Thursday, June 2, 2011

The First-Ever Book of Essays On Lafferty (for which I will contribute a chapter)?!?!

Ok, after about a year's silence on this blog, I'm picking it up again. I'm delighted to report that I've been asked to write a chapter for an upcoming book of essays about the fiction of R. A. Lafferty (the first ever!). This is being pulled together from various sources by Andrew Ferguson (who recently wrote his MA dissertation on Lafferty's carnivalesque world-building narrative strategy - a very lengthy in-depth, technical, and thrilling read!). It may be sometime before the proposed book sees publication and, of course, my chapter will only be included if it 'makes the grade'. But I'm honoured and thrilled to be asked to contribute and to have this opportunity.

The contributors to the book will be looking at Lafferty and his large, diverse, and brilliantly/notoriously unconventional body of fiction from various angles. I've been asked to cover Lafferty as a Catholic/Christian storyteller, sort of an Irish American G. K. Chesterton. He was one of the very best of the 2oth century and puts so much 'Christian art' to shame. I will probably begin by looking at the praise heaped on him by the New Wave s.f. movement from which he emerged and how 'new weird'/'urban fantasy' writers like Neil Gaiman still praise and emulate him, none of whom share his Catholic faith, yet all of whom find a companion, mentor, and inspiration in him.

Then the main body of the chapter will look at how Lafferty's fiction evinces his Christian worldview inventively, invitingly, feistily, and generously, mainly in the short story 'And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire'. But probably also with reference to some elements in the novels Past Master, Arrive At Easterwine, and Fourth Mansions, as well as other short stories like 'In Deepest Glass', 'Symposium', and 'Days of Grass, Days of Straw'.

I'm toward the end of doing a close reading of 'Walk Now' (that I've written previously about on this blog here). This story is about the Queer Fish, who are also called the Ants of God 'for their building proclivities' that are troublesome in an 'unstructured, destructed, destroyed society' (and now you can see where the title of the blog derives from). It is a story full of laughing irony and biting satire that paints a bleak picture of the possibility of 'post-humanity' only to incite a very rowdy hope for redemption, toward which we are urged to build, to reconstruct, to renew. I'll be quoting some passages from it in upcoming posts.

Please feel free to make suggestions of how I ought to tackle this subject!


Dave Emmerson said...

No suggestions, just a lot of respect! Can't wait to read more Lafferty (why oh why are his books so hard to get hold of?!), your chapter and indeed the whole of the book when it is published. Hope it goes well bro

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Thanks, Dave.

gwern said...

Have you contacted Gene Wolfe or Neil Gaiman about this? There's a small chance they'd contribute something. I think I'll ping the ML about this.

pinlighter said...

Similarly I wonder if John C Wright would be interested in contributing?? Or James Stoddard??

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yes, yes! All good suggestions, thank you. I hadn't thought of Wright, but he's also a good idea. I'm not familiar with Stoddard, but shall put him forward too. Tim Powers now comes to mind also - he says he's a Laff fan.

I already suggested to Andrew Ferguson (the chap who's putting it together) that he hit up Wolfe and Gaiman, so I'll point him also to this comment thread and your suggestions here.


Anonymous said...

I have a question on Arrive at Easterwine: I am not Catholic and assume that for that reason, I miss a number of elements in Lafferty's stories. An acquaintance in college once suggested that Arrive at Easterwine is structured after the sequential mysteries in the rosary. There is definitely some form of numeric structure to the narrative. Is this a topic worthy of some space in your chapter? Thank you. And thanks in general for the fact that this book is being put together. I have been anxious for years to see Lafferty's work cannonized among the academically respected writers.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Hey, great to hear from you and thanks for the suggestion. You know, I just read a great critical article from 1975 by Sheryl Smith about Arrive at Easterwine and she noticed a '3+1' pattern in the book: the Institute set up Epikt to generate a Leader, Lover, and Liason - and there are three groups of three people for each of these projects (the '+1' in each group is Epiktistes himself). There are four chapters dedicated to each project (a quirky way of seeing '3+1').

