Saturday, February 18, 2012

Question: Where should I start with reading Lafferty? Answer: Er, well...

I keep getting asked where to start with reading Lafferty, so an 'official' post suggesting starter points is long overdue.  This is pretty much the best I can do just now and is based in part on what appears to me to be fairly readily obtainable.  (If you can't be bothered to read through all this, I'd recommend scrolling down to the last section entitled:  'THE GIFT BASKET APPROACH'.)

Some stories available online:
I suppose we ought to start here.  At the very bottom of the the Lafferty wikipedia page are listed 'Works available online' with links to each of the six stories.  Most Lafferty fans are uncertain whether these particular stories are the best place to start.  'Nine Hundred Grandmothers' and 'Narrow Valley' have often been anthologised.  'Slow Tuesday Night' is fairly well celebrated.  The other three are not so well known, but have their charms.  (I particularly love 'The Six Fingers of Time' and I quite like 'The Transcendent Tigers'.  Also, 'Nine Hundred Grandmothers' is something of a classic for me - but other fans will sharply differ I'm afraid.)  But, to be honest, no matter how you slice it, perhaps none of these six stories really show just how wild and wonderful, nor how hilarious, nor how literary and language-rich (nor even how philosophical and theological)  Lafferty can get.  Some of them will probably become some of your favourites, but they're really best appreciated when read among a wider-ranging collection of Lafferty's stories.  Still, these are available to the person that just needs to taste Lafferty right away with no delay.  If that's you, I guess I'd recommend 'The Transcendent Tigers' as it's fairly lively (probably not in a way you'd expect from the title - his story titles are delightful but often enjoyably misleading) and it's short.  Just promise me you won't stop there.  You promise?

          ADDENDUM:  In his excellent comments below, Andrew Ferguson (the world’s first academic Lafferty scholar – see his dissertation ‘Lafferty and His World’), regards ‘Narrow Valley’ as a fairly ideal starting point for reading Lafferty.  Having myself just re-read the story, I’m now more inclined to agree than I was before.  It is rich in American storytelling.  And it is a TALL yarn indeed, demonstrating repletely Lafferty’s preternatural ability to narrate the impossible.  It reads something like Swift, Twain, and Carroll together spinning a contemporary Native American myth.  As Andrew aptly put it, it is ‘a defining example of Lafferty's ability to stack the lies higher and higher’.  There are grins and chuckles to be had too as well as some sly political commentary about the white man (with a tinge of poignant sorrow about the plight of modern American Indians) and a slam-bang horror-jokey ending also – so I guess Andrew is fairly on the mark to say this Lafferty story ‘has it all, pretty much’.  (He also says he often recommends 'Slow Tuesday Night' as a starting point too.)

Not much left in print that's affordable, but, here goes:
Rumour has it that Locus Magazine has bought the rights to Lafferty's complete works and are in discussions about what the heck to do with such a priceless but hard-to-market prize.  [Andrew, in the comments below, assures me this is no mere rumour, but a done deal.]  In the meantime, most of his books seem to have gone well above the fifty dollar price and often into the hundreds or even thousands!  But it looks like old copies of the following are still available on for under twenty dollars (and I'm sure you can find a few better prices if you do a more extensive search through other dealers and book-search engines).  You can click on the titles to go to where I found them on the Amazon page (but they are, of course, subject to disappear):

Short story collections (it's definitely best to start with his short stories if you can)
* Strange Doings
* Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add?

For just a little over twenty dollars
* Ringing Changes

It looks like there are still a few copies left for around 25 and 30 dollars of his celebrated collection
* Nine Hundred Grandmothers

Each one of these collections has some of Lafferty's very, very best short stories, but to the beginning reader of Lafferty the collections can feel rather uneven in quality.  Even fans notoriously disagree over what are the best (and worst) stories (and collections).  Usually, you find that stories you weren't that impressed by first time round can years later, when Lafferty has been marinating in your soul for a while, become some of your favourites.  But a lot of the favourable first impressions will be very lasting and certain stories will always remain favourites.

Nine Hundred Grandmothers is certainly the 'seminal' collection - the first published and still probably most referred to - and it definitely has some of his best and most memorable stories.  But it's not clearly superior overall to the other collections for me.

Ringing Changes has some of Lafferty's very, very best stories but it might also have too many less impressive ones (that feels so wrong to say about such a master).  It's a collection that gave me, at least, a lot of pleasure when I first read it.

Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add? gave me less pleasure on a first read, though it has some of my favourite stories.  But a number of its stories have also proved to be total gems that I just blockheadedly under-appreciated the first time round.

