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.

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'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)