Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Illustration for Eurema's Dam!

How rare!  Stumbled across this illustration by Jori Bolton of the main character, Albert, from Lafferty's Hugo Award-winning short story 'Eurema's Dam' (1973).  In the typically weird logic of Lafferty's story, Albert 'was about the last dumb kid ever born', which is what made him a brilliant genius inventor.  One of the main things he invented was intelligent robots of various sorts.  (Hence, presumably, his daydream of a mechanical butterfly or moth here.)  He was too 'dumb' to write and do maths in school, so he 'cheated' by inventing machines that would do those things for him!  The story just gets weirder, funnier, and darker from there.  Even though I sympathise with the fact that apparently Lafferty was a bit miffed that out of all his stories they finally chose this one for the Award (he was nominated many times), it's still a Lafferty classic in my opinion.

An illustration for R. A. Lafferty’s short story, Eurema’s Dam.

Here's one of my favourite passages from early in the story (indeed, one of my fave passages in all of Lafferty) - hilarious, beautiful, wonderfully odd and erudite:

'When, about the middle of his ninth year, Albert made a breakthrough at telling his right hand from his left he did it by the most ridiculous set of mnemonics ever put together.  It had to do with the way dogs turn around before lying down, the direction of whirlpools and whirlwinds, the side a cow is milked from and a horse is mounted from, the direction of twist of oak and sycamore leaves, the maze patterns of rock moss and tree moss, the cleavage of limestone, the direction of a hawk's wheeling, a shrike's hunting, and a snake's coiling (remembering that the Mountain Boomer is an exception), the lay of cedar fronds and balsam fronds, the twist of a hole dug by a skunk and by a badger (remembering pungently that skunks sometimes use old badger holes).  Well, Albert finally learned to remember which was right and which was left, but an observant boy would have learned his right hand from his left without all that nonsense.'

Daydreaming of Ancient Terrors

"What are you thinking about, dear?" Bridie asked Cris one sunny day during their engagement.

"Oh, of all the ancient terrors," Cris said, "of the Sea Monster that is the most primordial of the terrors, of the loathsome and murderous disease that will be diverted from its victim only by another victim, of ghosts that return with the sea-wrack of their deaths still on them.  And most of all I was thinking of the terror of falling, though in the sunny little daydream reverie I've just been having the fall is only a piddling thousand feet.  But the terror of falling is the most over-riding terror of them all.  Did you know that even bright Lucifer, a winged creature, was so terrified of the depths before him that he forgot to use his wings and so fell like lightning?"

"Cris, Cris, maybe you are just terrified of marrying me."

"Fear of marriage is one of the ancient terrors, yes, but it's a minor one of them.  But strangely enough, in my afternoon daydream, I do not marry you."

"Then throw that daydream away.  It's flawed.  Forget it."

-R. A. Lafferty, 'Square and Above Board' (first appeared The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, October 1982; also collected in The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 9, Daw Books, 1983).

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

'Would that we all could employ our own imperfections so superbly' - Wrestling with Lafferty's biography

It was really exciting to see a full-scale article on Lafferty pop up on the web this past week.  Click on the following link to read it:

Bud Webster, who wrote the piece, states that his method is not really as a critic.  Rather, he says, 'I'm a biographer and historian—a biorian?—and my purview is above all the individual who created the work, and the significant personal characteristics that infused their work.'  Accordingly, his article tries to look more into Lafferty as a person than into Lafferty's work.  For us mad Lafferty fans this is very welcome as biographical detail is fairly scarce to date.  Overall I think Mr. Webster did a very fine job and I'm certainly grateful to him for bringing Lafferty to light at all.  This is only a good thing.  I do, however, have just a few, perhaps ultimately fairly minor, qualms.  (But regardless of any critical comments that follow, I am delighted he wrote this piece and found it a very enjoyable read that I am more than happy to pass on to others.)