Strange Doings is one of the better collections, I think.  Maybe it and Nine Hundred Grandmothers are the most solid, with the latter being perhaps the place to start if you can afford it.

Phew!  You have no idea what agony it is to try to recommend starting places or say what's 'best'!  (At any rate, see below about short stories not found in these collections, which are maybe even better places to start.)

          ADDENDUM:  In the comment thread Andrew also mentions that 900 Grans 'will almost certainly be reprinted in the next couple years' and also 'there is most assuredly a "Best Of" compilation in the works'.  So look out for those!  (You can count on those being announced here, so feel free to use the 'Follow by Email' box at the top right of the blog to stay informed.)

The seminal three that all came out in 1968 and took the sf publishing world by storm:
Past Master
* Space Chantey (it's printed as an 'Ace Double' with another author's novel called Pity About Earth)
* The Reefs of Earth

Three more classics that quickly followed and are still considered seminal classics also:
Fourth Mansions
Arrive At Easterwine
The Devil Is Dead

Lesser known masterpieces:
Annals of Klepsis
Not To Mention Camels
Apocalypses (containing two short novels: Where Have You Been, Sandaliotis? and The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney)

Warning:  Lafferty's novels, though utterly delightful to the initiated, are not the place to start if you can get hold of the short stories first.

Of the first half-dozen listed here, Past Master and Arrive At Easterwine are probably my favourites at a gut level.  The former is especially good if you want to see Lafferty in full theological satire mode and in full science fiction mode too (future/another planet/space travel/technology/robots/time-travel/dystopia - though it's also fantastical with ghosts and primordial monsters and so on).  It's perhaps not as smoothly written as some of the others but still has some of his best prose moments (especially once it gets past the first choppy chapter) and some of his best imagery and ideas and incidents.  The historical Thomas More (the originator of the concept and word 'Utopia' is brought forward from the past to fix the novel's ailing utopia) is one of Lafferty's 'thickest', finest drawn characters in my opinion.

Easterwine is often thought of as becoming nearly incomprehensible about a third of the way in - that's an exaggeration, but it is one of his most tangled tales.  Still, most fans really love it.  It too is one of his best characterisations:  this time the sentient computer, 'Epiktistes', whose autobiography the novel is (he's also a fan favourite from a series of Lafferty's short stories).  This novel too says a lot of what Lafferty wants to say philosophically, culturally, and theologically - but in very layered and encoded form.  Though it too can be jangly and juddery in plot and style, it also has some of Lafferty's best prose moments, images, ideas and scenes.  Still, Easterwine is almost certainly not the place to start with Lafferty, while Past Master might be a decent option.

In some ways Space Chantey is more straightforward - certainly in terms of the flow of the prose and the plot - but it's still full of very potent Lafferty weirdness.  It's a rip-roaringly enjoyable read, an adventurous and rollicking retelling of Homer's Odyssey on a galactic space-faring level.

The Reefs of Earth I also found eminently readable in terms of prose-flow, but it's one of the very, very strangest of Lafferty's fictions in terms of just the scenario and unfolding of events.  Alien children that look just like human children (almost), who have lost their parents and have decided to murder all the humans.  It's really nothing like what that summary makes it sound like.  There's not really a Twilight Zone-like 'eerie suspense' or anything like that.  It's very earthy and rustic in a way, and very like a folk tale mixed with a Southern Gothic tale, but still in a way that those descriptions don't really signify.  It's genuinely baffling, and not entirely in a 'wow! that was so cool how weird it was!' kind of way. I'm still not sure what to make of it in Lafferty's canon, but it was nevertheless a very pleasurable read in its own strange way.  I wouldn't normally recommend it as an introduction to Lafferty, yet several people I know have read it as an intro to Laff recently by default, as nothing else was available.  And... their reaction was quite favourable.  So there ya go.

The Devil is Dead is a favourite of some fans, but though I enjoyed it (and, as always, it contains some of my favourite Lafferty moments), it has never been one of my favourites and I definitely wouldn't have recommended it as a starting point (plus it's a middle book that's part of a much larger series that was only barely published and is now unavailable - it may turn out to be his magnum opus when read all together).  But (again!) someone I know recently had to start there, again due to scarcity of available works from Lafferty, and they really enjoyed it.  (I didn't love it as much when I first read it because it didn't seem to as blatantly incorporate much of my favourite Lafferty tropes - fantastical, supernatural, paranormal, or multi-dimensional happenings and/or bizarre twists on science-fictional themes.  But really, it's full of good Lafferty strangeness and some fine prose.)

