Monday, October 27, 2014

'There were also - hold it, hold it!': R. A. Lafferty's Object-Opulent Ontology

One of the things I'll be looking at in my dissertation on Lafferty is how he evinces a wide-angle and deeply layered view of physical existence similar to that advocated by a recent philosophical movement known as 'object-oriented ontology' (OOO).  Graham Harman's writings on OOO, for example, are often replete with rhapsodic lists of non-human objects, a vivid reminder of the physical surfaces and entities that surround, uphold, and impinge on every one of us during every single second of every single day.  Lafferty's writing has a habit of frequently and lavishly enumerating such layered lists as well.  His story 'And Read the Flesh Between the Lines' (1974) contains the longest instance of this I have encountered so far.  The passage lasts for over two pages and it is one of my favourites.  It's too long to quote in totality in my dissertation, so I want to share it here. 

As the tale opens, there is a rumble in a room over Barnaby Sheen's garages, at Sheen's residence in Lafferty's native Oklahoma.  But before we get to the source of that rumble, Lafferty dishes out a historical feast of artifacts, and even the smells of previously occupying artifacts, with his characteristic erudition.  (And he slips in a line about something 'almost-ape', which will become the subject of the story.) 

The sense of deep (even though relatively recent) history Lafferty induces is poignantly nostalgic, quirky, and full of wonder.  It puts me in touch with my own boyhood moments spent overwhelmed and delighted in time-cluttered garages, rooms, attics, and the like, and of times with boyhood pals reading comic books and pursuing our hobbies.  And it reminds all of us what an endless array of overlapping objects and their 'remnants' accompany our human life.  Indeed, I suspect Lafferty would say that so-called 'inanimate' objects are a lot more animate than we think.  See, for example, his story 'Symposium' (1973).  And this would be in some measure of agreement with OOO theory.  To Lafferty, we are not alone - in this object-opulent sense as in others.  Life is full, even of 'non-living' things. 

Let’s hear a little about this room, then.

            In the time of Barnaby Sheen’s grandfather, who came out here from Pennsylvania at the first rumor of oil and who bought an anomalous “mansion,” this was not a room over the garages, but over the stable and carriage house.

            It was a hayloft, that’s what it was; an oatloft, a fodderloft.  And a little corner of it had been a harness room with brads and hammers and knives and needles as big as sailmakers’ needles, and a cobbler’s bench, and spokeshaves (for forming and trimming singletrees), and neat’s-foot oil, and all such.  The room, even in its later decades, had not lost any of its old smells.  There would always be the perfume of timothy hay, of sweet clover, of little bluestem grass and of prairie grass, of alfalfa, of Sudan grass, of sorghum cane, of hammered oats and of ground oats, of rock salt, of apples.  Yes, there was an old barrel there that would remember its apples for a hundred years.  Why had it been there?  Do not horses love apples for a treat?

            There was the smell of shorts and of bran, the smell of old field tobacco (it must have been cured up there in the jungle of rafters), the smell of seventy-five-year-old sparks (and the grindstone that had produced them was there, operable yet), the smell of buffalo robes (they used them for lap robes in wagons and buggies).  There was a forge there and other farrier’s tools (but they had been brought up from downstairs no more than sixty years ago, so their smell was not really ancient there).

            Then there were a few tokens of the automobile era, heavily built parts, cabinets, tools, old plugs, old oil smell.  There were backseats of very old cars to serve as sofas and benches, horns and spotlights and old battery cases, even very old carbide and kerosene headlights.  But these were in the minority:  there was not so much room for a room over the garages as for a room over the stables.

            There was another and later odor that was yet very evocative:  it could only be called the smell of almost-ape.

            And then there were our own remnants somewhat before this latter thing.  This had been a sort of club room for us when we were schoolboys and when we were summer boys.  There were trunks full of old funny papers.  They were from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis Globe, The Kansas City Star, the Chicago Tribune—those were the big-city papers that were hawked in our town, and our own World and Tribune.  There were a few New York and Boston and Philadelphia funny papers also.  And the funnies of the different papers were not nearly so uniform as they later became.