Webster describes Lafferty as a 'complex and complicated man' - very true, seen in Lafferty's writings as much as anywhere else.  Whatever aspects of Webster's 'biory' I may take slight issue with, I can't fault him for his cautious summary of Lafferty as a person:  'There are no easy conclusions to be made (or at least none with any validity), and few opportunities to be glib at his expense, so I won't even try.  Lafferty made it impossible for anyone to pigeonhole him as either a stylist or a human being... Like his work, Lafferty was multi-layered.'  

The first of these layers Webster mentions is that Lafferty 'had a self-deprecating sense of humor that served as a buffer for many of the people with whom he worked and interacted'.  Webster then proceeds to tell his own amusing little reminiscence of Lafferty displaying this quality when he met him at a convention in 1976.  (We fans can't get enough of these anecdotes, so that alone makes Webster's article worthwhile.  And he records a few others - new ones, I believe.  I'm beginning to think that eventually we'll be able to make a nice little chap book that compiles these now mounting Lafferty-at-a-convention anecdotes in one place.)

I'm not sure whether Webster considers himself to be unravelling another layer of Lafferty when he makes a few initial remarks about his fiction, but I think his perceptive comments about Lafferty's writing help fill out the picture he's sketching of the man.  He notes what so many others have noted, but in a fresh aphorism:  'Nobody ever wrote—or will ever write—quite like Lafferty.  I'm not at all certain that the literature could hold two such, in fact.'  He then takes a decisive stand about Laff's writing, rather than just affirming what's been said with a unique turn of slogan.  He says what he thinks Lafferty is not as a writer.  'Lafferty wasn't a science fiction writer, regardless of the section of the bookstore in which his titles may have appeared; rather, he was a mad fantasist, a maker of mythologies, a Wizard of Oddities.'  I think I and Andrew Ferguson (see his more succinct comments here), at least, would take issue with removing Lafferty from the s.f. category altogether.  He certainly transcends it, but I think he contains and/or straddles it too.  Indeed, Lafferty himself wrote a fair bit of non-fiction on the subject, in which he considers himself an s.f. writer (among other things) and has very definite views about what the writerly strategy of an s.f. author can and ought to be.  Aside from this quibble, I very much enjoyed Webster's fresh coinage of monikers for Lafferty as a writer - and he's certainly right to emphasise that Lafferty was a fantasist and mythologist.  I guess I would have just said Lafferty's not merely an s.f. writer, but also these.  It's an important point, I think, but we're still very much in minor league as to what I want to wrestle with Webster about a bit here.

He gets to the meat of what might be controversial matter about Lafferty this way:  'Three primary things made Lafferty the brilliant writer he was, inevitably and indubitably.'  He lists these as:

1) 'The first, and foremost, was his unfaltering and dogmatic Catholicism.'
2) 'Second, and not far behind, were his staunchly conservative political views'.
3) 'The third facet, however, is where the difficulty really lies.  In his off-hours at conventions, Ray Lafferty drank heavily.'

As to 1) Webster notes:  'Nothing odd about sf/fantasy writers being religious, of course.  C. S. Lewis made an entire career out of it, as you probably already know.  Tenets of the Church of Latter-Day Saints infuse the work of Orson Scott Card, and we won't even mention L. Ron Hubbard.'  The only unfortunate thing here is that this list, and the way it is presented, might be heard as sounding rather patronising and/or dismissive.  To say Lewis's Christianity in his writing was a 'career' move sounds, well, you know exactly how it sounds.  I wouldn't be at all surprised if Webster really didn't intend this offhand way of putting it to sound snide or cynical.  Then again, I wouldn't be surprised if he did intend it to sound that way, or didn't really care if it came across that way to some.  People writing from that perspective are legion (to borrow Webster's joke in the article).  But I'm going with the generous interpretation and simply pointing out how this (probably unintentionally) sounds.  Even his choice of the word 'dogmatic' to describe Lafferty's Catholicism (rather than, say, 'committed', 'devout', etc.) could give off the wrong idea.  Lafferty's passionate commitment to his church's 'dogma' resulted in a truly wild form of creativity and outside-the-box thinking.  That can't be ignored.  Like Chesterton, Lafferty was on the wild 'adventure' of orthodoxy, not warming a church pew to be spoon fed sentimentality and platitudes.  As I say, I assume all this is unintentional and I only mention it to help clarify what Webster is after:  a true portrait of the man based on facts as we know them (and good interpretation of those facts to the best of our ability).