I will definitely mention this and a few other thoughts from her essay (e.g. she says Past Master, Fourth Mansions, and Easterwine are 'end-of-the-world comedies' and that Easterwine ends with a death-and-resurrection of the cosmos through imagery and perspective - I agree). But I think Andrew may be including her essay also, so, if he does, I'll only allude to it and build from it.

I myself, also not being a Catholic, am not familiar with 'sequential mysteries of the rosary' but I may look into it.

Thanks again for stopping by and it's always great to hear mutual enthusiasm for Lafferty's long overdue proper recognition.

Kevin Cheek said...

I definitely noticed a lot of structures of 3, which I interpreted as possibly representing the Trinity. The sermon of the fire-eyed prophet was definitely a riff on Jesus (Sermon on the mount? I don't know). Did Epikt in some ways represent Jesus?

Amusingly, I once spoke with a professor who was offering a Science Fiction as Literature class at a nearby college. For the semester project, he wanted each kid to choose a novel from a list of over 100 titles and write an essay on the novel. He put Arrive at Easterwine on the list to trip up kids who would choose the novel by page count alone. It was by far the shortest novel on the list. He spoke with some relish about anticipating the reaction of the kids thinking they'd chosen a short, easy book when they actually tried to wade through it.

Speaking of which, I need to dive back in and re-read it. It's been at least 25 years.

Is the Sheryl Smith article available anywhere? A quick Google search only reveals catalog entries for it.

Thank you again for this blog. It's a true joy to see Lafferty's work discussed intelligently!

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yes, Kevin, I don't doubt there is something Trinitarian going on in Easterwine and elsewhere. Epikt as Jesus - yes, I recall that when I read the novel some years ago (I'm only now beginning a re-read) that I wondered about this at certain moments, especially when he was basically out and out preaching agape love (if I remember right).

I love your story of the professor. Great stuff. I hope Lafferty is still making the odd academic reading list. Some years ago I remember on a message board that a guy who annually lectured on Thomas More's Utopia managed to get a student or two read Lafferty's Past Master every year. He even said he would leave Lafferty books on subways and trains and so forth, like gospel tracts, you know, ha! I love the way some of us enthusiasts are 'Lafferty evangelists'! (Come to think of it, a 'Gospel According to Lafferty' book might not be a bad idea at some point.)

The Sheryl Smith article is in a wee, almost DIY, book from 1975 called A Multitude of Visions. It's $80 on Amazon. But Glasgow University (where I'm a 'mature student') managed to borrow it short term from the Bodleian in Oxford for me and I photocopied it. Andrew Ferguson (the one putting the book of Lafferty essays together) pointed me toward it as he thought it really captured Easterwine's structure. (Andrew is the BOSS of Lafferty scholarship right now - see his 60 page MA dissertation:

Thank you for your encouraging words, Kevin. It's great to know people are out there reading this and joining the discussion on Lafferty. It's a joy to me too!

Kevin Cheek said...

Thank you for the pointer. I will see if I can find _A Multitude of Visions_ through interlibrary loan. That's how I just got to re-read _The Fall of Rome_ recently--another source in understanding Lafferty's approach to Catholicism. If I understood correctly, in referring to August 24, 410 as the day the world ended, he was implying that the Catholic Church had reached its pinnacle in the late Roman Empire, and it's been all downhill since then. I believe you could refer to that as a religiously conservative attitude (if you like employing understatement).

Robert Whitaker Sirignano said...

I myself friend of Sheryl Smith haven't hear tell from her in years. She used to write me letters complaining mightily that I was not available on Cumpuserve (all those years ago), and when I got a computer and a modem, I could no longer track her or her husband. Anyone have any idea? Or to track down Dan Knight, who published a number of the better Lafferty novels in limited editions?...