            There were the comparatively more recent comic books.  We had been older then, almost too old for such things.  Yet there were a few thousand of them, mostly the original property of Cris Benedetti and John Penandrew.

            There was the taxidermy of George Drakos:  stuffed owls, snakes, barn swallows, water puppies, mountain boomers, flying squirrels, even foxes and wildcats.  And there were the dissections (also by Drakos) of frogs, of cat brains, of fish, of cow eyes, and many other specimens.  The best of these (those still maintaining themselves in good state) were preserved in formaldehyde in Pluto Water bottles.  Pluto Water bottles, with their bevel-fitted glass corks and wire-clamped holders, will contain formaldehyde forever:  this is a fact too little known.  (Is Pluto Water still in proper history, or has it been relegated out?)

            There were the Lepidoptera (the butterfly and night-moth collections) of Harry O’Donovan, and my own aggregations of rocks and rock fossils.  And there were all the homemade radios, gamma-ray machines, electrical gadgets generally, coils, magnet wire, resistors, tubes, of Barnaby Sheen.
            There were also—hold it, hold it!  If everything in that room were listed, there would not be books enough in the world to contain it all (there were even quite a few books in there).  There would be no limit to the remnants, not even to the remnants of a single day.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

'Today, I wonder why I didn't simply do it' - Michael Bishop reminisces about R. A. Lafferty

There are three professional and critically acclaimed science fiction/fantasy authors that I know of now who have trepidatiously attempted to write what Theodore Sturgeon called 'a lafferty'. (Sturgeon predicted, in his introduction to Lafferty's story 'Quiz Ship Loose' in Chrysalis 2, that 'some day the taxonomists, those tireless obsessives who put labels on everything, will have to categorize literature as Westerns, fantasies, romances, lafferties, science fiction, mysteries….')

Neil Gaiman's 'Sunbird' (collected in Fragile Things), Gene Wolfe's 'Has Anybody Seen Junie Moon?' (collected in Starwater Strains) and Michael Bishop's 'Of Crystalline Labyrinths and the New Creation' (collected in Brighten to Incandescence) are each a valiant effort.  I find all three authors to have plenty of Laffertian serum in their writerly bloodstreams when they write their own original and excellent yarns.  And while I do find all three's attempts at writing lafferties to be entertaining and amusing, ultimately the pastiches (or whatever you want to call them) are not really as powerful as these writers' own stuff, when they're letting their obvious love of Lafferty well up from hidden depths without any conscious effort.  (I reviewed Bishop's excellent early novel Stolen Faces here.) But as one who has myself, though not at all a professional, attempted to write a few lafferties of my own, and who has similarly found Lafferty's influence put to better use at a welling-up unconscious level, I heartily admire their chutzpah - and I know something of the fun and frustration they had doing it.

At any rate, I only recently discovered that I had a nice non-fiction piece about Lafferty by Michael Bishop in my possession.  At the back of Bishop's aforementioned collection, he reminisces about trying to write his lafferty.  Gaiman and Wolfe expressed similar misgivings and ambivalences about their own attempts as you hear Bishop expressing here (though Bishop has had the chance to go back and correct a lot of what he felt was wrong with his).  But what's special here, beyond Bishop's encomium of Laff's writing (and it's nice to also hear a little appreciative shout out to Lafferty fans trying to keep his memory alive), is Bishop's personal reminiscence of he and his wife seeing Lafferty in person at a conference, which closes the passage.  If you are a true Lafferty fanatic, I challenge you not to choke up a little bit.  Writes Michael Bishop:

"Of Crystalline Labyrinths and the New Creation" owes everything but its original maddening length to that cunning fantasist and oversized leprechaun, R. A. Lafferty.  When Virginia Kidd, then my agent, sent it to Robert Silverberg, a Lafferty admirer and the editor of the top-flight hardcover anthology series New Dimensions, Silverberg winced and called it a "stunt."  Roy Torgeson, a Lafferty admirer and the editor of the second-tier paperback anthology series Chrysalis, proved more receptive, or more gullible.  He bought the story at almost twice its new wordage, ran it in the final spot in Chrysalis 7, and declared me in his introduction the author of the "only genuine lafferty ever written by anyone other than 'The Man' himself" and as "a genius... of sorts." (Punch of sorts.)  In 1979, out of respect for a writer now shamefully neglected, I had written my so-called lafferty in logorrheic high spirits, but what it really needed was a ruthless blue-penciling. Twenty-two years later, I've given it one.

Not long after I wrote the foregoing paragraph, Ray Lafferty died - on Monday, March 18, 2002, in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.  Although he allegedly stopped writing twenty years ago, Lafferty left to posterity some of the funniest stories and most lyrical oddball novels in the history of our field.  In his hilarious novella Space Chantey (1968), he created a classic science-fictional pastiche of Homer's Odyssey long before the Coen brothers transposed that story to the Depression Era South, as they do in their hit film O Brother, Where Art Thou?  First published as half of an Ace Double, Space Chantey is now sadly out of print and exasperatingly hard to find.  My copy disappeared from my shelves years ago.  His major collections - Nine Hundred Grandmothers (1970), Strange Doings (1972), Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add? (1974), and Lafferty in Orbit (1991) - feature dozens of his most inventive and flamboyant tales, but try to find any of them nowadays without recourse to the Internet.  (Thank God for Lafferty's fans, who have done yeomen work to keep his memory alive.)

I have Lafferty's signature on two or three of my copies of his work, but I recall meeting him only once, at a convention in either Memphis or New Orleans.  He had fallen asleep on a sofa in the hotel lobby, and his head had slumped forward, pressing his chins into his chest.  As Jeri and I walked through the lobby, I paused to look at him and resisted with all my will an incongruous impulse to kiss his naked pate.  Today, I wonder why I didn't simply do it.


Thursday, October 16, 2014

'against-the-grain stories; songs-of-rebellion stories even... restructuring and rebirthing myths' - Lafferty's Introduction to Ringing Changes

The following is the introduction found at the beginning of the 1984 Ace collection of Lafferty's short fiction Ringing Changes.  As far as I am aware, it is the only introduction that Lafferty himself wrote to one of his collections.  It's a rare treasure.  It gives some indication of what he hoped many of his stories were doing at the larger scale (rebellion and rebirth) and many witty little insights into individual tales.  He seems to me to be having quite a bit of fun in this introduction.  He is wryly sardonic as always, fun-loving and warm as always, penetrating and insightful as always, cranky and cracked as always, joyously energetic and raucous as always, and delightfully weird and whimsical as always.  I think this little piece of non-fiction by Lafferty, about his own work, is a treasure that deserves to be more widely known about and read and considered when interpreting and enjoying Lafferty's strange brew.  (All ellipses and emphases are in the original.)

R. A. Lafferty

Most of these stories were written in the years 1968-1974.  They are of various sorts, but several of them are against-the-grain stories; songs-of-rebellion stories even, though their singing may be a little bit cracked and croaky.  This is because the world was unpatterned and unstructured during those years, and intolerably narrowed and shriveled.  (They conquered us so easily!)  We were a mesmerized world, and we were lost on a day when there wasn't even a battle scheduled.  So several of these pieces are restructuring and rebirthing myths, and there is a touch of groaning and travail in them.

But most of them are no such things.  The stories are these:

"Parthen."  The aliens had landed!...The world rang with cracked melody and everyone was in love with life....Never had the girls been so pretty....I believe that our minds are now on a higher plane....And every one of those men died happy.  That's what made it so nice.

"Old Foot Forgot."  One does whatever one can for "the oneness that is greater than self."...They say "Pray for the happy obliteration."...But somewhere there is a person who revolts and cries, "I would rather burn in a hell forever than suffer happy obliteration.  I'll burn if it be me that burns."

