‘All of you are marooned East of Reality, and you are questing to find your way back to Reality … I myself love to play Quests.’
-R. A. Lafferty, East of Laughter (1987), p. 63
Renewed Mythology for a Diminishing World
R. A. Lafferty’s speculative fiction novel East of Laughter is a ‘Quest for Reality’ by a special group concerned about the un-detailed nature of the modern world, right down its empty-seeming atoms. It is a quest for a new narrative or new metaphor that can give real life and meaning back to the modern world, a world that has lost its mythology and is therefore barely rasping out its existence on a thin gruel of mere ‘facts’. The novel portrays this as an urgent quest because the world is in danger of total unreality—that is, in danger of ending, and, more importantly and most of all, of not beginning again.
The proposed renewed mythology and metaphor are that the world is sustained by certain extraordinary Pillars Who Sustain the World, the most important of which at this phase of history are the Seven Scribbling Giants who ‘write the world’ (its future more precisely). (The other groups of Pillars are the Seven Saints and the Seven Technicians.) These seven giants are ready to retire after long millennia at their jobs and are looking for replacements. They are finding qualified volunteers for the position hard to come by.
One of world's worst book covers ever for for one of world's better books.
A Cast of Tall Characters
For me, some of the fun in a number of Lafferty’s novels is the way he introduces a cast of characters, usually a particular grouping of people (e.g. the seven psychic Harvesters in Fourth Mansions or the members and associates of the Institute of Impure Science in Arrive At Easterwine).
In East of Laughter Lafferty really lets the throttle out on this character-sketching characteristic and spends the first forty pages introducing ‘The Group of Twelve’, which, all told, consists of around sixteen members (‘some of them are spares’ we are wryly informed). Each character introduction is an odd (if not outright bizarre) little gem of a tall tale in itself. From these we know pretty quick that we are in one of Lafferty’s most open, wild, magical modes, full of weird and chuckling wonders—grotesque, strangely beautiful, darkly humorous—and burning with an urgent question as to whether we are only dreaming, and, if so, is there really anything to wake to?
In the group there is an Oklahoman couple: a man who runs a computerised fishmongers and his wife the artist-huntress, both of whose personal computers are inhabited/infested by the entities of a poltergeist and sprite respectively. (This is so that the computers won’t be lonesome and will be happy enough to ‘work wonders’ for their owners). There are also an aristocratic shape-shifting snake-woman who is the mother of a Dutch-Irish part-goblin girl born (a second time) from a giant goose egg at the age of sixteen; a Manx-speaking woman who is the mayor of a town on the Isle of Man; and a woman who is a British biologist and owner of a country estate in East Sussex. There are the owner of the Strange Cargoes Worldwide Shipping company and his partner the talking golden panther who is also a prince; and a vaudeville ventriloquist act performed by a world-class mathematician and his ‘talking belly button’, which is actually a man himself, nearly all head (metaphorically as well as literally), the size and shape of a baseball with little arms and legs sticking out. There are also a master forger, a pan-scientist (Hieronymous Talking-Crow, my favourite character name in the novel), and an Italian boy-wonder nuclear scientist married to his teenage wife the behaviouristic logician. The latter is the seventh daughter of the seventh wife of a three-century-old Italian piano-maker and composer.
Now I must admit that though these character sketches comprise some of my favourite storytelling I’ve encountered by Lafferty, the structure of the mini-narratives are sometimes as tangled and choked as the previous paragraph that threw them all together in one jumble. This ‘clunky’ sort of quality alternates with passages that clip along nicely. A straightforward consecutive unfolding of events that comprises a crisp self-contained episode may be abruptly and intrusively augmented with longish segments of quotations from fictional tomes of scholarship. Or small chunks of narrated events can seem stacked untidily next to one another like children’s blocks swiftly swept into a pile in the playroom. Because of this variegated style, some might consider the writing uneven. But I think this ‘unevenness’ is just one of the intentional ways that Lafferty writes and is no real drawback to the overall magic he proffers in a long sustained narrative.