Unfortunately, with regard to 2) Webster is in danger of becoming outright derogatory and inflammatory.  I am not a very political creature myself, so I'm ill-equipped to make much comment.  But I think I might rightly discern a thing or two here.  Here's Webster's zinger about Laff's politics:  'It's not inconceivable that he and the Tea Party could have been friendly, although I suspect he valued intellect far more than most of those who considered Sarah Palin a viable candidate for high office.'  His qualification about intellect in the second half of this statement comes as a blessed relief; however, the damage is already done in the first half of the statement and it's very hard if not impossible to revoke it.  I suppose both Webster and I are being very unfair to Tea Party folks:  he by implying they're un- or anti-intellectual; me by tacitly agreeing with this and even more so by intimating that it is a damning libel for Laff to be associated with them.  Well, sincere apologies to those offended by this.  Please do interact with me and I hope I'll be a good listener.  But, for the moment, let's assume Webster and I are somewhere in the ballpark of correct in our shared view of (what is to us) the rather embarrassing existence of such a party.  To me it does indeed seem precisely inconceivable that Lafferty would have been friendly with the Tea Party due to exactly the qualification Webster put on his claim.  This is where Webster's lack of emphasis on or engagement with Lafferty's actual writing as he conducts his 'biory' really shows up and lets him down.  Lafferty's fiction is chock full of wry and lively protest about the masses of people being 'fed' and 'led' by slogans and catchphrases - various forms of groupthink and anti-cognitive manipulation, oversimplifications that make simpletons out of us if we let them.  (Practices not at all limited to the Tea Party, by the bye, nor to only the 'right' or 'left'.)  Sure, maybe Lafferty would have completely sold out if some party with a lot of his political convictions were to make a grab for power by means of the very methods he despised.  But that's pure speculation and I'm guessing we just don't have the evidence to back it up.  I, at least, would like to think Laff's fiction shows some pretty stout integrity on his part and therefore and unlikeliness to say 'how high?' when the 'right' people seem to say jump.

After going on to make Lafferty's politics sound very controversial indeed among s.f. readers, something 'whispered about at dead-dog parties', Webster again tries to balance out his comments by quoting a long-time Lafferty advocate in the small press, Guy Lillian, who said of Lafferty's fiction:  'I had found a writer who—though a rock-ribbed conservative—spoke to a scrawny Berkeley hippie used to being generously tear-gassed every spring.  I'd found a poetic spirit who invested science fiction with madness and tragedy and laughter.'  Again, I wonder if this comes too late to have force, and, indeed, Webster leaves it without his own comment or elaboration.  To be true to his programme of showing Lafferty as the complex man he was, I think Webster needed to draw out the implications of Lillian's statement more (at least to the degree he'd drawn out implications of Lafferty's conservatism).  Lafferty's fiction was (and is) not just amenable but downright inspiring to people of various politics - people who want to wake up from social catatonia and think and feel and live and play and work for what they take to be good.  Honestly, that's a bit of a rare gift in a writer and it only adds to the complexity of this man full of intriguing tensions.