"Dorg."  Rain dances are good; fertility dances are good; so is prayer and chanting.  But there is nothing like ritual drawing and painting on cave walls to keep the world well fed.  What did you think was keeping the world so fertile and burgeoning these days?

"Days of Grass, Days of Straw."  Without the special days that are not in the regular count it just wouldn't be worthwhile.  We need them, we need them, and some of the champions will have to wrestle with the principalities and powers to get them.

"Brain Fever Season."  The seasons have returned in their appointed strengths.  Now we can live again.  Now we can be seasonable fools again.

"And Read the Flesh Between the Lines."  We'll not allow ourselves to be narrowed down forever in a straited world.  We'll explode and regain our real spaciousness.  We'll explode, we'll explode!

"Old Halloween on the Guna Slopes."  O ghostly night, O antic night, when we were ourselves young and ghostly.

"The Ungodly Mice of Doctor Drakos."  Maybe life is no more than globs of gas plasma, green and faintly translucent.  But how is it possible to grow hairs on globs of gas?  This is a sympathetic story about the only animals that everybody loves, mice.

"The Wooly World of Barnaby Sheen."  Barnaby's world was about a cubic meter in volume and it weighed 4,500 pounds.  It had a good selection of rocks, and it developed weather and lively inferior fauna.  Then it got a little bit out of hand.  This tale contains the saddest lament in all literature:  "My house is on fire, my shirt is on fire, and my houseboy has fleas.  What worse can happen?"

"Rivers of Damascus."  There are several way so of looking at any past event in history.  The para-archaeological probe, with a little dowsing added to it, may not be the ideal way, but it can sure cut through theat polarized data of what is sometimes called "conventional history."

"Among the Hairy Earthmen."  This was the "Long Afternoon" that lasted two and a half centuries, possibly the most puzzling two and a half centuries in the history of our world.

"In Outraged Stone."  This is the stubborn refusal to accept that there is no transcendence, that there is no ultimate reality.  

When they try to tell you that you are only an artifact in a collection, that you are not alive, that you have never been alive, that is the time to get mad.

"And Name My Name."  Is it possible that our true identity has been taken away from all of us, that we are only an apish shambles now?

"Why is our identity stolen from us.  Why are we robbed of it?" we ask.

"You aren't robbed of it.  You threw it away," we are told.

"Sky."  Yes, you can pick and choose from among the various realities, selecting the best and most eventful of them and then selecting from the still more rarefied best.  You can do this for quite a while, so long as you are not spooked by things that are the wrong color of white, so long as you are able to refinance your bill with the piper, so long as you have hollow bones and a hollow heart.

"For All Poor Folks at Picketwire."  It wasn't a bad place at all compared to some others.  Consider that you can have a workshop in total vacuum, that it is dust free and without gravity, that it is spared the effect of every magnetized cloud, of every voltage differential, of every solar wind.  And it's beyond the influence of time and temperature and hard radiation and "all beautiful beams."  Nuggets of gold and orichalcum!  What a place to work!  Even the main disadvantage of it can be turned to an advantage, sort of, sort of.

"Oh Whatta You Do When the Well Runs Dry?"  On November 7, 1999, the well ran dry.  This was the well of Wit and Idea.  It was the Well of the World.

Ah, but there was a way to get more water out of the well.  There were shabby people who still had plenty of shabby water, and they were willing to share it.  But it was stronger water than any of the people had met before.  It was raunchy water, it was vile water.  And the wit and ideas that came from the well now were raunchy also.

There's a twist to the tale of course, but it doesn't make the condition any less raunchy.

"And Some in Velvet Gowns."  Well, if you got all the skin burned off you by space winds, maybe you'd cover yourself with gaudy clothing too.  This is a "the-aliens-are-in-town-and-they're-taking-us-over" story.  But most of them weren't really wearing velvet gowns.  They just had their torsos painted to look like that.

