Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Excerpt from 'Boomer Flats'

I'm studying Lafferty's short story 'Boomer Flats' right now for my forthcoming essay for Feast of Laughter volume 3.  Just had to share the following excerpt.  Up to this point in the story, the style has been fairly plain (but Lafferty's prose at its plainest still tends to be graceful, taut, and often lyrical - even if the difficult concepts and narrative experimentations sometimes obscure his generally mellifluous style).  I suspect the sudden change in style here reflects the new and strange and heightened setting the characters have suddenly found themselves within, for they have entered a sort of 'shadow' town not shown on maps, in search of monsters. 

Dr. Velikof Vonk twinkled his deep eyes in their orbital caves: perhaps he cogitated his massive brain behind his massive orbital ridges: and he arrived, by sheer mentality, at the next step. 
“Have you a menu, young lady?” he asked. 
“No,” she answered simply, but it wasn't simple at all. Her voice didn't go with her prettiness. It was much more intricate than her appearance, even in that one syllable. It was powerful, not really harsh, deep and resonant as caverns, full and timeless. The girl was big-boned beneath her prettiness, with heavy brindled hair and complex eyes. 

“We would like something to eat,” Arpad Arkabaranan ventured. “What do you have?” 

“They're fixing it for you now,” the girl said. “I'll bring it after a while.” 

There was a rich river smell about the whole place, and the room was badly lit. 

“Her voice is an odd one,” Arpad whispered in curious admiration. “Like rocks rolled around by water, but it also has a touch of springtime in it, springtime of a very peculiar quality.” 

“Not just a springtime; it's an interstadial time,” Willy McGilly stated accurately. “I've noticed that about them in other places. It's old green season in their voices, green season between the ice.” 

The room was lit only by hanging lamps. They had a flicker to them. They were not electric. 

“There's a lot of the gas-light era in this place,” Arpad gave the opinion, “but the lights aren't gas lights either.” 

“No, they're hanging oil lamps,” Velikof said. “An amusing fancy just went through my head that they might be old whale-oil lamps.”

“Girl, what do you burn in the hanging lamps?” Willy McGilly asked her. 

“Catfish oil,” she said in the resonant voice that had a touch of the green interstadial time in it. And catfish oil burns with a clay-colored flame. 

“Can you bring us drinks while we wait?” Velikof of the massive head asked. 

“They're fixing them for you now,” the girl said. “I'll bring them after a while.” 

Meanwhile on the old pool table the Comet was beating the hairy man at rotation. Nobody could beat the Comet at rotation. 

“We came here looking for strange creatures,” Arpad said in the direction of the girl. “Do you know anything about strange creatures or people, or where they can be found?” 

“You are the only strange people who have come here lately,” she told them. Then she brought their drinks to them, three great sloshing clay cups or bulbous stems that smelled strongly of river, perhaps of interstadial river. She set them in front of the eminents with something like a twinkle in her eyes; something like, but much more. It was laughing lightning flashing from under the ridges of that pretty head. She was awaiting their reaction.

Velikof cocked a big deep eye at his drink. This itself was a feat. Other men hadn't such eyes, or such brows above them, as had Velikof Vonk. They took a bit of cocking, and it wasn't done lightly. And Velikof grinned out of deep folk memory as he began to drink.
~R. A. Lafferty, 'Boomer Flats' (1971) 

I think it's a pretty good example of Lafferty's odd yet robust prose when he really lets it out of its cage (though he can wax even richer and wilder than this).  The dialogue sparkles, humour abounds, yet the language becomes injected with imagery of the huge and redolent, hinting at a dark, green, muddy, deep vitality beneath the effervescent chatter.

This exchange between the 'eminent scientists' and Crayola Catfish (the waitress) is followed by plenty more fearful wonders and laughing horrors in 'Boomer Flats', but the high-ish prose style here starts to crack and recede, probably to reflect one of the characters' stubborn unbelief in the redemptively monstrous nature of the place and people they've encountered (and which they discover is in themselves as well).

The description of Velikof's eyes here also reminds me of some passages in Cormac McCarthy's Blood Meridian where men's eyes are described similarly, as caves and the like, but I'm not going to go hunt up the exact references right now.  Here too the woman's voice is said to call forth deep geological time, green spring times between ice ages - deep geology being another theme dear to McCarthy also, especially in Blood Meridian.  Both McCarthy and Lafferty share a tendency to describe human features - soulish as well as bodily - in the imagery of landscapes (as well as other aspects of ecology).  Another example from Lafferty that springs to mind is the enthralling description of a man's large and contoured hand at the opening of his short story 'Hands of the Man' (1970).  

Here in 'Boomer Flats' you can see the clear connection Lafferty is making between ecology and people, between the non-human and human, troubling a complete disjunction, re-enfolding subjects into objects. Notably in this story, outside of the excerpt above, Lafferty folds regional fauna and humanity together as well, especially catfish and bears.  These kinds of anthropo-eco boundary blurrings and hybridities are part of what I mean by the  'ecomonstrous' and what I'm researching in Lafferty's writing.  (The PhD is now 100% funded by the way, thanks to the generosity of a lot of kind and supportive folks out there.)

('Boomer Flats' was first published in IF magazine, then the collection Does Anyone Else Have Something Further To Add?; but I'm obviously not the first to see the story's eco implications as it was also later included in this 1994 anthology)

Monday, September 7, 2015

A Prelude to Lafferty's Weirder Tales

I want to review Lafferty's short story 'For All Poor Folks At Picketwire' (1975) next, but I feel compelled to try to get this off my chest first.  It's probably completely unnecessary for a lot of readers, but it's something that puzzles and intrigues me.  Feel free to demur from or expand on the view expressed below.

Since I first started publicly writing about Lafferty in 2009, I've claimed that Lafferty is weird, odd, strange, experimental, and bizarre in a way that the first-time reader is just not going to expect. Nothing will have prepared you for how Lafferty goes about being offbeat, even 'crazy'.  I know that people often hear about 'the Lafferty madness' (as the likes of Harlan Ellison and Samuel Delany called it when Lafferty's fiction emerged on the scene in the 1960s) and they understandably think of the experimentations of the likes of Captain Beefheart perhaps, or the paranoid but fascinating open and subversive universe of the likes of Philip K. Dick perhaps.  Or you name it.  Whatever your background makes you think of when you hear the claim that someone is utterly original and 'insane' and the like, that thing you're thinking of, it's almost guaranteed to not be an apt comparison or preparation for Lafferty.

Even as I say all this - that no one is like Lafferty, nothing can prepare you for his brand of weirdness - you're getting the wrong idea!  Why?  Because when we hear such encomiums we generally think of one of two things (or both).  We think either of something crazy in a really cool and 'hip' sort of way, something experimentally-minded college students might get into maybe, or something a well-(if-defiantly-)dressed 'alternative' crowd of one variety or another might champion. I get that.  I was a teenage punk rocker and never grew out of it.  When I think of crazy and original, I think of bands like The Birthday Party or The Fall (or in an alterna-metal direction, Mike Patton and his projects Mr. Bungle and Fantomas).  If you're thinking speculative literature, you might think Neil Gaiman or China Mieville.  If film, maybe David Lynch or the wackier and wilder aspects of the Coen brothers or Tarantino.  But Lafferty's work is not (or not immediately) like all this, not soaked in these kinds of aesthetic assumptions and expressions.

On the other hand, the 'crazy-original' claims might make us think of really 'out there' bizarro examples like maybe Daniel Johnston or the aforementioned Captain Beefheart.  If film, then maybe the likes of Terry Gilliam or John Waters.  This impression is closer to the mark.  But in most of these cases there can still be an aura of (usually countercultural) 'coolness' about the weirdness.