Fourth Mansions is usually one of the most beloved and lauded of Lafferty's novels by his fan base.  I was more uncertain on my first go with it, but in a recent re-read I loved it very much.  It has some of his best prose.  Its plot flows along pretty nicely (not necessarily comprehensibly, just readably).  It's kind of a magical realism and urban fantasy sort of scenario with some very memorable characters and a very interesting theological theme.  Again, it's not where I would probably recommend a neophyte begin their Laffertian journey.  This time I don't know of anyone personally who has done so and liked it, but I think I've read comments online that some people started there and loved it.

As to the lesser known three listed last:  Annals of Klepsis is actually one of my very, very favourite of Lafferty's novels, probably the one I read with the single most readerly pleasure.  It's VERY freakishly strange and weird and in some ways barely understandable (the prose is clear and the events are more or less 'see-able', but it's just... 'what... why... huh?').  A historian travels to a pirate planet that has no written history and he hopes to remedy that.  There's feasting and storytelling going on inside the belly of a beached whale whilst it is being shot up with bullets on the outside.  There's a dog with missiles for teeth guarding an underground treasure.  A group of characters go on a spectacular and bizarre boat journey through the canals of someone's brain... and so on.  Those snapshots don't necessarily give the right impression.  None of Lafferty's work is really what I'd call 'surreal' (though this occasionally is said of his fiction).  It's too earthy, folky, bloody, visceral, meaty, and musky for that.  It's 'insane', but not really in a 'hallucinatory' or 'trippy' way (though I don't blame readers for sometimes mistaking it for such - certain qualities of dream are admittedly present and pervasive).  It feels like something deeper and 'tougher', like myth and fable and legend, though definitely transmuted through carnival and through contemporary concerns and motifs.  So, would I recommend starting with Klepsis?  Ah, hm.  Sure.  Why not.  To sample at least.

I love Not To Mention Camels.  Very much.  Probably not the place to start.  It would probably be too brain-splitting to follow when you're not used to where Lafferty can go yet.  Multiple selves in multiple worlds (and even a [thrilling] chapter on multiple archetypal selves battling between worlds), lots of philosophical exposition.  You may think you're bad enough to start there, but don't kid yourself.  Earn your spurs.  Try it later.  (Though again, I recently read of someone being introduced to Lafferty through this one and being very much sold on it and Laff through it.)

The first novel of Apocalypses is often considered rather average fare, but I quite enjoyed it.  Definitely do not start there - you'll flag and give up.  The second novel, Three Armageddons, is acclaimed as one of Lafferty's very best by most fans, I think.  I loved it - but, like Not To Mention Camels, it will melt your brain if you're just getting started.  It's probably the best historical sort of work I've read by Lafferty, invoking early 20th century Chicago.  But it is fantasy also, full of intellectually demanding exposition and speculation, as well as full of mind-bending events and scenarios about what's real and what's not (a theme Lafferty continually explores - related, I suppose, to things like The Matrix and Inception, but totally without their 'slick' and 'hip' feel).  Don't start here either.  (But do go ahead and purchase this kitschily-covered little gem while it's cheap - you'll thank me later when your apprenticeship has progressed.  Indeed, I guess this pretty much applies to all of the above.)

          ADDENDUM:  Andrew also mentions in the comments below that Lafferty's Okla Hannali probably deserves a mention here as a possible starting point.  I only neglected to because I still haven't read it yet.  It is unanimously spoken well of and is still in print, read by a lot of folks who otherwise know little or nothing about Lafferty.  It is a historical fiction novel about the Choctaw nation and is very beloved of fans and others alike.  As Andrew points out, 'for most novel readers it provides a recognizable form that helps ease in the Lafferty weirdness. (Also: hilarious and shatteringly sad by turns.)'


Individual short stories in multi-author anthologies:
* 'The Configuration of the North Shore' in Modern Classics of Fantasy
* 'Smoe and the Implicit Clay' in Future Power
* 'Bright Flightways' & 'The Man Who Walked Through Cracks' (two-for-one!) in Chrysalis 3
* 'In Deepest Glass: An Informal History of Stained Glass Windows' in The Berkley Showcase Vol. 4
* 'Symposium' in Omega
* 'And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire' in And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire (or, alternately, in Sacred Visions)

It just so happens that some of my very favourite Lafferty is only collected just one story at a time in old multi-author anthologies and nowhere else.  This baker's half-dozen could easily be expanded to a score or more but most of these can be obtained for a few dollars plus postage.  Heck, if you're going to spend twenty or so bucks on getting acquainted with Lafferty, I'd almost recommend just snatching up this handful of books as a nice little Lafferty basket sampler.  (Go on,  throw in a basket and some ribbon and treat yourself!  Or someone you love VERY much!  [Dang, now I'm starting to wish I got commissions.])  But now I can at last more unequivocally enthuse about how great these stories are because I'm not having to consider how a whole collection of Lafferty's stories may hit you as a first-time reader.  If you get hold of any of these based on my recommendations and descriptions here, try to completely block out of your mind anything I've said about a particular story so you can approach it as freshly as possible with as little expectation as possible.  I only allude to what they're 'about' here to whet your fancy and tickle your appetite.