"The Doggone Highly Scientific Door."  If you turned into a dog, would you be the first person or the last person to know it?  And if you turned into a dog interiorly but still kept your human appearance, who would know it first?  If there is an electronic device that can discern between dogs and people, where will it draw the line?

These questions are important since a lot of people are turning into dogs lately.

"Interurban Queen."  This is a "what-if" story.  What if the gasoline-powered internal-combustion "automobile" had not been outlawed early in its career?  What would the effect on manners and mores have been if the automobile, the "selfishness symbol," had been allowed to compete with such communal symbols as the Interurban Electric Trolley Cars?

"Been a Long Long Time."  We will not give a commentary or résumé of this story.  Should we begin to do so, you'd say "Oh, that's old, I know that one," and you'd be wrong.

These stories are intended to be entertainments, even the several of them that leak a little blood out of them.  They are amusements.

Be entertained then, be amused!  And the superior among you will even be delighted in several places.

(Dutch edition: Days of Grass, Days of Straw)

Related on this blog:  Oh rise again and fight some more, dead people! (A Memoir by R. A. Lafferty)

Friday, October 3, 2014

Eco-Monstrosity in Cormac McCarthy and R. A. Lafferty (my dissertation proposal - approved!)

For those who may not have picked up on it yet, I'm a 'mature student' (40 years old and just now getting round to obtaining a proper education).  I am, at last, in my final year of a joint-honours degree in Philosophy and English Literature at the University of Glasgow.  The following is the rough starting point of what I'll be writing this year for my final dissertation in the English Literature half of the degree.  I was relieved when the department approved it and found a supervisor for me (haven't talked to him yet, so I have no idea if he has any familiarity at all with Lafferty). 

After prematurely claiming (over three years ago) that I was going to write a chapter on Lafferty as a Chestertonian theological storyteller for a book of Lafferty essays, it is gratifying to see that something along those lines is finally coming to fruition, even if only for degree work.  Better late than never.  (The editor of the proposed book of essays on Lafferty, our beloved Andrew Ferguson, has since been sidetracked by the noble and even more exciting task of writing Lafferty's biography - with which, I recently heard, he is nearly finished.) 

I was not then really up to writing an essay on Lafferty, as I fairly quickly discovered.  I'm still not, but at least I have some theoretical tools and preoccupations to throw at it now.  Below is the dissertation proposal essentially as given to my department.  Please don't be too distracted by technical jargon with which you may not be familiar.  I had a word-limit that precluded much elucidation of the terminologies.  I hope some reasonably clear conception of what I'm attempting will still come through. 

As it reaches completion (in April), the paper will become both clearer and different.  I'm not sure how it will change, but I know it will to one degree or another.  Unfortunately, it's only a 10,000 word paper and I'm covering two authors, so it's not going to be able to cover as much ground as I'd like.  But I think putting Lafferty in conversation with a recognised 'great writer' is worth it and will provide its own fascinating illuminations.  Please let me know your questions and criticisms of the proposal and suggestions for further theoretical materials and for other elements or works of Lafferty's fiction to consider as regards the topic.  (Please do tell me if you see any egregious errors based on any expert knowledge you have!)

Dissertation proposal:

The primary texts the dissertation will consider are Cormac McCarthy’s ‘anti-western’ novel Blood Meridian (1985) and R. A. Lafferty’s historical Choctaw novel Okla Hannali (1972) as well as Lafferty’s short stories ‘Narrow Valley’, ‘Smoe and the Implicit Clay’, and ‘Days of Grass, Days of Straw’[1].  The question the dissertation asks is:  can the iterations of eco-monstrosity[2]  exemplified in these two Southwestern American regional writers be grounded in and yet transmogrify theological readings of ‘nature’?  I.e. do these texts show ‘dark ecology’ and theological ecology to be mutually exclusive or do they open the way for some sort of harmony or hybridity?  I argue the latter.  Evocations of monstrosity in these texts make room for comic rather than tragic (or nihilistic) ecologies, undergirded by ‘dark’ or ‘weird’ theologies.