Now don't get me wrong.  I often exclaim 'Cool!' in response to what I read in Lafferty.  But I mean it the way I meant it as a kid in the 80s - an expression of sheer enthusiasm for something that strikes me as in some way excellent.  Not as a confirmation of something's 'hipness', something's trendy now-ness, even by 'alternative' or 'indie' standards.  Nor do I mean to deny that Lafferty is deeply countercultural in his own way (indeed, he's probably better called counter-ontological so reality-bending is his work and perspective).  Lafferty was indeed what he called a 'queer fish', swimming crankily but joyously against the mainstream.

I also don't want my denial that Lafferty is 'cool' to give the impression that his weirdness is 'geeky'. Lafferty isn't comic-con weird either.  Lafferty can, in certain respects, fit in both worlds - the geeks and the hipsters.  Yet he is a misfit in both as well.  That was seen to be the case when the 1960s/70s New Wavers of U.S. science fiction - Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delany, and the like - championed Lafferty.  They never lost their love of Lafferty's work, but they eventually didn't know how to categorise him as he was clearly not of or in the fold.  All in all, Lafferty is by turns too literary, too genre, too experimental, too dark, too comic, or too difficult for various groups.  That's why his work has tended to generate its own category of literature (what Theodore Sturgeon called 'lafferties') and its own following of Laffertyans or Laffertians, a diverse fan base comprised of all schools and allegiances, the unifying commonality being that they are struck and captured by Lafferty's unique genius.

So what should you think of when you hear that Lafferty is 'a genius, an oddball, a madman' and 'a genre in himself' (Neil Gaiman) or that 'Lafferty has the power which sets fires behind your eyeballs' (Zelazny) or that Lafferty 'bends or breaks normal story restrictions apparently at will' and has 'the most unfettered imagination' (Terry Carr) or that 'Lafferty is fun, sophisticated, and utterly insane', 'a madman, a wild talent' (Reader's Guide to SF)?

Well, maybe start by thinking of the likes of Amos Tutuola or Black Elk.  Like them, Lafferty is a native primal force, an individual that grows out of the fecund soil of an ancient communal worldview and speaks the cosmic magical vision of a people, stamped with his own idiosyncrasy, sure, but overflowing with more than what one individual could ever imagine or convey.  Yet Lafferty had more than one soil to grow out of - not only his family's Irish-Catholic soil, but also the Southwestern American Frontier and the lives and lore of his Native American neighbours.  If you cut Lafferty, he bleeds all three.

Further complicating this possible resonance, Lafferty was classically educated in Augustinian and Thomist traditions, well-read in history and theology and philosophy, knowledgable of the hard and soft sciences, abreast of some major 20th-century developments in thought such as Jungian psychology and Teilhardian cosmology. Lafferty was a largely self-taught but impressive polymath. So his weirdness is going to be not only primally visionary like Tutuola and Black Elk, but also inevitably book-learned (albeit inclusive of some cranks and conspiracy theorists).  So maybe when you hear about Lafferty's mad experimentation you should be thinking also of Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.  Or in a slightly different register, the wildnesses of Chesterton's buoyant dialectics and carnivalisations.   (The weirdest parts of Kafka might be appropriate here too, but minus the unmitigated bleakness.)

Yet Lafferty is even more than the above hybridity of Mystic and Man-of-Letters (+ a pinch of crackpot) suggests, for he also embodies regional and class (Oklahoma and blue-collar) dialects, dictions, and perspectives that liberally salt his visions and sophistications with homespun wit and wisdom.  And these perspectives puncture a whole helluva lot of pomposity and intelligentsia-speak along the way (though they don't foreclose Lafferty's own arcane and sesquipedalian theorisings, which are frequently embedded into his stories).  I suppose Lafferty might be a bit of a Mark Twain in his knowing and humorous use of colloquialism, except that he comes across as more thoroughly from these classes, child of an extended frontier family as he was.  This sincere rusticism is one crucial way in which Lafferty will surprise many a reader expecting The Cool Weird from him.

Now, all that said, once you've encountered and immersed yourself in Lafferty a while, it's not altogether unlikely that you will indeed end up thinking of him as a literary-yet-rustic Beefheart or Lynch, an 'outsider artist' and auteur in one.  And dammit, Lafferty's weirdness is cool!  So utterly cool, what would've made us 80s kids exclaim with approbation:  'Bad!'  And it does get crazy weird and beautifully bizarre and sometimes disturbing.  And its weirdness is deep, because Lafferty, like Lovecraft, is playing for keeps.  This is a cosmic view of things that gets beneath the surface into the ontic architecture of existence.

All right, let's get back to reading these stories one by one.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Short Story Review # 8: Heart Of Stone, Dear (1983)


This is a rare one, existing only the Chris Drumm booklet of the same name (and now in a nicely made electronic 'pirated' collection).  To me, this is one of Lafferty's tales full of singular and memorable elements that nevertheless doesn't quite hold together as an all round solid story.  It is definitely of interest in that it is woven of many fibres that overlap with the rest of Lafferty's fiction. For example, it features a central and likeable Syrian character as do a number of Lafferty's other stories and novels (e.g. 'Funnyfingers' and Fourth Mansions). (The relevance of this Syrian character for current news is not lost on me.  See my comments about this at the end of this review.)  It features a heist as do many Lafferty stories in one form or another (again 'Hands of the Man' comes to mind). It includes a giant livestock-eating bird as does the, to me, superior story 'Oh Tell Me Will It Freeze Tonight'. And it mentions the failure to reach the Second Age of Benevolent Magic, a phrase which ties it to 'In Deepest Glass' and perhaps other stories.  It deals with a magical Islamic relic and is also a Philosopher's Stone story (I'm not sure how much these overlap with similar elements elsewhere in Lafferty's fiction).  And it's another of Lafferty's stories of youthful unrequited love, again connecting it to 'Funnyfingers' as well as 'Eurema's Dam' and others.  Makes you wonder what Laff's own youthful experience was with the amorous.

The other central character introduced in the second half of the story, Alfred Freck, a 'thin little boy with red hair' and 'colorless gray eyes', is interesting as well.  Alfred embodies the general geologophilia permeating all of Lafferty's fiction, but also more specifically the ideas of living and 'remembering' stones that Lafferty broaches in various stories such as 'From The Thunder Colt's Mouth', 'Love Affair With Ten Thousand Springs', and 'Bank and Shoal of Time'.  This gives Lafferty and opportunity to make one of his many, many rhapsodic lists of erudition:
He was very lucky in his collecting. He said that the special stones called to him to come and get them. He had hundreds of garnets, red and orange (his red hair was the exact color of orange garnet) and black and green and almost colorless gray. This latter is the gray that sometimes clarifies; it is mostly found in spherical or ‘onion’ crystal. It is the ‘Crystal Ball rock’, and is also the exact color of Alfred Freck's gray eyes. 
Alfred had garnets that were more than a foot in diameter. He had emeralds and rubies, jade-stones and opal-stones. He understood the stones and could recognize all of them when they were still imbedded in their clay. Some of them were remembering stones and some of them were whispering stones. They told him about the big stone that is the Emperor of all the stones on the Earth.
There's a lot of other delightful and magical imagery.  It's a work of fantasy proper by Laff, I'd say, which is slightly rare in his body of work it seems to me.  Most things he writes can either very roughly fit into some kind of broadly science-fictional scheme or are more historical fiction in nature, with elements of folklore and magical realism (not quite the same thing as fantasy in my opinion). But this 20th century Arabian-American wonder story is solidly fantasy.  (It goes nicely with 'Phoenic' in that regard I'd say.)

One last thing I want to say.  With this week's news about refugees ringing in my ears, I can't help but be struck that I'm reading a story by an Oklahoma Catholic Irishman, which features a sympathetic Syrian character - as I've said, it's a recurring phenomenon in Lafferty's fiction.  It is just such curious and generous portraits of our racial others that can widen our empathies, preparing us for just and compassionate attitudes and actions toward our global neighbours.  May this kind of racially empathetic imagination increase and may our hearts of stone be replaced with hearts of flesh (a biblical allusion of which I doubt Lafferty was unaware).

* 'Heart of Stone, Dear' discussion on Facebook

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Offering a few of my extra copies of Lafferty as perks...