Lafferty is perfectly capable of making his narration less contorted and over-stuffed when he wants to (Space Chantey, Fourth Mansions, Aurelia, and Annals of Klepsis strike me as good examples), but that does not always serve his purpose. In his novel Arrive At Easterwine he intermittently tells the reader plainly that he’s writing in a strange, non-straightforward way on purpose—for reasons we may not be able to understand or appreciate in our ignorance. So here in East of the Laughter the subject matter (a Quest for Reality; that is, a quest to Wake Up from Dreaming) and the atmosphere in which he has chosen to treat this matter (wide-open fantasy and fairy tale, albeit set in contemporary times with computers and so on) may require him to employ this (to us) more ungainly approach. Indeed, he may have considered the style elegant for its purpose.
I admit it is not always easy for the reader, but I personally am happy to stumble and tumble along this undulating literary landscape because its prodigious miracles are so generously scattered. Indeed, even if this mode of storytelling cannot be called elegant or felicitous by any standard or perspective whatsoever (a contentious point), Lafferty’s messiness is still masterful. His unwieldy narrative mode is as mesmerising, memorable, and meaningful as it is monstrous or muddled.
Assorted Oddities throughout the Nine Days of the Week
With that lengthy digression on Lafferty’s style out of the way, let me introduce other entities populating the bizarre and bountiful realm East of Laughter: in addition to the Giants, we also meet the spirit of a Faun who comes out of a marble statue called the Laughing Christ (the faun says he uses the icon much as Clark Kent uses a phone booth to change into Superman); an Ifrit from out of Aladdin’s lamp granting wishes; the ghosts of Charles Fort and Alexander the Great; flying bats with the pipe-smoking heads of English ‘casual intellectuals’ (known as the Sussex Wraiths); and so on.
The locales of the action are interesting too. After starting out in Lafferty’s native Oklahoma, geographically, the novel’s events range over mostly Western Europe: Italy, the Isle of Man, Ireland, England, Holland, and the German Alps. Castles, manors, gardens, mountains, and the seaside predominate. Yet constant little reminders that we are in the contemporary world somehow still manage to give off something of an overall urban feel to the novel as well. It doesn’t at all feel pastoral or in any way remote from the globalized concerns of modern cities and nations.
Besides the strange characters and beings, the book is also chock full of strange phenomena. Indeed, the book continues throughout its tendency, begun with the opening character sketches, to furiously and hilariously fling out individual tall tales in rapid succession (and often overlapping!) as part of building up the overall Tall Tale of the novel as a whole.
We encounter a roast bear full of eels and salmon and chestnuts devoured prodigiously by the flickering outline of a giant who may or may not be actually present; totem poles comprised of angry jailed spirits; a living statue of an archangel whose sword is swinging every direction so fast it seems a solid circle that people hitch their horses to; a library that includes, in addition to books, vintage wine and the spirits of the dead as part of its reference system; a series of grisly murders by means of nine-foot goose quills shoved through the throat and out the back of the victims; the hanging on the gallows of a panther-man who alternately shape-shifts between his two forms as he slowly strangles, mourned both by a woman lover as well as a female panther lover; new and improved flora and fauna created by descriptive writing from a newly appointed scribbling giantess (who once was dead but now lives again); the political campaigning for a new Head Giant (complete with campaign buttons, one worn by the aforementioned Genie-out-of-the-lamp). And so on.
You have no idea how far from an exhaustive list this is. And reading all of these close-packed, crazily stacked ‘whoppers’ was only slightly exhausting, really; mostly exhilarating. One softly chuckles with amazement at the recollection of the wild ride. I do not think I’ve run across another Lafferty novel so bristling with inventive and outrageous yarns. In a way, East of Laughter, for me, nearly has the quality of one of Lafferty’s short story collections. That, anyone would agree, is a very good thing.
But what narratively ties all these enjoyably jostling outré elements together is the simple plot-line of a rather macabre murder-mystery of sorts, which, once solved (by a great magical reveal), then plays out the implications of some of the murders in terms of the on-going quest for new scribbling giants to write the world. This basic action moves internationally and instantaneously from house to house, day by day, through all nine days of the week. (Yes, the last two chapters of the novel take place on the eighth and ninth days of the week—‘days out of count’ that are fuller than normal days yet do not add temporally to the actual calendar. Many will be interested in this overt connection to one of Lafferty’s greatest short stories: ‘Days of Grass, Days of Straw’.)
Amid all this mad matter, one central thing the group learns from its quest is summed up in an adage offered at one point by the ghost of Alexander the Great: ‘Reality is not something that one has the right and title to. It is something that must be earned’ (p. 53). They come to see that a measure of reality does actually exist: ‘They learned, from sources not completely suspect, that the world is indeed built on a substratum of reality, that there is a genuine and ringing reality beneath all things, that there are favored places and circumstances where everything is endowed with detailed reality, even the interiors of atoms.’