Now, with regard to 3) I find this one the most, ah, kind of hilarious.  Basically:  what's the big fuss?  I mean, it's actually quite well known amongst even more casual Lafferty readers that he was a heavy drinker.  Lafferty wrote or spoke of it many, many times.  It was something he actually tried to overcome by means of his writing and I think that shows!  There is an inebriation to his work, both in the text and in the effect it has on the reader - indeed, many have confessed to contracting a literal addiction (the same word used again and again by people in the s.f. field who fell under his sway) to Lafferty's tall tales.  It's potent, highly alcoholic stuff!  The fact that this literary exorcism of his drinking demons didn't fully come off is no affront to his (for all we know, valiant) struggles against his problem.  Heck, I think he deserves our respect and sympathy for his frankness alone about his weakness.  Furthermore, like Lafferty is the first genius-level artist to struggle with addictions and substance abuse, especially alcoholism?  One reads of this kind of thing all the time.  I'm not sure why Webster finds it to be such a 'difficulty'.  It's a sad truth that many like Lafferty have had to live with and you'd think we'd be pretty used to hearing about it.  Indeed, Webster acknowledges just this about writers in particular (further making me wonder why he finds it so remarkable in Lafferty): 'In this, of course, he was far from alone; as a species, writers are notorious sots, and the literary world is crowded with fables of overindulgence and subsequent debauchery.'  One must point out that Lafferty is not himself actually ever noted for 'debauchery'.  He seems to have been fairly private about his drinking, 'caught' only on occasion in an inebriated state, and then in just a fairly quiet and 'harmless' drunkenness, maybe even passed out according to some.

Don't get me wrong, it is here most fully that Webster exercises generosity:  'I do not raise this issue to demean the man, or to denigrate him or his skills with pen and paper, but a key fact of heavy alcohol use is that it unavoidably permeates every facet of the drinker's life' (emphasis his).  But Webster goes on to speculate (rather wildly I'm tempted to think) that Lafferty's heavy drinking affected his writing in a particular way.  He garners a quote from s.f. author and editor, Mike Resnick, saying that, while many thought  Lafferty 'was the most brilliant short story writer in the field', yet 'his novelettes weren't as good, and except for "Space Chanty [sic]" his novellas were unexceptional, and his novels were for the most part mediocre.  I blame his drinking for this.  If he could grind out a story in one or two sittings, he could be brilliant.  But if a novel took him 50 writing sessions, you get the feeling that each day he had to refresh his memory of what the hell he wanted to do, how he wanted to say it, etc.'

Again, this is where hearing from Lafferty himself would have helped to enrich the assessment of his life and work.  In a 1983 interview with Lafferty conducted by Darrell Schweitzer for Amazing Stories (collected in Schweitzer's Speaking of the Fantastic II, Wildside Press, 2004), Laff discusses very engrossingly at some length his use of the methods of tall tales and oral storytelling in his short stories.  The interviewer then asks:

Q: Can you use any of this method when writing a longer work, like a novel?
Lafferty:  I can try it, and I do it for short periods, but I can't sustain it, which is the main reason my novels are choppy, I guess.  They're really just short stories strung together.  I never learned the sustained novel very well, and what I do write in it isn't very good.  So I was meant to write choppy novels or none at all.

Again, the disarming frankness about his own limitations.  But note that he sees his less successful execution of writing at the novel length due to a technical issue:  he has neither the giftings nor has acquired the skills for it.  His strengths are elsewhere.  But he had novels in him to write so he wrote them anyway - as bad tall tales if you like.  I for one am extremely happy he did!  They are certainly an acquired taste and are not, as a rule, as immediately brilliant as the best of his short stories, but they can be rich fare indeed!  (Pace Resnick's claim of 'mediocrity'.)  Many of his fans, including editors and fellow authors, find at least a few of his novels to be among his very best output right alongside the legendary short stories.  Frankly, I find Lafferty's own account of his seeming ineptitude as a novelist to be a far more plausible explanation than attributing it to (strictly or largely) his heavy drinking.