Well, I'm offering a few of my extra copies of Lafferty books as perks for contributors to my Indiegogo PhD campaign: www.indiegogo.com/projects/ecomonstrous-phd. I was writing up a wee piece about it to put on that site, but found it didn't really fit there. So I'm putting it here! It's always fun for a rabid Lafferty fan to have an excuse to sum up the genius of Lafferty and his works. Here it is:

I’ve suggested that what makes this PhD unique is not only the idea of the ‘ecomonstrous’ itself, but also that one of the main authors being researched is the largely unknown R. A. Lafferty (1914-2002).  Despite his obscurity, Lafferty has some famous and influential fans among his cult following. Neil Gaiman, Harlan Ellison, Gene Wolfe, and even the actor Bill Hader have all gushed about how Lafferty was a literary ‘mad genius’.  

Take Gaiman’s obituary for Lafferty in the Washington Post:  

R.A. Lafferty [...] was undoubtedly the finest writer of whatever it was that he did that ever there was. He was a genius, an oddball, a madman. His stories [...] are without precedent [...] comparisons are pointless. The world only got one Lafferty. [...] Funny, wise and odd, his tales are unique. [...] He was a genre in himself, and a Lafferty story is unlike any story by anybody else: tall tales from the Irish by way of Heaven, the far stars and Tulsa, Okla.’

Or take Bill Hader’s characteristically funny comments about Lafferty’s fiction in the New York Times in 2008:

It’s hilarious, incredibly funny and at the same time it’s insanely dark. [...] You get such a sense of joy and boundless imagination in every sentence – even if the story doesn’t totally cohere, you feel like it’s about something. It’s so incredibly Tulsa. You get that feeling when you see a Flaming Lips show. It’s not like we’re dark and hurt and twisted. It’s like, “I’ve got blood on my face – come on, y’all, this is awesome.”’

Alas, Lafferty is almost totally out of print these days, except for expensive limited edition print runs. Used copies of his books from the 60s to the 80s can be very expensive. Lafferty’s odd genius is probably most easily encountered in the hundreds of short stories he wrote, but the only extra copies I have available are of a few of his novels.  They’ll throw you in the deep end with Lafferty, but I’ve heard of quite a number of fans first encountering him through his novels and becoming hooked.  So for the more daring among you, here’s your chance to give it a go!  (Or for the Lafferty fans already out there, a chance to pick up a title or two you may not’ve managed to obtain yet.)

(click on photo for larger, clearer image)

  • Past Master (1968) - x 2 - Utopia in the future, on another planet:  time travel, monsters, androids, aliens, spaceships - but in a way only Lafferty could do!  Bizarre journeys, sardonic homilies, gory battles, and weird wonders!  Philosophies and grotesqueries galore!  And more! (Plus, you gotta love the pulpy cover of this 1970s mass-market paperback edition.)

  • Not To Mention Camels (1976) - This is truly one of Lafferty’s WEIRDEST works.  It makes Past Master look like a conventional novel.  It’s about multiple worlds, written in a highly analytical and yet bloody way as only Lafferty would write it. A bit of a brain-melter to be honest. Its anti-hero is a particularly unlikable politician jumping from one version of himself to another in different versions of the worlds - and sometimes the utterly freakish places between worlds.  It gets pretty gruesome and dark at moments, but its biting satire of personality cults and media lords can be kind of wickedly funny, and its wilder passages provide their own grotesque pleasures.  If you read it, you definitely have to round it out with some of Lafferty’s more redemptive works.  (This copy’s a print-on-demand paperback from 2000 by Wildside Press, but I actually kind of like this cover art.)

  • Okla Hannali (1972) - This novel is a different kettle of fish from the previous two.  It may well someday find its place in the canon of 20th century American Literature alongside other classics of the American frontier.  It’s the only book of Lafferty’s that has actually never gone out of print.  It’s a work of historical fiction about the 19th century Choctaw tribe, especially one Paul Bunyan-esque leader and his family, but it mixes in elements of ‘tall tales’ and folklore in such a way that makes it something of a rare example of ‘magical realism’ from the USA.  It is tragic, poignant, comic, thrilling, consciousness-raising, and historically astute by turns. I found that its cumulative effect stirred me with both melancholy and wonder. It genuinely deserves to be more widely known.  (This is a fairly sturdy print-on-demand paperback from the University of Oklahoma Press.)

Monday, August 31, 2015

Short Story Review # 7: The Transcendent Tigers (1964)


First off, I want to say that I’ve been reliably informed that Lafferty’s own title for this story was ‘Needle’ and that a magazine editor chose its present title.  Once you’ve read the story, Lafferty’s own title seems far more powerful to me and I hope it will be restored some day.

(First published in Worlds of Tomorrow, 1964)

This is, among Lafferty readers, one of his better known and loved tales among the stories about precocious and preternatural children for which he is justly renowned.  Lafferty’s children seem quite unique in literature and are not to be missed.  Lafferty doesn’t see children as innocent, but often as almost amoral; and even more so as just wildly plastic with capacity for sheer power, which he portrays them as wielding in a very unwieldy fashion for good and ill at once.  He often refers to children and adolescents as ‘poltergeistic’ in his fiction.  Lafferty sees all humans as having a crucial ghostly element, but seems to see children as closer to that numinous quality, and thus… well, spookier.  Carnadine Thompson (the central seven-year-old girl of this story) is one of Lafferty’s most memorable child anti-heroes, along with Clarissa Willoughby of ‘Seven-Day Terror’ (1962) and the Dulanty kids of The Reefs of Earth (1968).

(Also collected in the 1972 anthology Young Demons)

‘The Transcendent Tigers’ is kind of a story about what precocious little kids would do with the planet if they had power to do whatever they wanted to with it at the largest and most complete scale, thus being able to treat the Earth as no more than a toy or an anthill.  Indeed, the kids do in this story exactly what many of us have done with our toys and with little architectures of nature:  poke holes in them, mutilate them inch by inch, for no particular reason, just to see what happens, just to watch the destruction; hell, just to break things.

In the opening gambit of the story, Lafferty’s sympathies are clearly with the smart flexibility of the mother and daughter over against the father’s inflexible intellectualism.  This comes out in a way that quite literally makes me laugh out loud every time the story comes to a certain point.  After the husband has already been bloviating to his fellow male for a few paragraphs about how ‘impossible’ it is to work the wire model of an ancient puzzle he has given his daughter for her birthday (ignoring his wife's  interjection that the girl had already worked and unworked the puzzle just a moment before), we get this:
“Carnadine,” said her mother, “let me see you work that again.”
Carnadine worked it again.
“The reason it is unworkable,” said Tyburn…
And I can't repress a chuckle, even before I hear whatever shape he gives his absurd reasoning.  So this is a story about possibility as well, and our rationalisations by which we try avoid such open possibilities.  (To some degree, this is a central element in all of Lafferty's fiction - it certainly is in the previous story I reviewed, 'Narrow Valley', which also featured a mother and her children accepting wilder ontologies than the father of the family was prepared to grant or experience.  One begins to wonder what the dynamic was with Lafferty's own parents.)

In many 50s/60s American homes the dynamic might well have allowed for the way Tyburn treats his wife when he says to her:  'Stop chattering, Geraldine.  I am explaining something to Horn' (the neighbour man).  But Lafferty clearly and amusingly subverts such uneven and demeaning gender and marriage dynamics (in this story and many, many others).  And it isn't that Lafferty views women as merely intuitive creatures while men are hidebound rationalists.  His men and women vary on such attributes throughout his fiction, but here Geraldine is quite rational as well as canny in accepting what her eyes see her daughter doing (even if she 'had been looking pop-eyed for a long time' because of such ontic antics).  When she asks her daughter how she can do such wonders (note her intellectual curiosity and innate sense of the need for causal order), we get this exchange between daughter and mother:
“There has to be a first time for everything, mama.”
“Maybe, but there has to be a first-class explanation to go with that first time.”
Geraldine's no intellectual slouch.

