Monday, December 16, 2013

Globular Narratology (and glimmerings of a case for the greatness of Lafferty's late works)

'The insoluble problem for any narrator is to express the perfect sphere by means of a straight line, or even a shaggy sphere by a crooked line. For any subject or happening is globe-shaped, or at least glob-shaped, of some solidity and substance. And any narration must have sequence, which is line.

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)

For years this has been one of my go-to passages on the craft and puzzle of writing and storytelling. In the scheme of Lafferty's novel I think it takes on cosmic and ontological significance as well.  But in regard to narration it speaks of a universal puzzle that all storytellers must confront.  Few perhaps have pursued it as rigorously as Lafferty did.  I think this is why his narrations can be so notoriously (yet delightfully) difficult (not least among them Arrive At Easterwine!).

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.


Kevin said...

Uhm, if I may add to the reference to the dromedary saddles: Weird findings suggest that we live in a saddle-shaped universe.

Prescient as always, Mr. Lafferty.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Ha, Kevin, I couldn't quite picture what he was talking about and now I can, thanks! It's weird to me that Lafferty seems increasingly prescient. I don't initially peg him as a 'prophetic' science fiction writer - I see him playing a whole different sort of game, at least with technology and science. But people have been for years (and seem to do so more and more) saying that 'Slow Tuesday Night' captured the speed of our internet age long before it was invented. Also, I think his stuff about 'thinking machines' is going to become more and more relevant at a techno-socio-ethical level. We may eventually have Epikts among us. There's something about the way he does it that is distinct from the likes of Asimov or whoever, but I don't know if I could analyse it.

Kevin said...

Another good couple examples of Lafferty's prescience that raise the hairs on the back of my neck:

In The Devil is Dead, Finnegan, Seaworthy, the Devil, etc. are all Neanderthals and the premise is that the neanderthal race has stayed hidden in our human DNA, to breed true every several generations. Then, when I was looking for recreations of Neanderthal facial features (trying to envision Finnegan's enormous nose and lack of chin), I stumbled across some recent research that has found Neanderthal DNA intermixed with modern human DNA.

In The Fall of Rome he hints that the Gothic nobility may have come from survivors of the Punic Wars who escaped Carthage, fled north, and mixed in with the Goths. Then recently I stumbled across a very recent article (which I can no longer find, dammit) by a linguistic historian who suggests that the gothic language has a strong tie to ancient Punic--the language of Carthage.

I just hope he was not being too prophetic in writing The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney--though he did say the golden century started with the election in 1900 of Harold Standpipe, the tall, somber, brilliant black statesman and humanitarian from Chicago as president of the US...

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