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