As to the pop-eyed impossible, the daughter Carnadine had already performed a feat more immediately spectacular than solving the 'unsolvable' puzzle:  she several times instantaneously turns her white rubber ball inside out and then back again without tearing it, turning its colour from white to red and back to white again because the ball is 'red on the inside' as she informs her mother when asked about it.  These little miracles are just the prelude to terrifying and gargantuan marvels to follow.  That's one of the things that made this a favourite story of mine from the first time I read it: the opening ropes you in with the oddity and humour, but you have no inkling of the tall-tale or wonder-story heights (and physical depths!) to which the story is about to leap.  It's one of the things Lafferty does best, setting out a little whizzer and then suddenly and swiftly stacking a gigantic whopper right on top of it, delightfully defying all sense of balance.

Here Lafferty takes a characteristic structural turn and inserts a series of what we might call para-narrations:  first an aside about the kids' club Carnadine has formed (and presides over) with her little brother and two other boys younger than her; then an excerpt from an article in a French academic journal (the article's in English) about powers and visitations coming to the Earth; and then the main event. This last is a fairly swift but amazing description of the peculiar mass destruction of various rural and small towns of the USA that most people have never heard of (I verified the existence of all but two by googling them).  That these, beginning with Kearney, Nebraska, are mostly midwestern and southern towns (with a few from New England) is also characteristically Laffertian and the listings of them, to my ear, make up little snatches of Weird Americana poetry:
Hanksville, Utah, Crumpton, Maryland, Locust Bayou, Arkansas, and Pope City, Georgia. [...] Highmore, South Dakota, Lower Gilmore, New Hampshire, Cherryfork, Ohio, and Rowesville, South Carolina.  
Lafferty also performs his characteristic juxtaposition of the high and the low, the academic and the homespun, when he first refers to a farmer's report of the unbelievable size of the thing ('more than a mile thick, and a hundred thousand miles long') that came from the sky and caused the destruction. Lafferty wryly and exaggeratedly heads off the reader's incredulity at such a report from such a source:
Did he know how to judge distances?  Certainly, he said, I know how to judge distances. It is ninety yards to that windmill.  That crow is flying at right onto eighty yards above the earth, though most would guess him higher.  And that train whistle is coming from a distance of five and one-quarter miles.
Then he inserts the writings of yet another theoretical academic, cited only as 'Winkers' (wink wink); a longer and more abstruse passage this time, but elucidating further on the Power and Visitation that the specialists are claiming has come to the Earth.  After several paragraphs it breaks into this pile-on of jargon and theory:
The characteristics of the Power, the Visitation, as projected by these methods (and always considered in the Oeg-Hornbostel framework) is that it is Aculeiform, Homodynamous, Homochiral, and (here the intelligence reels with disbelief, yet I assure the lector that I am deadly serious) Homoeoteleutic.
Yowza!  The italics are Lafferty's and all the terms are real, meaning respectively (and roughly):  'like a prickle'; segmented; a substance where 'all the constituent units are molecules of the same chiral form'; and 'having the same or similar endings'.  Just when we might be tempted to think Laff is splashing some pseudo-academic nonsense our way merely for the sake of its amusing contiguity with the previous banter from the farmer, the article continues:
For there is a Verbal Element to it, incredible as it seems.  This raises old ghosts.  It is almost as if we hear the returning whisper of primitive magic or fetish.  It is as if we were dealing with the Logos - the word that was before the world.  But where are we to find the logic of the Logos?
(Again, the italics are his.)  Any reader of Lafferty's 1971 novel Arrive At Easterwine will know that he is not likely to invoke the concept of the Logos only for arcane laughs.  There is buried in this simultaneously funny and disturbing story (a simultaneity Lafferty achieves very frequently) some real philosophical concerns of the author.  But they remain mostly buried, to be linked up by the attentive reader with their reappearance in many other passages across his body of work.  But the academic extract here does nevertheless serve to hilariously over-explain the very simple ritual by which Carnadine is presently seen to be wreaking all this gargantuan havoc.

The narration returns to an amusing exchange between Carnadine and her mother where her mother asks how Carnadine, who had previously been a poor reader, now knows how to say the names of the towns that are being reported as destroyed in the newspaper:
"Oh, it's no great trick, mama.  You just tie into the stuff and let go.  Crumpton! Locust Bayou! Pope City! Cherryfork! Rowesville!"
Lafferty's definitely reveling in the odd poetry of listing out these towns that I mentioned above.

True to the patchwork narrative structure the story has taken, we then observe a scene of a wholly different nature than all these earthly happenings:  'Far out, very far out, there was a conversation.' The subsequent description of these somehow spherical yet non-physical intelligences is to me a very comic take on Lovecraftian Old Ones or Elder Being types of super-cosmic entities.  Contra Lovecraft, such ultra-beings are not necessarily out to eat us and make us subservient - indeed, they might even be out to 'bless' us with new powers and potentialities.  Yet we are indeed so ontically inferior to them that they wouldn't have any qualms about casting us aside into the cosmic rubbish heap if we prove unworthy or incapable of receiving and properly utilising their blessing.  (For a somewhat similar, though more poignant, take, see Stephen Graham Jones's short story 'Catch and Release', collected in his 2013 Zombie Sharks With Metal Teeth.)

The lampooning of human failings and frailties from a superior alien perspective in this scene is perhaps somewhat standard fare of 1960s sf - with Lafferty panache, certainly - but the ideas also fit into larger explorations about the kind of 'confidence to con' (my phrase, not Laff's) that these beings expound on here, a theme which Lafferty repeatedly plumbs across his body of work with characteristic tension and ambiguity. (The very dark Not To Mention Camels and the more redemptive Aurelia come to mind as novels by Lafferty that explore this theme; the Wreckville con men of the story 'Hands of the Man' come to mind as well.) The scene also, of course, serves to juxtapose yet another vast greatness with comparative smallness: the picture of these meta-cosmic super-intelligences towering over human understanding resonates with the giant holes in the cities next to the tiny holes on the globe or the verbose academic articles next to the childish, badly rhyming couplets of the kids' club.

The penultimate scene of the kids making their rhymes and jabbing needles into the globe in order to destroy major cities is a fantastic coup de grâce.  It gives us Laffertian children in full ferocity,
And Carnadine stuck it in with full assurance of her powers, red cap atilt, eyes full of green fire.
the chuckling silliness of the rhymes -
“Peas and Beans—New Orleans!”[...]
“Candy store—Baltimore,”[...]
“Fatty's full of bolonio—San Antonio.”[...]
“Eustace is a sisty—Corpus Christi.”[...]
“Eggs and Batter—Cincinnater.”[...]
“Hopping Froggo—Chicago.”
- and the stunning summaries of the jagged destructions they thereby wreak:
“He rhymed and jabbed, manfully but badly.
“That didn't rhyme very good,” said Carnadine. “I bet you botched it.”
He did. It wasn't a clean-cut holocaust at all. It was a clumsy, bloody, grinding job—not what you'd like.
“I do wish that you people would let me handle this,” said Carnadine. “That was awful.”
It was. It was horrible. That giant needle didn't go in clean at all. It buckled great chunks of land and tore a ragged gap. Nothing pretty, nothing round about it. It was plain brutal destruction.”
(Also included in Lafferty's 1972 collection Strange Doings)

The story ends as many Lafferty stories do, with a fourth-wall-breaking call to participate.  Usually, however, his readers are called to participate in the creation of worlds, not destruction.  So this ending is clearly meant to disturb. It's quite a nasty trick because you absolutely cannot fail to add in your own ending.  Just reading the prompt - the final three words of the story - will automatically put the corresponding two words in your head.  The story finishes - or rather, Lafferty's part of the story finishes:
“Knife and Fork—
And we have no choice, given the pattern that's been effectively planted into our heads from previous pages, but to supply:  'New York!'

I suppose it probably seems like nothing more than an amusing little ending until you delve further into Lafferty's narratology.  But even if you don't, Lafferty's fiction has a way of working on you beneath the surface whether you consciously take note of it or not.  As I said at the beginning of this review, would we have done any different if we had been the kids endowed with such power?

