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.



Andrew said...

There's also Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley's "Sic Transit...?, A Shaggy-Dog Story". I know Alan Dean Foster said as well that he tried to write Lafferty pastiches but I don't know if he ever got as far as publishing any of them.

I'm sure there's others, and probably plenty tucked away in writers' papers or files abandoned from when they figured out how hard it was to make them work.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yeah, exactly. I'm sure there are plenty of abandoned efforts. Lafferty is the kind of writer that sweeps you up with the inspiration to try to write like him - there's a joy to the prospect - and then swiftly sits you right back down in the remedial chair, a little chagrinned. Was it Don Webb also in his essay that said he tried it and kept getting his syntax snarled?

jre said...

I just read Neil Gaiman's "Sunbird" fairly recently. I wasn't long into it before Gaiman's intent was obvious. Had it been a lesser craftsman, I might have stopped reading, but I kept with it to see where he would go -- and I'm glad I did. In the right hands, a lafferty is a kind of sonnet form, and knowing the structure and tone in advance does not spoil, but adds to the joy of reading.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Thanks for that perspective, 'jre'. I know most people find that to be one of Gaiman's best and many were gratefully introduced to Laff through it. It didn't grab me too much, certainly not as much as many of Gaiman's own non-pastiche tales. And I find Gaiman at his most richly and naturally and effectively Laffertian in American Gods, Anansi Boys, and what little I've read of the Sandman comics (I believe the one I read was called Doll's House). But I really need to revisit 'Sunbird'. It's been quite a while now.

I think you're right that a 'lafferty' is to some degree like a certain structure of literature, like a sonnet or what have you. And yet... I don't know. There are deeper, layered things going on in Laff that seem inimitable - language, lyricism, erudition, regionalism, worldview, and so on - altogether at once. Some writers will naturally have some of these qualities already and they will come closer, without trying, to writing a true lafferty. It's certainly fun to try to do it consciously, but I just don't know that the result will ever be much more than amusing and entertaining - kind of like a really talented tribute band. You might be like 'wow! can't believe how much they sound like that original classic band!' But you'd never stop being in that frame of mind and think of those cover songs (or parodies, etc.) as their own original masterpiece. Something like that. But I'm open to being proven wrong! Thanks again for your thoughts.

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