Lafferty is well known as a ‘funny’ writer, though his ‘tall tales’ are often grotesque and even gory.  It is also well known that Lafferty’s devout Roman Catholic beliefs infused all his work.  So it is no surprise that his ecology is ultimately theological and comic.  But it is not always appreciated that Lafferty’s fiction only achieves this ‘theo-comedy’ (to borrow a term from the theologian Thomas Oden) by way of much ambiguity and carnivalised horror.  McCarthy’s harrowing and hyper-violent novels, on the other hand, are often thought to be eloquent tracts for an unflinchingly bleak nihilism.  It is often argued that Blood Meridian in particular subverts theological readings of the world, but I will argue that it subverts only theologies that cannot embrace ‘dark’ ecology and thereby clears the way for more adequate theologies.

It is arguably rare that the disciplines of ecology, theology, and monster theory all three intersect in one study.  Certainly the proposed texts of this dissertation do not appear to have received this triangulated critical reading.  Both authors are, in any case, far from over-subscribed by academics and are thus ripe for more theoretical work.  McCarthy studies are now numerous but by no means enormous.  Lafferty studies are nearly non-existent[3] and as this obscure author is being slowly rediscovered[4], critical work is needed.  More generally, the worldwide growth in cultural awareness of both ecological and religious debates gives urgency to a cross-discipline study such as this.

The main critical tools the dissertation employs consist of Timothy Morton’s dark ecology[5], Graham Harman’s object-oriented ontology (‘weird realism’)[6], and Timothy Beal’s theology of monsters[7].  The foci of the reading will be the emphases the primary texts place on monstrous (usually grotesque or gigantic) evocations of flora, fauna, and landscape, and the place of humans therein that religious worldviews purport to provide.  With these tools I aim to show that the texts under consideration evince a theologically pertinent eco-monstrosity that serves to situate and orient readers within a dangerous but genuinely all-inclusive ontology.  The monsters here are not ‘off the map’ – the monsters are the map.  Further, the texts evince no easy disjunction between a so-called ‘post-human’ eco-centricity and the theo-comic ecology of, for example, Roman Catholic doctrine. Rather, the monstrous ecologies of the texts—in their strange grotesqueries and violences and in their characters’ lengthy theological declamations—tend to agitate for a ‘dark’ and ‘weird’ hybridisation of theological ecology and dark ecology:  a conceptual space in which humans are decentralised in certain respects (radically contextualised by the non-human environment) even as they bear the divine image.

[1] Possibly also drawing from the stories ‘Snuffles’, ‘And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire’, and ‘All Pieces of a River Shore’.
[2] This can be considered a particular artistic iteration of eco-centric or post-human or post-equilibrium ecocritical theories.
[3] Andrew Ferguson’s master’s dissertation ‘Lafferty and His World’ is the only ‘official’ academic work I know of on Lafferty so far, but a handful of critical reviews and comments can also be dug up - e.g. brief but insightful critical comments on Lafferty’s writing can be found from the likes of Ursula Le Guin, Brian Aldiss, John Clute, and Neil Gaiman.  Ferguson in his paper utilises Mikhail Bakhtin’s ideas on carnival and grotesque and Walter J. Ong’s ideas on orality to read Lafferty’s body of work:  Ferguson, a doctoral candidate at the University of Virginia, is currently writing the first biography of Lafferty.
[4] The Locus Science Fiction Foundation has recently acquired the rights to Lafferty’s works and through them Centipede Press have published the first of what is projected to be twelve volumes collecting the complete short stories by Lafferty:  The Man Who Made Models: The Collected Short Fiction Volume One (2013), Centipede Press, Lakewood.
[5] E.g. Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics (2007), Harvard University Press, Cambridge.
[6] E.g. Guerrilla Metaphysics: Phenomenology and the Carpentry of Things (2005), Open Court Publishing, Peru; Weird Realism: Lovecraft and Philosophy (2012), John Hunt Publishing, Alresford.
[7] Religion and Its Monsters (2002), Routledge, London.

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