And more generally, Lafferty's fiction is always probing us, pricking us like a needle, goading us to wonder: have we been endowed with Powers, and what creations or destructions are we unleashing with our gifts?  (Admittedly, the destruction here, as Andrew Ferguson has argued about Lafferty's works in general, can actually be a necessary part of the creation of new worlds, and I do think that valence is in play here.  But the satire on humans that the alien conversation performs requires that we also feel troubled by our participation in this destruction.  Was it really making way for new worlds or was it just a brutal botch job that only served our cruel and callous desire to see things break for no good reason?)

Note:  one of the elements I still don't grasp about this story is the name Carnadine and the crucial red cap.  Is the emphasis on red an allusion to blood, another theological element alongside the mention of the Logos?  Please enlighten me with your thoughts on this.

* Facebook thread on 'The Transcendent Tigers'
* Entry on 'The Transcendent Tigers' at Andrew Ferguson's blog
* 'The Transcendent Tigers' thread at RALafferty.org

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Ecomonstrous Lafferty/McCarthy PhD on Indiegogo

Ok, folks, I'm stepping out from behind the blog and showing my face to introduce my forthcoming PhD and the crowdfunding campaign we've launched for it.  I share it here because I genuinely think that some Lafferty fans may want to get behind the academic study of his work.  I believe that is one more crucial way that awareness and appreciation of Lafferty's art and thought can find traction and permanence in the world.  It comes first from readers, then readers enthusing with fellow readers, then popular forums and writings, then academic study - and through that last step the cycle begins again and in an ever widening radius as culture begins to be impacted by both critical and popular engagement with an artist.  It's not that neat and tidy, of course, but that's a rough sketch of what I hope will happen and what I do actually believe is already happening as the likes of Andrew Ferguson do professional theoretical work on Lafferty, and bloggers like me, Kevin, and John blog about him, and the Facebook Lafferty group discusses him, and the folks contributing to Feast of Laughter write about his work, and so on.  It's happening!

'This is beginning, this is happening!  Let no least part of it ever forget the primordial tumble that is the beginning!'
-R. A. Lafferty, 'Symposium' (1973)

Neil Gaiman kindly retweeted about the campaign already (see below video) and it's about 23% funded as I write this.   A great start for which we're thankful.

So, thanks for taking a look at the video below (don't worry, there are plenty of images too, not just my talking head!), and I hope you'll have a wee gander at the perks on the Indiegogo site as well. (You can follow the campaign on Twitter and Facebook as well.)

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Lafferty News (Issue 4)

I've missed passing on a whole lot of Lafferty news since the previous issue (in January!).  Some of it is now frustratingly misplaced or forgotten.  So I'm just going to dive in, starting with the most recent:

It's extremely rare that I get an R. A. Lafferty Google Alert, but I got one this week:

Let's Talk About It, Oklahoma continues with Lafferty's 'Okla Hannali'

Lafferty's Choctaw novel is the 'second book in the Let’s Talk About It, Oklahoma series “Many Trails, Many Tribes”' we're informed.  Second book!  It's being presented by one Dr. Greenstreet, 'a former professor of Communication Studies at East Central University'.  So it's great to see both a popular and academic engagement with Lafferty's material.  I also enjoy the news article's quick description of Okla Hannali:  'Part historical novel and part tall tale, European descendant R.A. Lafferty gives another perspective on Native Americans with an interesting twist on the Western genre.'

It seems that Oklahoma has really begun to take on her native son since the This Land Press article on Lafferty last year.  In March of this year he was inducted into the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame, though this fact was mainly carried as a Neil Gaiman news item (e.g. here and here).  Still, the tone of Gaiman's wonder and joy at being involved in the recognition of his childhood hero is just right.  “I get to tell you something which makes me ridiculously happy,” one blogger reports Neil saying. “Lafferty has been inaugurated into the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame.”  The same reporter notes that Gaiman's reading of Lafferty's story 'Seven-Day Terror' made quite an impact on the packed audience:  'By the end of it, I imagine that anyone who hadn’t read Lafferty before, including me, was going to find one of his books as quickly as possible.'  Quite a number of people were tweeting similar responses to the reading as well.  The Zarrow Center for Art and Education also displayed Lafferty's wonderful office door collage during Gaiman's visit as well (and some of Lafferty's papers were also exhibited as part of the events).

Last week on Episode 10 of the Okie Geek Podcast, Lafferty was given a brief mention (from about 42:15) as a great short story writer (again on Gaiman's recommendation - the podcasters hadn't read Lafferty).  They listed him on their blog post about that episode as well.

This is a much better ongoing regional ripple effect than seems to have happened when some in Oklahoma honoured Lafferty back in 1995.

In other developments:  back in June Andrew Mass revealed another snippet from the Lafferty documentary he's putting together:  a slice of a much longer interview with Harlan Ellison (of which I've seen a bit more, and it's wonderful).  Andrew writes about the interview here.

Michael Swanwick wrote a bit about Lafferty's and Ellison's one-sidedly stormy relationship back in May, concluding:  'if you want to insult Harlan Ellison and get away with it, it's the simplest thing in the world:  You just need to have earned enough of his respect to pull it off.'

That's it for now, except to furnish some proof for a statement I made a few posts ago that the award-winning, bestselling author Jeff VanderMeer is now a Lafferty fan.

Please let me know of anything you think is newsworthy about Laff that I've neglected to mention here.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Short Story Review # 6: Narrow Valley (1966)


This story genuinely deserves to be included in anthologies of the American (USA) short story.  It is a regional yarn of post-colonial irony, highly amusing, its wonders deftly described, and a narrative richly layered with allusive material for class discussions and the writing of essays.  May the day speed on when we see this title listed next to stories by Flannery O'Connor, Mark Twain, Jack London, Charlotte Gilman, Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Langston Hughes, and so on.

I wrote a very short section about this story in my recent dissertation.  It was only in doing this that I properly realised just how many themes and elements Lafferty folded into this one short, seemingly light, tale.  In the dissertation, I could only talk a tiny bit about the land itself as a sort of character in the story.  It pained me not to even touch on the other elements.  If I could have done so, it would have strengthened even the discussion of the land because all the elements of the story reinforce each other (as well as leading off on individual tangents).

The story's three main themes that seem most central to me are:  1) the delightfully portrayed marvel of the valley's anomalous spatial-perceptual behaviour (with its political as well as ontological implications); 2) the wry lampooning of white reductionist views of Native Americans; 3) the equally wry lampooning of 'scientific' explanations and our modern psychological need for them in order to keep a mysterious universe at bay.

But these don't exhaust the story's charms and riches.  The dialogue, for example, is some of the funniest and sharpest in all of Lafferty's output.  One of my favourite instances is the exchange between the Rampart children and the Indian Clarence Little-Saddle when they're down in the valley together.  For example:
“Is there any wild Indians around here?” Fatty Rampart asked.
“No, not really. I go on a bender about every three months and get a little bit wild, and there's a couple Osage boys from Gray Horse that get noisy sometimes, but that's about all,” Clarence Little-Saddle said.
“You certainly don't intend to palm yourself off on us as an Indian,” Mary Mabel challenged. “You'll find us a little too knowledgeable for that.”
“Little girl, you might as well tell this cow there's no room for her to be a cow since you're so knowledgeable. She thinks she's a short-horn cow named Sweet Virginia; I think I'm a Pawnee Indian named Clarence. Break it to us real gentle if we're not.”
This badinage carries on, disabusing the children of their ethnic stereotypes.  Mary asks Clarence where his war bonnet is if he's a real Indian.  He in turn asks her why she's not wearing the Crown of Lombardy if she's supposed to be a real white girl.  After a little more back and forth, including asking where his bow and arrows are and him admitting he only did archery once and poorly at a range in T-Town, we get this:
“Hey, you old Indian, you lied!” Cecilia Rampart shrilled from the doorway of the shack. “You do have a war bonnet. Can I have it?” 
“I didn't mean to lie, I forgot about that thing,” Clarence Little-Saddle said. “My son Clarence Bare-Back sent that to me from Japan for a joke a long time ago. Sure, you can have it.”
An example of other elements buried in the story is the very occluded reference to the Rampart matriarch's own possible non-white ethnicity.  Her name is Nina, and she confesses to sometimes having an urge to disappear to Mexico forever.  This might be another reason why she and the children, unlike Robert Rampart the patriarch, are able to enter the fun and humour of the recalcitrant valley and thus 'play along' and experience its true dimensions.  At least for a little while.