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Ha, ha, Kevin! Yeah, I'd like to crack the code of his philosophy/theology of history - in Past Master he breaks it all into 500 year periods in A.D. And I'm reading Fourth Mansions and he's also referring to the French Rev and other pieces, almost successes that turn into failures. He's 'conservative', sure, in an important sense - but he's something 'more' or 'other' than that too. I hope to clumsily describe it someday. And I find his crankiness about the downhill nature of the world somehow lovable and fortifying. I really think he loved humanity and this world and hence his frustration with its repeated failures and his joyful and ornery insistence that if it kept refusing (what he considered) TRUE 'transcendence', then it was going to keep failing miserably.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Hi Robert, unfortunately I am not at all connected to any of those people from back in the day - or really, connected to anyone today! If you (and everyone else) look in the comments of the 'Neil Gaiman Presents Space Chantey' blog post on this blog, you can see Andrew Ferguson gives his email and says he would welcome any correspondence about Laff. Perhaps he could help?

Here's hoping you get in touch! (You might also try subscribing to Facebook and looking those people up there - I've found tons of people that way.)

Kevin Cheek said...

Hi again. I think the cyclical nature of history was a big part of his world view. Fourth Mansions is my favorite of his books (just about my favorite book altogether). What was the period of the failures in Fourth Mansions? Did it fit in with the ends of the worlds mentioned in Past Master? Interesting how he describes the the end of the European world, the end of the American world, and the end of the Astrobean world as real, complete ends of worlds. He also described the fall of Rome as the day the world ended and went to great length to explain how that was a literal and complete end of the world. Also look at the story "Ishmael Into the Barrens" and compare that to his statement in his speech that we have experienced a true, complete end of the world in current memory--the loss of valuesand the deconstruction of culture (also compare to "And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire").

Back to the cyclical evolution of humanity, can I draw a parallel between Fourth Mansions and the story "The Boding Itch"? In the story, Humans are about to evolve into our next stage, for which we are but larva. However, anyone experiencing symptoms of impending evolution is tracked down by national health service and ruthlessly cured of the symptoms.

Oh well, those are my rambling thoughts on Lafferty while trying to wrap up a work day while listening to old Grateful Dead concert tapes.

Kevin Cheek said...

By the way, in response to your 6/23 comment that you hope Lafferty is still making the odd reading list: I am doing my part. I have given copies of Okla Hannali to the heads of the history departments of each of my children's schools. My oldest child's high school has worked it into their American History reading list!

Jay said...

A collection of essays on Lafferty? Most awesome thing ever!

Also, regarding academia, I quoted heavily from The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney in my writing sample (which got me into eight doctoral programs in philosophy) to build thought experiments for an argument regarding possible worlds.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Hi Kevin, GOOD EFFORT on getting Laff into a school curriculum! Amazing! (I just got Okla in the post - so excited.)

I haven't read 'The Boding Itch', but I have read 'Ishmael Into the Barrens' and I had thought of revisiting that as related to my thoughts on 'Walk Now Gently'.

I find Fourth Mansions to be Laff's most complex (not to say tortuous!) treatment of 'cyclical' history and of attempts at 'evolution' (or 'transcendence' - a word he likes to use very often). It highlights more potently than perhaps any of his other works the sticky, tricky struggle between *versions* of transcendence - ones he finds 'legit' and ones he finds bogus.

For Lafferty, there is transcendence and there is transcendence. It seems the kind he disapproves of is a kind that diminishes humans as humans (and often involves narcotics and/or the demonic). The kind of transcendence he approves of causes humans to flourish as humans, becoming 'super human' in a way that brings out full human potential rather than 'leaving behind' what it is that makes us human (and it does not involve narcotics or the demonic, but rather the genuinely spiritually good and mythical/paranormal/angelic/theistic).

