. The search begins.

A Travelogue of the Laffertian Landscape, part 2: Closing in on the Mad Man Riding (Raucously) the Crest of the New Wave

In my early 20s I discovered science fiction as literature through C. S. Lewis’s ‘Space Trilogy’ (‘Cosmic Trilogy’ in UK) and in my nerdish obsessive tendency proceeded to read s.f. non-stop for 2 or 3 years.
Now I had grown up on sci-fi films and TV and loved the genre, but books-wise had only read fantasy and horror as a child and teen. Furthermore, I was ‘singing’ in a ‘sci-fi/horror’ punk rock band at the time (Blaster the Rocket Boy, later Blaster the Rocket Man). My childhood imagination had readily poured out in my lyrics along with my young-adulthood faith, so that our songs were a strange and heady mix of the spiritual experiences of monsters and robots and aliens. I was a huge C. S. Lewis fan (reading his Mere Christianity at age 18 genuinely changed my whole life, especially by finally fully switching on my intellect and effectively and thrillingly meshing it with my imagination and faith) and I was writing science-fictional lyrics from a Christian worldview but still hadn’t read his science fiction books! A dear friend finally posted me the books in the mail and prompted me to read them, which yet again changed my life.

I must admit, though, I look back on those 2 or 3 years of slavish voracious s.f. reading with some nausea. It was mostly tripe, sadly (I wasted some precious hours of my life on the revered Asimov – but bless him, he’s a classic in his way and is still highly pleasurable in the rare story—reading ‘The Bicentennial Man’ aloud to my children was a fine moment).

However, I think what I mostly identified with then (and still do sometimes) was a phase in s.f. history called the ‘new wave’ in the 1960s and 70s. The hotties of this loose grouping were Roger Zelazny, Samuel R. Delany, and Harlan Ellison in America (gotta love those names!). Apparently it was Brits like Brian Aldiss and J. G. Ballard that started the literary trend in this experimental direction. Philip K. Dick would go here as well and I’m sure there are others I’m glaringly overlooking. It was particularly some of the feel from Ellison and Zelazny that grabbed me, and even more so Aldiss drew me into his flame for a period. There was a quirkiness and ‘coolness’ and ‘science fantasy’ (in the good way) feel to the Americans. Aldiss had their oddity but with the much more articulate and patently intellectual tone usually ingrained in British writing (which for most of my life I by far preferred – I’ve now come to appreciate quite acutely the American style of intelligent prose as well).

In this period (the 60s/70s, as well as my phase of reading this work, which was the mid-90s) there emerged another American author that surely by default of name had to align with this grouping: one R. A. Lafferty. Initially he has the same quirky feel (not as ‘cool’ though, the first thing to set him apart), the oddity, the wry wit and wisdom. Indeed, all of the aforementioned authors praised Lafferty without exception or qualification. Here’s what they were saying about his first (and most well known) novel, Past Master, in 1968 (a novel I didn’t read until much later in my Lafferty experience).

You can hear the genuine admiration mixed with bemusement about how to praise a genius even stranger than themselves who had popped up in their midst:

I read it in one sitting; I couldn’t put it down. Lafferty has the power which sets fires behind your eyeballs. There is warmth, illumination, and a certain joy attendant upon the experience. He’s good. [Roger Zelazny]

This is a great galloping madman of a novel, drenched in sound and color… As with everything the man writes, the wind of imagination blows strongly… and we can settle back to appreciate the special magic proffered by the madman Lafferty. [Harlan Ellison]

The Lafferty madness… is peppered with nightmare: witches, lazarus-lions, hydras, porsche’s-panthers, programmed killers that never fail, and a burlesqued black mass. One hears of black comedy? There are places in PAST MASTER where humor goes positively ultraviolet. [Samuel R. Delany]

…wild, subtle, demonic, angelic, hilarious, tragic, poetic, a thundering melodrama and a quest into the depths of the human spirit… R. A. Lafferty has always been uniquely his own man. [Poul Anderson]

It’s a minor miracle that a serious philosophical and speculative work should be written so colorfully and so lyrically. There is, happily, no way to categorize the book: it has elements of science fiction, of pure fantasy, of poetry, of historical fiction; it is sharply critical and marvellously gentle; very serious and irrepressibly funny; profoundly symbolic and gutsy-realistic by (unexpected) turns. A first rate speculative work. [Judith Merril]

Yet he transcends his peers, he transcends. I don’t mean to be patronizing to clearly great writers who went on to much more renown than Lafferty ever knew. But I think even they knew they were in the presence of someone truly in a league of his own, even if that distinction pushed him into the realm of the ‘mad’ and ‘wild’ like an animal-skinned prophet in the desert.