I suppose that's a fourth central element:  humans having or lacking true dimensionality, which determines their ability to experience the true dimensionality of the world in which they exist (and the true dimensionality of one another, especially across racial lines).  Cue the concluding punny joke between Clarence and the ever-popular Lafferty stalwart, Willy McGilly the 'eminent scientist':
“Did we overdo it, Clarence?” Willy McGilly asked. “What did one flat-lander say to the other?”
“Dimension of us never got around,” Clarence said. “No, I don't think we overdid it, Willy.”
It's an all round great tale of magic, theory, repartee, and subversion of Manifest Destiny, supplying a variety of pleasures only truly appreciated on repeated readings.  It also, along with the other American Indian short stories Lafferty wrote, is deepened by (and deepens) a reading of Lafferty's historical novel of the Choctaw people Okla Hannali (1972).  There are various interesting resonances, but the poignancy only lightly implied in 'Narrow Valley' gets full voice in Okla, along with plenty more wonders and horrors and hilarities.

* Discussion of 'Narrow Valley' on Facebook

* 'Narrow Valley' on ralafferty.org (including many links to other blog reviews of this story)

'Narrow Valley' appeared in this anthology among several others, as well as being included in Lafferty's seminal short story collection Nine Hundred Grandmothers (1970)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

'Ecomonstrous Environments in the Fiction of R. A. Lafferty and Cormac McCarthy' (dissertation uploaded!)

Here it is at last, folks:


Feel free to tear it to shreds with incisive criticism.  It's definitely only the first stab at a longer project. I'm pleased to be able to say the dissertation received an 'A'.  It's just an undergraduate paper, but I hope it points in some helpful directions for seeing Lafferty's place in American and world literature as well as philosophy.  Works mentioned, either at length or briefly, are 'Narrow Valley', 'Smoe and the Implicit Clay', 'Snuffles', and Okla Hannali.  The only work by McCarthy engaged in the paper is Blood Meridian.  (The PhD research I hope to begin in October will delve into the rest of their respective bodies of work.)

The main theorists engaged in this paper are Timothy Morton ('dark ecology'), Graham Harman ('object-oriented ontology'), Alphonso Lingis ('imperatives in things'), and a bit of Lawrence Buell (pioneer of contemporary ecocriticism in literary studies).  Large swathes of the paper should be pretty readable even to those not familiar with any theory.  Other parts may seem a bit impenetrable! At any rate, the whole thing is only ten thousand words.  To those further down the academic road than me, all I can ask is your patience and charity!  (But don't hold back much-needed critique either!)

There's lots of other Lafferty stuff happening and I still plan to get back to reporting on that, so stay tuned!  (Here's a quickie:  Jeff Vandermeer is a huge Lafferty fan now, a recent convert, and he'll be including Lafferty's story 'Nine Hundred Grandmothers' in the forthcoming Big Book of SF he and his wife Ann Vandermeer are editing for Vintage Books.)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Short Story Review # 5: Parthen (1973)

'Peggy had put her tongue on the crux.'
This one is one of my faves and one of the first Lafferty stories I ever blogged about some six years ago.  All that I said in that earlier post still stands.  The story still strikes me as exquisitely taut in its prose and plot, it still tickles my funny bone, and the poetic passage describing the (probably projected) beauty of the alien women is still unique and brilliant.  I would add to what I originally wrote about reading it over and over in the early days that I also used to read it out loud to family and friends every chance I got, and I also photocopied it and thrust it into the hands of a number of people.  ('Configuration of the North Shore' is another one I've done that with frequently over the years, but usually just loaning the person Gardner Dozois's Modern Classics of Fantasy, which contains that story in a nicely printed format amidst good authorial company.  'Configuration' has won over a lot more people than 'Parthen' ever did.)

But I guess I also still have the same qualifications:  that this is potentially a great intro to Lafferty if someone's likely to be won over by a well-written, humorous, semi-twisty, lightly satirical Twilight Zone type of tale.  But it doesn't give a whole lot of indication of the depths, heights, and bizarrities to which Lafferty frequently rises. (His story 'The Six Fingers of Time' is similar in this respect to me - a great, funny, wowing piece of speculative fiction, but only hinting at the full Lafferty effect.)

Three things stuck out to me on this read:  one is the line quoted above, delivered by Peggy Ronsard, the wife of Roy the protagonist.  I feel as if I never even read that line before.  This time it leapt right off the page and enthralled my eyes.  What does it mean?  It seems suggestive, and in one of the comment threads on the discussion of this story on Facebook we got into some very graphic detail trying to spell this out!  Basically, it was suggested that this was a double entendre, which would fit with the subplot of the men no longer being sexually hungry or active because of the 'higher values' they have euphorically embraced.  And that diminishing of actual sexual activity is what is narrated after the arresting sentence.  'The goats among the men had become lambs and the wolves had turned into puppies.'  Such sexual goatiness and wolfishness is keenly missed by the wives of the men for they have not been visually seduced into the body-denying 'higher values' by the new beautiful women (aliens) in town.  Well, if this is a double entendre, there's also no doubt in my mind that Lafferty would not be unaware of the phrase's allusion to the Catholic practice of kissing the crucifix. (I'd love to hear from any of you theologically minded folks on this.)  That's quite risqué of Lafferty! And potentially a really complex move.

This leads me to the next thing that stuck out to me on this read, especially since we had just read 'Maybe Jones and the City' the week before (a yarn with an emphasis on a bawdy bodily afterlife): 'Parthen' is bitingly anti-gnostic.  I've always grasped that it was generally satirising 'higher ethics' that ignore or sublimate truly good actions.  But I hadn't quite as viscerally grasped how much the story portrays the cessation of conjugal physical affection and lovemaking as a grave and terminal social evil.  Parthenogenesis may be great for some biota, but not for humans, Lafferty seems to say.  This made me see that I'd missed the story's thematic connection to other of Lafferty's stories like 'Ishmael Into the Barrens', 'Try to Remember', and 'Heart Grow Fonder'.

Lastly, I was freshly struck that Peggy Ronsard is the real hero and centre of this story, even though she only features on a few pages of it.  (Then again, it's a very, very short tale).  She is the most truly drawn character of the story, bursting with vim and vigour, wit and wisdom, all of which is evinced with only a few masterful strokes from Lafferty.  (And this freshly confirms my impression that this is just such a tightly written story craftwise).  Indeed, Peggy's few lines have always stuck with me over the years, almost more than any other character in Lafferty's body of work - not only her incisively sarky comment that Jack the Ripper would be better than the sexless creatures their husbands had become, but also her lively lusty love of male attention, both her husband's and his friends!  (Lafferty's recurring theme of men sitting on women's laps is broached here.)  It's a cheeky tale to be sure.  A minor classic in his oeuvre.

* Discussion of 'Parthen' on Facebook

* A review of 'Parthen' on Yet Another Lafferty Blog

* Comment thread for 'Parthen' on ralafferty.org

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Short Story Review # 4: Maybe Jones and the City (1968)


This one gets a little richer and deeper every time I think about it.  It's easy to think it's merely an entertaining 'idea story' with some connections to other fuller explorations of similar themes elsewhere in Lafferty's works, but not much more.  Then you try to pick apart why this is so and it gets more complex as you do so.  In the East of Laughter Facebook group, the ratings ranged from 2 to 5, the broadest we've seen so far.  I think it's a typically Laffertian take on themes like Sensucht and the 'argument from desire'.  And 'typically Laffertian' here means that Lafferty has put so many tensions and carnivalisations into this embodiment of those ideas that the theology of it becomes downright confusing and perhaps disturbing.  It's definitely designed to be a story you have to wrestle with.  I'm thankful for that because, as I said, it's forcing me to get much more out of it the more I wrestle with it.