'Configuration' is easily in my top five favourite Lafferty stories.  It has yet to fail me as an intro for someone who has never even heard of Lafferty.   They are invariably hooked in by the wow-factor and humour of his unbounded imagination and oddness on full display in this folksy and freaky (and even mythopoeic!) tale of depth psychology and dream sequences.  (This is the one story in this list that is collected in a Lafferty-only collection - Lafferty In Orbit.  But this book costs over 50 dollars and, anyway, the presentation of this classic Lafferty tale is better encountered in the quality binding and printing of the Modern Classics of Fantasy anthology rather than the frankly shabby, type-o-infested Lafferty in Orbit.)

'Smoe' I only discovered recently and it instantly became a favourite.  It's one of Lafferty's many 'planet-fall' stories of usually farcically disastrous contact with alien cultures.  It very oddly and oddly effectively draws on the G.I. 'Killroy was here' myth woven with Native American traditions.  A gorgeous and grotesque cataract of prose and style comes bursting out at particular crucial moments in the story.  Very stirring, yet almost slapstick at the same time.

'Bright Flightways' and 'The Man Who Walked Through Cracks' make a disturbingly lovely diptych about reality cracking down the middle and which side we choose to find ourselves on.  Both stories seem almost unfinished, but both have amazing moments of language and at least a few very bizarre images that will resonate for a long time.

Lafferty often brings an idiosyncratic Neanderthal mythos into his whole web of story and 'In Deepest Glass' is in my opinion the very best of this motif that I've seen.  This one too taps into the mythopoeic for me, whilst also being wryly quirky and just really, really strange.  I remember first reading this one and just thinking:  'where does this man's imagination hang out? no one else comes up with this kind of stuff!'  It also taps into Lafferty's poignant theological evaluation of society if you're interested in that.

'Symposium' is another hidden gem:  children's toy blocks that are artificial intelligences having a discussion with one another about origins of the universe and cycles of history - told in some of Lafferty's fine, rhapsodic language.

'And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire' is maybe Lafferty's most overtly 'Christian' story:  a 'cowpunk' sort of Oklahoma tale about those who resist the future's drugged out, demoniac, dehumanising dystopia by organising and building and constructing a Fire that will outlast the wobbly-eyed Age of Thinness.  It's kind of a Chestertonian Screwtape Letters filtered through Southwest regional fiction and s.f.

ADDENDUM:  In the comments below Andrew (world's first Lafferty scholar, in case you didn't read that above) recommends these titles be added to the gift basket:

'Bubbles When They Burst' in Galaxy Nov 71
'Quiz Ship Loose' in Chrysalis 2

Well, for what is was worth...

(Don't say I never at least tried to help make the world a better place.)

If you're an old hand at Lafferty Ranch, please don't hesitate to make your own recommendations (and argue with mine) in the comments.  If you're a noob, please don't hesitate to ask questions!


Andrew said...

Awesome primer, Daniel.

For the record: the acquisition by Locus is no rumor. It's gone through, it's official, it's done.

I generally try to tailor my starting points for Lafferty to what I know of any individual's proclivities. That said, I find myself often coming back to three stories most often: "Narrow Valley," "Slow Tuesday Night," and "Continued on Next Rock."

That first story has it all, pretty much; a defining example of Lafferty's ability to stack the lies higher and higher. "Slow Tuesday Night" does much the same, but in a specifically SF context; so I recommend it to readers more familiar or comfortable with that genre. "Next Rock" on the other hand is distinctly Laffetian, but of a different tone; it's often the one I recommend to academic colleagues (though I'd go "Nine Hundred Grandmothers" if they're OK with pulp), and the one I would teach in a survey of the American short story.

For collections, I quite like Strange Doings as a starting point, both for price and spread. Nine Hundred Grandmothers will almost certainly be reprinted in the next couple years, so that might become the go-to; also there is most assuredly a "Best Of" compilation in the works that will instantly become the thing you hand out to as many people as will take copies.