(Strangely, Webster comes back to this later in his article and seems to have forgotten all about this theory and states one much more believable and more in keeping with the author's own assessment of his work.  Says Webster later:  'In tune with Mike Resnick's words above, I find that Lafferty's longer works don't read quite as well.  That's me, not him, and it's just as much a commentary on my own flaws as it is on anything of his.  I think he was more comfortable at shorter lengths, and I certainly understand that.  The kind of elliptical worldview in which he worked would have been terribly difficult to sustain for 50 thousand words or more, and readers could have found the effort of keeping up with it daunting.'  Where's the 'due to heavy drinking' theory gone?  Mercifully, it's vanished.)

In keeping with this almost bizarre turn in his 'biory' of Lafferty, Webster's comments become more and more gloomy and baffled (not to say baffling).  He states categorically that 'extensive reading of his writings shows an arch bitterness'.  Some of us here in the small Laffertian community that comments on this blog have been wrestling on and off with this very notion (often propounded most sweepingly - and, paradoxically, bitterly - by the well-known editor Gardner Dozois, who was a huge fan of Lafferty apparently, until his later work) for some time.  We find the evidence very, very mixed.  At the most one could say that Lafferty wrestled back and forth between a truly incredible and joyous generosity and big-heartedness and a darker, more frustrated lament and woe - and sometimes perhaps even rather poisoned denouncement.  (And one must remember that at least sometimes his anger and/or bitterness could be directed at, for example, 'white' conquerors for what they did to American Indians - it wasn't like it was some despicable white supremacy or something, come on.)  At any rate, Webster's take is that 'Lafferty seems to have internalized his bitterness, perhaps as an inevitable product of his alcohol use in conflict with his doctrinaire Catholicism.' Hum.  From here he almost seems to want to paint Laff as a pretty pathetic case.  He quotes acclaimed s.f. author Robert Silverberg to this end:  Lafferty 'was clearly a very troubled man, and he clearly drank much too much at conventions, and no doubt was extremely lonely.  But he could be a charming guy . . . and anyone who knew his work— brilliant, of course—would instantly be aware of the disconnect between the work and the unhappy figure we saw at conventions and know that something very sad was involved.'  Look, I'm not going to deny that part of Lafferty's complexity was that at times he could be a sad case and maybe for some of the reasons here speculated about.  I love and laud the valuable original research he's done here, but Webster's portrait at this point seems too close to losing the complexity he's aiming to be true to by over-emphasising Lafferty's bouts of alcoholism and bitterness.

From here Webster tries to bring things back to some positive aspects, yet even here I'm bound to note the implicit negativity toward a writer like Laff even being religious and conservative at all.  Webster states:  'If I'm duty-bound to mention his politics, religion and alcohol use, I'm equally bound to shine a light on other, more positive factors of his character.'  Laff's particular brand of politics and religion are in the same negative category as alcoholism without even a trial?  Religion is a negative factor of someone's character?  Well, enough of this!  I've raked poor Webster over the coals too long already.  I still trust he means well.  He goes on to acknowledge something very important about Lafferty, especially considering what might be his 'darker' tendencies:  'Lafferty was capable of great warmth and generosity, and many people I spoke to, both fan and pro, were forthcoming about their positive encounters.'  This definitely needs to go into the balance and I gladly acknowledge Webster's fairness in placing it there.  To this end he quotes again the passionate Guy Lillian:

'If, in the pursuit of accurate reporting, you insist on dwelling on Ray's flaws, mention also the love and loyalty he engendered in fans who knew him, who took care of him when he was incapacitated, because they appreciated that they were dealing with a genius with great depths of humor and sadness . . . and the strongest Catholicism of anyone in the field.  He expressed these things exquisitely through his incredible gift, with humility and verve, and was loved for it.  After St. LouisCon [the 27th WorldCon in 1969], where he first appeared to fandom . . . a 20-year-old boy I know—myself—wrote him a fan letter.  He sent me back a page of gratitude, affection and wisdom I still cherish.  I have never known a finer soul.'

I think that testimony really bears meditating upon.  As a mere reader, having never met or corresponded with the man, this is very much in tune with the sense I've gotten from his works.