This was not a triumphalistic, but rather a humbling, discovery, for: ‘They also learned that they themselves were outside of reality, that they had never touched it at even one point, but that sometimes they came close. They were imbrued, all through their happy suppertime and into the night hours, with an almost-happy philosophy. They hadn’t yet come to the centrality of the philosophy, but they found themselves more and more on the near fringes of it as they discussed and reveled and studied. They learned that a quest for reality is possible’ (p. 56).
These quotes, and especially that last sentence, demonstrate the characteristic Laffertian posture about knowledge and existential authenticity: with the postmoderns and against the moderns, he would say that discovering what’s truly real is not at all an easy, given, or straightforward thing (grasped indubitably by, say, the ‘scientific method’)—and we aren’t glibly guaranteed any share in it. Yet he does not thereby despair of Truth as (some) postmoderns do, but rather, with some of ancients, would also say that a meaningful measure of reality is a knowable and attainable gift—if we will receive the grace to grow hands and take hold of it when offered to us from beyond ourselves. And this will require character-development as much as intellectual growth: something science has almost nothing to do with.
In part 2 of this essay-review, I think I can show that in this novel Lafferty is speaking from the embrace of what he takes to be Divine Revelation, as best as one can understand it, with a wink and a chuckle at our finitude (and, subsequently, the Revelation’s comically accommodating nature in relating to our finitude), and with the realisation that such Grace only sets us on our feet and gets us questing. That’s the point: contrary to the impression one could be forgiven for getting from some self-appointed Christian spokespersons in the world today (not to mention some of Christianity’s critics and detractors), Lafferty would say that embracing ‘salvation’ does not shut down all thought and movement and wrap it all up in safe and certified certainties. Rather, the gifts of revelation and redemption put the pilgrim in progress, make the pilgrimage possible and hopeful.
To be sure, this humble and open way of embracing Christian Revelation (which I think Lafferty would say is the way it has always recommended itself to us) is not some watered down version of the faith. On the contrary, it is musky and pungent (the ‘wild orthodoxy’ that Chesterton spoke of) and therefore still takes a definite stand about truth and falsehood. Against the Enlightenment, for example (to name only one of its contenders), this view says humans, being made in the image of God, do need Divine enabling in order to profitably quest for reality (both in terms of being shown glimpses of reality as well as being made more real, more solid, for the journey)—i.e. we can’t discover reality on our own steam; we require aid from beyond ourselves. That is why Lafferty makes recurring remarks in his works on the inadequacy of philosophies like Materialism and Secular Humanism. To draw a characteristic example from another novel:
‘My program is simple: I battle that pair of insufficiencies, Humanism which has no meat, and Materialism which has no bones... I have no faith at all in Engineered Humanity. I am neither humanist nor materialist. I am a heretic... Whether there be Things Beyond I do not know. Ye'd forbid the mind to consider them. I forbid the forbidding.’
-R. A. Lafferty, Past Master (1968)
Nevertheless, this definite stand about true ways and false ways is not a final and full stopping point. It is, rather, The Beginning (a term Lafferty loves to come back to, not only in relation to the original creation of space-time, but of renewed movements of Grace in history and of New Creation in the end). The character of Thomas More in the Past Master quote above has found one set of philosophies inadequate and thus yearns toward something better, a philosophy and worldview that can account for our innate human orientation toward transcendence. That is what East of Laughter is all about.
On this note, I will end this first part of the review-essay with a quote from another Lafferty novel (this one I sadly still do not own and have not read; I found this fantastic quote on the Lafferty wiki quote page):
‘Beware of those who manufacture final answers as they go along...who will catch you on their catch-phrases and let you perish in the traps. All the final answers were given in the beginning. They stand shining, above and beyond us, but they are always there to be seen. They may be too bright for us, they may be too clear for us. Well then, we must clarify our own eyes. Our task is to grow out until we reach them.’
-R. A. Lafferty, The Flame Is Green (1971)
Go to Part 2 - Can Good Science Fiction Only Grow From the Soil of Fairy Tale or High Fantasy?; The Laughing Christ Will Renew the World (Mythological Beings Included), etc.