I first happened upon one or two of his stories in old s.f. mags I had collected second hand and certainly the name stuck if no other impression was made. (I do remember the ending of a story I was otherwise not impressed with, something about a witch making a chilli recipe, that totally made my heart thud against its cage with painful yearning – it utterly surprised me, but it didn’t yet shock me out of my stupidity for I didn’t at that time take up the quest for more Lafferty.) Then I came across the entry on Lafferty in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (edited by the brilliant scholar John Clute). Yes, I know, it’s utterly geeky to own such a tome, but honestly it’s actually high quality lit. crit.! I bought the encyclopaedia in the heat and height of an obsession for ‘Inklings’ style imaginative literature when I noticed it had interesting lengthy entries on all three (Williams, Lewis, Tolkien as well as predecessors Chesterton and MacDonald)! Anyway, it mentioned that Lafferty’s Roman Catholicism infused all his writing and I was intrigued on that count. Theologically driven s.f. is rare indeed (particularly by Christians), but is perhaps the most precious jewel worth digging up and collecting. And if you’re gonna dig, dig Lafferty!

Next: I properly encounter my first Lafferty story. It takes a minute to say, so please forgive the long entry…

A Travelogue of the Laffertian Landscape, part 1 – How to Be a Joyously Subversive Blessing Instead of a Hackneyed Subcultural Blight

R. A. Lafferty is a truly great, largely unknown author who deserves the ‘devotion’, attention, and thoughtful reflection. That alone makes this series worth it. These are very early days indeed for Lafferty criticism, so we’re far, far from having too much written about him.

These entries are also incidentally and unavoidably autobiographical and hence at times insightful into my mind, for those interested (you sick people!). (I assume this will mainly be ‘fans’ of Blaster the Rocket Man and Voice of the Mysterons. But some friends, co-workers, neighbours, and family members may also benefit in better understanding their weird half-overbearing, half-reclusive, alternately affable and recalcitrant, bearded bespectacled acquaintance. On the other hand, it may confirm your fears and suspicions and rouse you to unite and take up your torches and pitchforks to finally rid the village of the vile fiend!)

Furthermore, and very importantly, to write about Lafferty is, for me, necessarily a socio-cultural commentary/exploration on a ‘way forward’ for Christian artists: how to be a joyously subversive blessing instead of a hackneyed subcultural blight.

Christians have a long history of being profound and provocative culture-makers: I mainly think of literary innovators like Edmund Spenser, George Herbert, John Bunyan, John Milton, George MacDonald, G. K. Chesterton, Charles Williams, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Flannery O’Connor, Walker Percy, and Gene Wolfe (just to name a few that spring to mind). In modern/postmodern/post-postmodern times this tradition is largely lost within huge swathes of the broad Christian church. Hearing comments (from critics who did not share Lafferty’s faith) like the below about an artist who is a self-professed ‘public’ Christian gives me conviction and hope and… ideas:

R. A. Lafferty is one of the most original writers in science fiction. He bends or breaks normal story restrictions apparently at will, pokes fun at serious matters and breaks into a kind of folk-lyricism over grotesqueries. All this, plus the most unfettered imagination we’ve enjoyed in years. [Terry Carr]

R. A. Lafferty is possessed—a madman, a wild talent… Lafferty’s world is not always comfortable, since he takes particular delight in subtly twisting the meanings of words. His world is usually delightfully absurdist, and often bristling with pins to prick the soap-bubbles of whatever you hold sacred. Lafferty is fun, sophisticated, and utterly insane. [A Reader’s Guide to SF]
Too often the label ‘Christian’ in many people’s minds cannot go in the same category as ‘original’, ‘breaking normal restrictions’, ‘fun’, ‘grotesque’, ‘unfettered imagination’, ‘mad/insane’, ‘wild’, ‘subtle’, ‘twisting’, ‘delightful’, ‘absurd’, ‘bursting sacred bubbles’, ‘sophisticated’, etc. Admittedly, a Christian embodies many of these descriptors only in certain senses and sometimes in ways that are dangerous and/or hilarious. But to fail to live out the connections between Christian history, experience, and belief and these ‘edgy’, unconventional signifiers is to sell out the true story of what this social, cultural, philosophical, ‘religious’ revolution called Christianity is all about. The faith’s origins (to say nothing of the faith’s Founder) are, historically, nothing if not in some ways well described by the adjectives above. Look into it if you doubt me.

You see, Christian Orthodoxy is frankly unorthodox. Art created from a community soaked in this tradition and trajectory simply must reflect this untameable character or else inherently deny the soil it grew in and show itself to really be the product of some more arid agriculture.