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Hi Jay. (Is that Jay Brantner? If so, great to hear from you again!) That's awesome about using Three Armageddons that way. Would love to see what you wrote sometime. Thanks for stopping by and commenting.


Kevin Cheek said...

Lafferty also appears to despise the easy way out--the transcendence that appears transcendent, but is really us telling ourselves that we're transcended and therefore believing it without actually transcending anything. That is most clearly demonstrated in the story "Sky." It is also embodied by James Bauer and the Harvesters in _Fourth Mansions_, especially where he is calling himself "the third testament." In what I gather to be Lafferty's view, real transcendence is not easy and not painless--it may even be dangerous and possibly bloody. Yet, in the end, people will be living richer, fuller lives--everything stronger, both the easy and the difficult, both the good and the evil. He often makes mention of life having a stronger falvor, greater savor.

Related thought: Have you read anything by Cordwainer Smith? Specifically, read "The Dead Lady of Clown Town," "Under Old Earth," and "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard." Cordwainer Smith was another Christian SF writer--another in a genre all his own. His stories often show something that reminds me of a Lafferty idea--a society stagnated under a false transcendence that is rigidly enforced.

"The Dead Lady of Clown Town" is a retelling of the story of Joan of Arc. It is set in a far distant future where an overarching government called the Instrumentality of Mankind enforced that everyone on all of the human planets be happy, healthy, and well adjusted. this is enforced by drugs, societal pressure, and psychic technology. However this at the cost of vast unfairness to the underpeople, geneticly modified animals who perform all of the heavy labor required to support civilization. The story deals with a leader arising to declare that the underpeople are people as too. The story is available complete at:

Kevin Cheek said...

"Under Old Earth" Is a not as great a story in my opinion, but it shows a Lord of the Instrumentality beginning to question the wisdom of the enforced happiness:
"Most people want happiness. Good: we have given them happiness. Dreary useless centuries of happiness, in which all the unhappy were corrected or adjusted or killed. Unbearable desolate happiness without the sting of grief, the wine of rage, the hot fumes of fear. How many of us have ever tasted the acid, icy taste of old resentment? That's what people really lived for in the Ancient Days, when they pretended to be happy and were actually alive with grief, rage, fury, hate, malice, and hope! Those people bred like mad. They populated the stars while they dreamed of killing each other, secretly or openly. Their plays concerned murder or betrayal or illegal love. Now we have no murder. We cannot imagine any kind of love which is illegal. Can you imagine the Murkins with their highway net? ... What people they must have been, to rush day and night and to build things which would help other people to rush even more! They were different from us. They must have been wild, dirty, free. Lusting for life, perhaps, in a way that we do not. We can easily go a thousand times faster than they ever went, but who, nowadays, bothers to go? Why go? It's the same there as here, except for a few fighters or technicians." He smiled at his friends and added, ". . . and Lords of the Instrumentality, like ourselves. We go for the reasons of the Instrumentality. Not ordinary people reasons. Ordinary people don't have much reason to do anything. They work at the jobs which we think up for them, to keep them happy while the robots and the underpeople do the real work. They walk. They make love. But they are never unhappy. They can't be!"

If that doesn't sound like a Laffertian false transcendence and a reminiscence of a fuller, more lively and dangerous world, then I don't know what does. "Under Old Earth" is available at

"Alpha Ralpha Boulevard" is a story about how the Instrumentality tried to solve the problem of stagnation and false happiness by reintroducing the old dangers and possibilities of life--by giving people control of their own destinies. In some ways, it is Smith's greatest short story. It is impossible to find online, but is collected in several short story collections.

I mention these stories because I think they fit in with what I understand of Lafferty's idology. They paint a world in which the revenant toads have won a permanent victory, not through skulduggery, but through kindness. The kind of kindness that one of Lafferty's devils might use to gently guide the people to an ever-so-comfortable slavery.

Thanks for letting me ramble,


Kevin Cheek said...