'Maybe Jones' is one of my favourite Lafferty names (out of probably a hundred more favourites - he is the king of character names).  It captures perfectly the essence of the story:  the ambivalent longings of the everyman.  Its theme of yearning specifically for the 'perfect place', which one has visited but forgotten the location of, connects it to other Lafferty stories such as 'Configuration of the North Shore' and 'Land of the Great Horses', which also explore themes of peoples and landscapes, psychogeography, the sense of a homeland, and so on.  The fact that these longings are focused on a long lost perfect city (rather than, say, an edenic pastoral setting) connects it to Lafferty's repeated explorations of utopia and his many excursions into competing ideals of the urban (e.g. Past Master, 'The Will as World and Wallpaper', 'Interurban Queen', etc.).

The more I think about it the more I think this story could be a brief Laffertian take on the whole Pilgrim's Progress type of narrative, but instead of the straightforwardly linear 'Pilgrim' or 'Christian' wending his dangerous way to the 'Celestial City', Lafferty gives us Maybe Jones searching and searching the universe for what he's lost, the perfect place with the perfect 'high old time'.  Bunyan's pilgrim struggles to be sure, and is waylaid and whatnot, but Lafferty's pilgrim is in a perpetual cycle of amnesia and ambiguity.  It's as if Lafferty felt spiritual pilgrimage had to be cast in these terms in modern/postmodern times.

Lafferty's idea of 'perfection' in this tale is what I found slightly troubling, mainly in that it involved a hefty dose of prostitution.  Lafferty wasn't at all down with the 'sexual revolution' into which his writing emerged in the 1960s and because of that it's easy to miss some of his very saucy references to sex scattered throughout his works.  Here he calls a brothel a 'bang-house' and calls his acquaintance Susie-Q 'the prettiest trick on Sad-Dog planet'.  Since it's a crucial element of the perfect place in this story, I can only assume that Lafferty is here taking prostitution in the carnivalesque way that he often takes binge eating and drinking, bloody brawling, and the like, using these 'vices' as grotesquely humorous ways to shock us awake to the wildness of the 'virtues'.  That's maybe a stretch, but it's the best I've got for now.  The Vaudeville, Music Hall, bawdy, rowdy ideal of a 'high time' in this story relates it to still more stories in Lafferty's oeuvre such as 'One At a Time' and 'Golden Gate'. The fact that it's set in a planet-hopping context put me in mind of Space Chantey also (and, as it turns out, it shares a few characters, including Maybe himself, with that novel).  Indeed, 'Maybe Jones and the City' feels like a bit of a run up to, or run off from, both Past Master and Space Chantey (both of which novels were published the same year as this short story).

Despite some potential confusions, this tale is definitely about false and true (or less true and more true) versions of perfection, paradise, afterlife, eternity, a blessed state, heaven, and so on.  An old friend of mine recently told me he couldn't imagine there being art in heaven since art requires struggle and heaven is the cessation of all struggle, the answering of all questions, and the like.  I did my best to tell him he had a flawed view of heaven, that it was a place not of instant, total, final knowing and consequently of flat static 'tranquility', but rather it was place and level of existence finally freed from the inhibiting chains of hubris and self-centredness so that one can quest forever in the ecstatic adventure of knowing the divine in ever rising alternations of dark and light as one moves into new unveilings, which are always dark at first sight, until one's eyes grow used to the glory - an existence that will most certainly require the struggle of art to experience it (hence all the praise in biblical visions of heaven - someone has to write those songs, make the instruments, etc.).  Something like that.  It's all just finite pictures of a reality that is unpictureable to mere mortals.  Lafferty in this story pictures it far, far better than I did, if equally oblique.  Lafferty confesses in this story that one person's idea of heaven is another's idea of hell, but he still thinks imagined eternities of mere 'peace' (in a bland, static sense) are not on the right track and that rowdy, bodily, and pleasure-filled pictures are more on the right track, more in keeping with that historical bodily resurrection which is the centre of his church's faith.  It's not a flawless eternity Lafferty pictures, but one for those with, as he puts it in this story, 'the golden flaw' - namely, the inability to settle for a sanctimonious idea of heaven.  Anything too 'peaceful' would become unbearably boring if it went on for all eternity. Heaven must be something so potent that we will quite literally never tire of it.  As the story says of the perfect place, in one of Lafferty's most memorable lines:  'At night they took the sky off just to give it more height.'

Another clue Lafferty gives us about how such an eternity could actually satisfy real flesh-and-blood humans is that, as with so much of his fiction, he breaks the fourth wall and calls upon the reader directly to participate in world-building.  'Hey, get in on this if you're going to. They're building it now!'  All we have to do, he informs us, is post our suggestions to the 'Bureau of Wonderful Cities. Old Earth.'  We are part of the making of heaven, if we're willing.  The story closes:  'That's all you need, but get with it. They're building our place now.'

* Discussion of 'Maybe Jones and the City' on Facebook

* 'Maybe Jones and the City' comment thread on ralafferty.org

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Short Story Review # 3: Through Other Eyes (1960)


I'm starting to see that Lafferty may have had two mega-themes throughout his work, from early to late:  Creating and Seeing.  Lafferty's critical-theory interpreter and biographer, Andrew Ferguson, is doing yeoman's work on the Creating front, performing ongoing in-depth analysis of Lafferty's creative world-building and how his works metafictionally invite readers to participate in that world-building, especially given our world's present conceptual non-status.  I guess my essays in the first two issues of Feast of Laughter have been taking first stabs at the Seeing theme, especially as regards Lafferty's ability to widen and deepen our gaze to take in the non-human environment, and maybe that's going to be the bulk of the contribution I make to Lafferty studies.  I guess there are probably other major, central themes in Lafferty's body of work, but these seem to be two of them.  (Any ideas on others? If I kept on the present-tense verb terminology, I might call his emphasis on 'ghostliness', i.e. spirituality, his mega-theme of Being, which, of course, is ontological and undergirds his themes of Seeing and Creating.)

I've also begun to notice that Lafferty signals most of his major themes right from the earliest part of his career, sometimes with stories that are as accomplished and profound and groundbreaking as any he would write in his mid and late career.  We are put on notice that Creating will be a mega-theme from the outset by his chilling but somehow also invigorating story 'Snuffles' (1960).  So also, in the same year, he sets out for us his mega-theme of Seeing in the story 'Through Other Eyes'.

I think in the past this story has not been one of my top personal favourites because I got a little put off by the introduction, or first panel, of the tale.  I typically don't love it when stories or novels start off with dialogue - I'm a sot for description and that's how I prefer any piece of fiction get going. Immerse me in either action, or, even better, setting, and I'm a very willing reader.  Start me in the middle of a conversation, with little or no imagery, and I'm just enduring it to get through to whenever the description of this world I've entered will finally begin.  I'm sure some readers are opposite, or appreciate both.  (And, of course, I know dialogue does tons of the work of building the setting and telling the story.)  Having said all that, the first line of this story is a cracker:  '"I don't think I can stand the dawn of another Great Day," said Smirnov.'