Not all my readers will readily appreciate this ‘faith and art’ element in the entries to follow. But the discussion is by no means limited to this; it is simply an inevitable component of the larger investigation into Lafferty’s work. I think anyone from any pre-commitment can enjoy and benefit from an honest assessment of the work of such a great author. (It is worth noting that we all exercise ‘faith’, not just ‘religious’ types. We all have unprovable ‘ultimate commitments’ [just name yours and then try to prove them] which we may have good or bad or no reasons for trusting, but we do trust them nevertheless. They are discussable, testable, alterable – but they are finally matters of an act of faith. I hope you can see that this is the case. Obviously, please feel free to argue to the contrary.)

Next: my personal story of discovering Lafferty.

A Travelogue of the Laffertian Landscape, part 0 – Reading Lafferty like watching Flaming Lips perform live, says Comedian

Let’s start with something recent, mainstream, and hip (for the kids) to show the ongoing (albeit underground) influence of Lafferty on pop-sub-counter-culture: a comedian from Tulsa, Oklahoma (Lafferty’s home also) likened Lafferty’s fiction to a live gig of the Flaming Lips:

In the New York Times, Jan. 31, 2008, Bill Hader (‘29-year-old actor and comedian of “Saturday Night Live” and “Superbad” fame’) said the following about Nine Hundred Grandmothers, a short story collection by R.A. Lafferty: [The quote you can't read from Neil Gaiman on this picture of the book cover runs: 'The funniest, oddest short stories in this, or any other, world. Lafferty was a madman who made myths, a true American treasure.']

'It all goes back to Neil Gaiman. In the foreword to “Fragile Things,” he wrote that his short story “Sunbird” was his way of trying to write his own R.A. Lafferty story. So I found “Nine Hundred Grandmothers,” and it’s like nothing I’ve ever read before. It’s very blue-collar science fiction – all the familiar tropes of people going to outer space and to other planets. It’s hilarious, incredibly funny and at the same time it’s insanely dark. You get the feeling like it’s a guy just writing to amuse himself: “I don’t care if any of this makes sense, but I want to see weird stuff happen.” One of his stories starts off, “He began by breaking things that morning.” There’s a short story called “Ginny Wrapped in the Sun,” and it’s just about this little girl who’s super strong, running around, picking things up. You get such a sense of joy and boundless imagination in every sentence – even if the story doesn’t totally cohere, you feel like it’s about something. It’s so incredibly Tulsa. You get that feeling when you see a Flaming Lips show. It’s not like we’re dark and hurt and twisted. It’s like, “I’ve got blood on my face – come on, y’all, this is awesome.”'

Let me just single out some of the sentences there as they so aptly sum up Lafferty’s work:

It’s hilarious, incredibly funny and at the same time it’s insanely dark.

You get the feeling like it’s a guy just writing to amuse himself: “I don’t care if any of this makes sense, but I want to see weird stuff happen.”

You get such a sense of joy and boundless imagination in every sentence – even if the story doesn’t totally cohere, you feel like it’s about something.

And of course, the hilarious kicker:

You get that feeling when you see a Flaming Lips show. It’s not like we’re dark and hurt and twisted. It’s like, “I’ve got blood on my face – come on, y’all, this is awesome.”

It’s always good to hear someone use the word ‘joy’ in describing Lafferty. There’s dark humour, light humour, gentle humour, acidic humour, crankiness, generosity, prophetic insight, philosophical speculation, bizarreness, wildly warped physics and psychics, bloodshed, charm, ordinary friendship, cosmic conflict, and much more. But to miss the abiding joy underscoring so much of it is a big and disastrous miss. In this connection Lafferty’s more famous science fiction contemporary, Roger Zelazny, is often quoted:

Lafferty has the power which sets fires behind your eyeballs. There is warmth, illumination, and a certain joy attendant upon the experience. He’s good.

I’ll talk in subsequent posts about the fact that ‘you feel like it’s about something’. Hope this begins to whet some appetites. Next: some brief reasons why this is worth writing and reading before we get into the discussion proper.

Bonus: here’s a snippet of what the above-mentioned Neil Gaiman (English author of science fiction and fantasy short stories and novels, graphic novels, comics, and films, notably the 2007 films Beowulf and Stardust) says about Lafferty (from the obituary in the Washington Post, April 4, 2002):

He was a genre in himself, and a Lafferty story is unlike any story by anybody else: tall tales from the Irish by way of Heaven, the far stars and Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Laffertian Bloggers Unite!

Why is there not an entire alternate blogosphere dedicated to this man and his work?!?! Let this be a start...
'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)