But why narrate spheres? Why strive for such an ideal or ideated form? Surely there are other shapes more curious, more open, more pregnant, though pregnancy does tend toward the spherical. There are other shapes more varied. Why not narrate saddles or quarries? What kind of saddles, then?
Dromedary saddles, I suppose. They're the closest thing to the shape of it.'
-R. A. Lafferty, Arrive At Easterwine (1971), Chapter Eleven (attributed to the fictional work Ermenics of Shape by the fictional character Audifax O'Hanlon)
Not all of his stories are narrationally difficult, of course. As one commenter on this blog aptly put it: Lafferty wrote the 'storiest of stories'. Some of them positively hum and buzz with taut style and plot and the reader happily trips down the paragraphs to the usually wham-bang ending. But let's be honest, Lafferty also wrote some utterly brain-melting narratives: wildly and joyously baffling novels like Easterwine as well as Not To Mention Camels and The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney. And, of course, there are the woollier, idea-drenched and/or structurally experimental short stories like 'Selenium Ghosts of the Eighteen Seventies' or 'Rivers of Damascus' or 'The Man Who Walked Through Cracks' or 'St Poleander's Eve' or 'Inventions Bright and New'.
Lafferty himself admitted in an interview that he wrote 'choppy novels', but I think that was due as much to the unwavering integrity with which he genuinely tried to 'narrate a sphere' (or a saddle or quarry for that matter) as to any lack of skills or intuition he may have suffered as regards traditional notions of plot and so on. (And just as is the case with the short stories, there are examples of novels that, for me at least, flow quite well - e.g. Space Chantey, The Reefs of Earth, The Devil Is Dead - even if what they narrate can be fairly mind-bending or mystifying.)
In some of the later and seemingly crazier-than-ever novels, Andrew Ferguson (in an unpublished paper) makes a very convincing case that Lafferty was stepping out into the true and un-plied innovation he had been calling for in his works from earlier decades. From what I've read of those novels - mostly published in the 1980s - I couldn't agree more. Among these too is showcased (intentionally) 'choppier' and more 'flowing' instances: East of Laughter being an example of the former and Annals of Klepsis and Aurelia being examples of the latter. They strike me as the fruit of a very mature and very exciting, if inevitably disorienting (because of the sheer newness of the endeavour), phase of an author finally truly stretching forth into the great work of his life. (Pace Webster, who's excellent and engaging article I already took issue with when I 'fisked' it here.) If illness (and at last, alas, the weight of obscurity) had not diminished him in the 1990s, I think we would have seen Lafferty write his final and fullest masterpieces. But even the beginnings of that late and mature work are powerful statements to behold - if we have ears to hear.
In my opinion, the way to obtain such ears is to very carefully listen to the early works and follow where they lead. That is the huge mistake I think so many of even Lafferty's ardent admirers make. They were fond of his 60s and early 70s stuff and revel only in that era and fail to see how those very works are paving the way for later greatness. For probably a very long time to come, our best guide to grasping how these early works set us up for later works is Andrew Ferguson. Start with his Master's Thesis 'Lafferty and His World' - don't worry about the passages of this paper that get incredibly dense with theory and jargon. They lighten up again and bear a lot fruit when he starts analysing specific stories by Lafferty. Then proceed to his mesmerisingly informative and insightful blog: Continued On Next Rock. Pay close attention, stay tuned in. Beyond that, all one can do is pray for the day some sane and just publisher eventually gives Andrew the go ahead to write Lafferty's biography (I've seen a sample - it's gonna blow us away), and when that happens you'll see what I mean. Our understanding of Lafferty is gonna go interstellar. We'll still be mere half-conscious mortals plumbing infinities, but we'll be far better off than we are at present, trying as we are to see a mosaic from too close, lacking vantage and vista.