Moving on from this whole issue, Webster returns to biographical information - standard stuff about Lafferty's Oklahoma upbringing and occupation as electrician.  But he remarks neatly:  'Little of this would seem to have led him to a life as a fictioneer, let alone one who would turn the stfnal [sic] world on its literary ear, but that's what he did.'  He then goes on to relate warmly and engagingly his own first encounter with Lafferty's fiction (the short story 'Boomer Flats').  In sum, says Webster:  'It's magic.  Not "magic realism," whatever that may mean, but just full-on, bull-goose magic.  I read it with my eyes wide and my mouth agape.  It was not the last time Lafferty would have that effect on me.'  Thinking, as many understandably have done and continue to do, that Lafferty's literary wildness must surely have come from doing mind-altering drugs, Webster comments:  'Acid was the last thing R. A. Lafferty would have downed, considering his religious and political views.  No, all that dream-like stuff came straight out of his own unenhanced imagination, and that's almost scary.'  Yep.

The rest of Webster's comments on Laff's fiction are worth quoting in full:

'Not all of it was as brilliant as that first mind-blowing tale, but it was all just as unEarthly.  This wasn't science fiction as we usually think of it.  No fancy hardware, high-concept technology or plot-points turning on an astrophysical dime here.  Nor was it what Bradbury and Nelson Bond used to call "science fantasy," although it comes close in some ways.  Lafferty's work stands apart—not necessarily above, but undeniably apart—from his colleagues'.  You can't even hold it in the same (metaphorical) hand without your fingers wanting to bend in strange directions they weren't designed for.  He was sui generis, was Lafferty, and there were plenty of readers who scratched their heads and called his stories unfathomable, but oh, the mythological impact of those stories!'

Amen, brother.  Preach it.

Webster then talks about Lafferty's novel Past Master for a bit and then Lafferty's paradoxical relationship to the New Wave in s.f. during the 60s and 70s and even how this eventually affected his sales and readership when that Wave dispersed.  On the topic of his diminishing sales and the recent acquisition of his literary estate, we get another fresh anecdote, from a visit Mike Resnick paid Lafferty in the eighties:

'When I visited his house down in Oklahoma, I opened the guest closet to hang up my coat—and saw a 3-foot-high pile of manuscripts.  He told me they were his unsold books, he had just turned 70, and he wasn't writing another word until Virginia (Kidd, his agent) sold all of these.  She found a little press up in Minnesota, but she never did sell them all.  She used to cry on my shoulder that she and I and four dozen others thought he was one of the greatest short story writers alive . . . but she couldn't find 10,000 people to buy his paperbacks or even 500 to buy his signed, numbered hardcovers.'

After a brief comparison of Laff to Cordwainer Smith and James Triptree, Webster concludes with these very poignant and powerful words:

'R. A. Lafferty left us a magnificent body of work, stories that cry and wail and laugh and bray.  They come from, and take their readers to, places few others could even conceive of, let alone limn with the skill and richness that he wielded.  Already middle-aged when he sold his first, he laid down a road paved with bright, deadpan madness for us to walk, mouths agape and eyes wide with wonder and trepidation; after all, he's taking us to worlds never seen before, and we can't know what's around that corner until the page is turned.
He was a writer of shining, bedazzling stories made all the richer by his flaws.  Would that we all could employ our own imperfections so superbly.'

Those last two lines show that all this talk of Lafferty's admitted flaws is really only going to enrich the reading of him in the long run and inspire us more richly than without them.

In closing myself, I want to again emphasise what a delight it was to read this article and how grateful to Mr. Webster I am for doing it.  I think the man is a pioneer, being Laff's very first biographer.  Congratulations to him!  If I took exception at points, it was only because his article was so good and engaging and I too share his passion for accuracy.   (Also, I neglected to mention Webster actually concluded his article with a gargantuanly extensive bibiliography of Lafferty, including foreign editions!  Bravo all round.)

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