Sorry for the verbosity today. I went to sleep last night re-reading Lafferty.

Looking back at your original post at the top of this thread, you said your chapter will "look at how Lafferty's fiction evinces his Christian worldview inventively, invitingly, feistily, and generously..."

I thought of a great supporting quote in Fourth Mansions, where Lafferty described the people of Washington, DC as "Those who did not have the faith and would not have the fun." Lafferty regularly invites us to have both!

Jay said...

I was at a philosophy conference this week, telling a Notre Dame professor about Lafferty. He gave his own suggestion, and specifically told me to read "Alpha Ralpha Boulevard." S'pose I ought to now.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Ah, good to hear Laff's name is at least momentarily bandied at Notre Dame, Jay. Seems like an institution that would love him.

Kevin, do you mind if I reprint most of your comments above as a separate blog post? I couldn't have put it better about 'false transcendence' in Lafferty.

I started reading Cordwainer a few years ago and love what I've read so far. I have a collection with 'Clown town' and 'Alpha Ralpha' so I'll be reading those soon. But yeah, spot on with the connection between the two you've outlined.

On enslavement by diabolical kindness: '"I've more fear that humanity will be killed by special benefits going to it unasked,' Foley said. "It's a cat that's going to be killed with too much kindness. I wish you'd put a relaxer on all the over-kind and over-zealous groups."' (Fourth Mansions, p. 112)

Invited to the (feral) faith and the (fierce) fun, yes!

Kevin Cheek said...

Please use my comments as you see fit, be it reposting, excerpting, or as something to line your ferret cage with. I have loved waxing rhapsodic about Lafferty for many years now, and I am grateful to finally find a forum in which to do so.



Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Excellent, thanks Kevin. (My ferret will be thrilled!)

Anonymous said...

Just spotted this blog/forum. I'll try to assist/clarify on some things. I live in Tulsa. Used to put on a local SF convention here called ConJuration. Laff was a guest at every one. I've had the pleasure to speak to him several times in the 1980s. Arrive at Easterwine was a collection of three shorter stories. that's why it seems to have a triple-esque. Laff said, when I asked him specifically about world-endings, that it was the creation of the post-modern world that signaled the "end" of the previous one. One of his non-fict pieces (I have a Drumm copy around there somewhere) makes it clear that he felt the post-modern, post-war world was "flat." Unproductive. Unappealing. Unimaginative. I own a pretty comprehensive library of his works and might be able to answer other questions. Hope this helps, and for what it's worth. P. Benton, T-Town, Oklahoma.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Excellent! Great to hear from you, P. Benton from T-Town, Oklahoma! We'll be delighted to have your input here. There are quite a few conversations going on at various comment threads, so feel free to add your wisdom and knowledge. I'm curious to hear more about Easterwine as three shorter stories. Is that something Laff told you about how the novel was originally composed?

Anonymous said...

Daniel, AaE started as three separate stories about the Institute for Impure Science, complete with all the familiar characters. I told him, while picking him up to attend to ConJ II, that I'd had trouble following the storyline of AaE. His reply was that it was 3 tales strung together into a loose-knit whole. Without really knowing for certain, I got the impression that his agent was desirous of a full-length novel in the SF field, and the common characters enabled the 3 otherwise disparate stories to be combined. Laff was, to me at least, a very quiet and reserved man. He'd answer questions if presented with them, but was often more of a seeming observer than participant in things. It's been said that he was an "author's author." I can verify that. ConJuration brought in SF authors from all over, old and new. Ed Bryant, Jack Chalker, Algis Budrys, and couple dozen others whose names I've since forgotten. All of them wanted to meet Laff, and most, came away with boxes full of Laff's titles after meeting with him. He sat in on a number of panel discussions, though he remained a quiet man for the most part. Glad to be a part of the discussion here--Laff is the most unappreciated writer ever, and, for my money, he is, hands-down the best.

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