Novels: glad to see Klepsis with a mention, it's a really strong book and much deeper than it looks at first, and has that great (if incongruous) cover as well. I thought Okla Hannali should get a look though--not for the genre-or-death readers, of course, but for most novel readers it provides a recognizable form that helps ease in the Lafferty weirdness. (Also: hilarious and shatteringly sad by turns.)

Space Chantey isn't bad either, because it basically gives a series of interlocked short stories (not to be confused with episodes, which people will nonetheless anyway). And if they come through the Laestrygonians wanting more, then they're definitely a Lafferty fanatic in the making.

(also: thanks for not dismissing Sandaliotis—a great deal going on there! Especially the forger. But more on that later.)

Other stories for the gift basket: "Bubbles When They Burst" (Galaxy, Nov '71), and "Quiz Ship Loose" (Chrysalis 2). Former is one of Ray's great blends of SF and mystical Christianity; latter is a Manbreaker Crag story where, once again, the big brave manly explorer is undone by forces distinctly different from those in any traditional pulp tale.

Andrew said...

Generally, as the experiences you cite bear out, there may be no bad starting point--many people come to Lafferty through whatever's available--but he tends to be the kind of author who finds you when you're ready. In my case, he found me as a reader twice: the first time I read Past Master, and couldn't really get into it, then set others aside. Then later on I gave it another try through Nine Hundred Grandmothers, then Does Anyone Else..., then getting utterly hooked through Fourth Mansions, before finally returning to and digging Past Master. All we can do is try to get people something they might enjoy, in the hopes that they will at the least remember it and return to it later.

Also, it's worth noting that in the US at least (though even sometimes in Britain too) that you will find his books in actual brick-and-mortar used bookstores more cheaply than online.

postscript: Lafferty's own title for "The Transcendent Tigers" was "Needle"--relevant but not nearly as intriguing as the title it was published under, no? Once in a great while an editor did him a good turn, and it was often with new titles for stories—"Among the Hairy Earthmen" for "The Long Afternoon"; "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" for "Sundown on the Roads."

(On the other hand, sometimes it was a blessing that Ray stuck to his guns, as when the acquisitions editor who bought Fourth Mansions wanted to publish it as The Brain-Weavers. Why buy it at all if you're going to misunderstand it that badly?)

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Andrew, so good to hear from you on here again! It totally made my day reading your responses. I've added 'addendums' throughout the original post to reflect some of the comments and recommendations you've made here.

I guess we could do worse than have a re-issue of 900 Grans (it's really exciting to be honest), but I am SO thrilled about a 'Best Of'. I do so hope they'll include some of the amazing stuff from anthologies that's never been collected. I just hope too that both of these are bound with artistic integrity and great new introductions and new blurbs in addition to the fine old standards. (Including alt-pop references like the comic actor Bill Hader saying that reading Lafferty is like watching the Flaming Lips play live seems like a good move to me.)

I remember that you're big on Klepsis and I'm glad to hear you say you like Sandaliotis too.

I got so excited by your recommendation of 'Quiz Ship Loose', that it was another Manbreaker Crag story (I had no idea such existed!), that I threw it in my Amazon basket on the spot, realised it was the last copy in the UK and just bought it immediately!

Very interesting about the titles. Glad we were saved from The Brainweavers! (Where do you get all your historical/ biographical info? I've been meaning to ask!)

As you say, there are probably as many starting (and mis-starting) points for Lafferty as there are people. I had to take a couple of unsuccesful swipes first as well. But, man, when you're hooked, you're hooked!

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

I found your comment intriguing about Space Chantey containing, not episodes, but interlocked stories. I think of something like Ray Bradbury's Martian Chronicles as being an example of the latter. I'm not as sure about Space Chantey though. The chapters seem somehow more sequentially contiguous than something like Martian Chronicles. Indeed, Space Chantey seems almost something *between* episodic and a 'fix-up' novel of interlocking stories. At any rate, before your comment, I would have definitely called the chapters of Space Chantey episodes, so now I'm curious.

New guest blog post idea: could you elaborate on the difference and how it's one and not the other in this case? (Even just a paragraph or two will do if that's all you have time for!) No pressure, just a thought.

Philip said...

Andrew, I will be interested to hear your thoughts on Sandaliotis. For what it was worth, I had enjoyed Past Master, 900 Grandmothers and, especially Fourth Mansions probably not too many years after they appeared but got bogged down in Apocalypses. It was rereading it a few years ago, though, which totally amazed me and led me into reading the whole of the man's work.

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