But the characters' subsequent discussion of time travel experiments feels like a very clunky way to get started. (I think discursively top-heavy intros are often the case with the Institute of Impure Sciences cycle of stories, of which this is the earliest.)  It is very, very erudite and witty - if you are familiar enough with the references.  First of all, I'm not a general history buff, so I'm just not that interested, even if I know the references, but secondly, I had to look several of them up, some of which research yielded a smile or chuckle at Lafferty's handling of the historical material (especially Nell Guinn).  The take on Tristram and Isolde (a reference I did readily recognise) was amusing, and the portrait of Lancelot was the best of the lot to my mind: that he 'spent more time on the rubbing table than any athlete I ever heard of', like a 'high-priced quarterback who was never ready to play'.  (Incidentally, Gene Wolfe compares medieval knights to American football players in his novel The Knight.)  And the reference to Aristotle's treatises on the Beard in Essential and Beard in Existential (pretend treatises, as far as I can tell, though A. did apparently write something or other about beards in some work or other) was funny, a joke whose relevance has come round again with our present bewhiskered hipster-mania.  As I say, as clever and amusing as all this is, it is a slow start to the tale for me and a seemingly irrelevant one to boot given that it is not a setup to a yarn about time travel! Yet I did 'get it' this time round.  This opening gambit supplies an instance of how our successes at peering into unknowns can sometimes shrink rather than expand our world.  The past didn't look as glorious as our handed down accounts when you could actually be there and witness it. And that's the setup:  a foreshadowing of the results of the real experiment at hand in this story (which will be complexly fulfilled, as the subsequent experience will end up being too successful and overly expanding).

Now, I will say that catching this structural element this time round made something else click for me about Lafferty's works.  I'm noticing more and more that his structures can be very, very odd, often in this kind of asymmetric triptych, or otherwise 'panelled' sort of way, where the movements or sections are each quite different from one another in mode or some other aspect of presentation or performance or content.  In some ways it's almost like the stories change styles as they change scenes or sections.  I'm not going to try to analyse it right now, but 'Land of the Great Horses' and 'Thieving Bear Planet' are an early and late story that strike me as instances of this structural phenomenon (the former without the numbered parts and the latter a numbered asymmetric diptych).  A lot of Lafferty's structures are actually beginning to put me in mind of the ornate stories of Jorge Luis Borges.  More consciously recognising the tripartite structure of 'Through Other Eyes' this time round enriched the reading for me.  Even though I don't love the first panel of this particular tale, I do appreciate how it adds to the structural elegance.

At the end of this opening, Smirnov proffers the opinion that 'One pair of eyes is enough.  I do not see any advantage at all except the novelty.'  This is the view Lafferty will never tire of knocking down for the rest of his career.  (Cf. the notion that 'A man misses so much if he uses only one set of eyes' in his 1969 novel Fourth Mansions.)  And this statement from Smirnov allows Cogsworth to state the thesis of the whole short story:  'I believe that what we regard as one may actually be several billion different universes, each made only for the eyes of the one who sees it.'

For me, even though section or panel 2 is where this story really starts to pay gigantic dividends, we still have to get through another page or so of story-stalling theory-speak before it does so. Nevertheless, having just read William James's seminal paper 'What is an Emotion?' (1884), and its subsequent responses in the philosophy of emotion, for a course this past semester, I found Lafferty's little discussion of brains and perception quite neatly fitting into that discourse.  So that was a bonus and something probably worth digging more into.

But it's when Cogsworth's initial thesis is elaborated upon that this tale blows up for me and goes full Laffertian.  He experiences the age-old subjective perception question as a boy, with a fairly commonplace example:  'It may be that I am the only one who sees the sky black at night and the stars white [...] and everybody else sees the sky white and the stars shining black. And I say the sky is black, and they say the sky is black; but when they say black they mean white.'  But, as Harlan Ellison recently noted, Lafferty 'could take a simple idea and say, well, wait a minute, look at it this way.'  True to this propensity, Cogsworth then delightfully and freakishly stacks up weirder and weirder examples, starting with wondering whether others see cows inside out and finishing with wondering whether, when a bird eats a worm, does the worm think 'that his outside is his inside, and that the bird's inside is his outside? And that he has eaten the bird instead of the bird eating him?' (See the whole wonderful passage here.)  We are notified here that when Lafferty talks about every single person seeing the world differently than every other, he really means it, radically.  The amazing thing is that he pays this out in the rest of the story.  Incredible stuff.

After an entertaining wee wander through the eyes of a great man, a wide man, a mathematical man, a fastidiously detailed man, an already-looking-back-at-you man, and a radically sceptical man, there is nothing left but to look through the eyes of a woman.  She is an exceptional woman to Charles Cogsworth (he's in love with her as becomes clear), but Gregory will later tell Cogsworth she's a pretty average gal. Apparently, however, looking at the world through the eyes of even an average woman is wilder, fuller, and more challenging than looking through the eyes of any or all of those diverse kinds of men combined.  Cogsworth says he has seen the world through the eyes 'of a giant, of a king, of a blind hermit, of a general, of a peeping tom, of a fool' and now he will see it through the eyes 'of an angel'.  The narrator has this to say about that:  'Valery Mok may or may not have been an angel. She was a beautiful woman, and angels, in the older and more authentic iconography, were rather stern men with shaggy pinions.'  The implication is that even if Cogsworth saw through the eyes of an angel, he might see a much shaggier world than he was expecting.  At any rate, he is utterly shell-shocked by seeing through Valery's eyes, so much so that he has to spend six weeks in a sanatorium.

Now comes the third and final panel of the story.  Cogsworth eventually chats with his friend Smirnov some more and is challenged that perhaps he just doesn't understand girls!  I won't go much into this final panel of the story as I dealt with it somewhat extensively at the close of my essay for Feast of Laughter issue 2.  Suffice it to say, the view of the world just gets beautifully weirder as we're treated to a description of Valery's universe, imaginatively sensual and mythically literal to a genuinely 'ecomonstrous' degree.  What I do want to note here is how this story contrasts with C. S. Lewis's similarly themed tale 'The Shoddy Lands' (first published in the February 1956 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction).  The male protagonist of Lewis's tale also sees the world through the eyes of a woman, but he sees not a wildly hyper-sensuous world but a 'shoddy land' full of vague, shoddy flora and people and objects, with a few frivolous and vain exceptions.  I've always really liked Lewis's story for its imaginative premise rendered quite evocatively.  And I don't think it's necessarily damning that the protag of 'The Shoddy Lands' happens to look at the world through a particularly vapid and boring young lady's eyes, especially as Lewis published a whole novel that same year, Till We Have Faces, which is narrated by the fiercely intelligent and fascinating voice of a highly admirable female protagonist.  Nevertheless, it's fascinating and instructive that, in contrast to 'The Shoddy Lands', in 'Through Other Eyes' Lafferty's view through female eyes is gobsmacking, challenging, expanding - the polar opposite of 'shoddy'.  Indeed, it's Lafferty's male protag that comes in for criticism from Valery for his view of the world being too shoddy:
She burst in on him furiously one day.
“You are a stick. You are a stick with no blood in it. You are a pig made out of sticks. You live with dead people Charles. You make everything dead. You are abominable.”
After a bit of half-hearted argument from Charles Cogsworth, he is duly humbled (as is, to be fair, Lewis's protagonist at the end of 'The Shoddy Lands' when he shrinks from the thought that someone might well look at the world through his eyes and see a similarly shoddy landscape, just differently distributed based on his own parochial inclusions and exclusions).  This is a story of being shattered by being too-suddenly immersed in the viewpoint of the Other, and then slowly put back together by further humbled engagement with that same viewpoint (and other POVs as well - it's not unimportant that Cogsworth builds back up to understanding Valery by first seeing the world through other people and even various animals, all of these views surprising, challenging, and enlightening).

One last thing I noticed this time round, which was a delightful surprise, is that this is really a 'cute' romantic love story buried in philosophical rumination.  Charles and Valery are married by the time of the one novel in the Institute cycle, Arrive At Easterwine (1971).  As a man married to a woman whose visual and sensual view of the world is generally far greater than my own, and who must lovingly remonstrate with me about my 'dead stick' view from time to time, and whom I can't help but love for it, 'Especially when it becomes beautiful when angry', I can really resonate with the love story aspect of this tale.

* Discussion of 'Through Other Eyes' on Facebook

* 'Through Other Eyes' entry on Continued On Next Rock blog

* 'Through Other Eyes' comments on ralafferty.org 
'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)