Monday, April 27, 2015

'Well then, this was something that did not explain itself at all'; Or, 'the grin of a tribal deity full of rogue power and eternal youth'

Overlark breathed out deeply, emptying chest and collapsing his whole upper body in the expelling. Then he plunged his head and neck and shoulders into the large bowl and began to breathe the water deeply.  If this was fakery it was good fakery,and it hadn't been rigged just to impress Freddy Foley.

The man, if he was a man, was breathing very deeply under water - if it was water.  His eyes were open and they had a new snap to them.  He grinned, a not altogether fish grin.  It was the grin of a tribal deity full of rogue power and eternal youth, one at home in all the elements.  Something false about both the power and the youth, though.

Fred Foley scooped water and tasted.  It was half salt - brackish, like tide-turning estuary water, or water from the sea very near the mouth of a great river.  Or it was like water from an ancient ocean, one with less salt in it than have the oceans now.  But why did Fred Foley think of that?

There were minute plants in the water, and small fish.  It was not tap water.  It was either drawn from a particular source, or carefully mixed.  Foley had a sudden belief that there might be an upwelling of that water in that room, even though it was an upper-floor room, just as there was an upwelling of water on Auclaire's mountain, though there were dry caves below.

Well then, this was something that did not explain itself at all.   Carmody Overlark had had his head under water for more than five minutes, and the water itself was in constant change or parade.  There were schools of small fish that passed through it laterally.  They did not follow around the curve of the bowl, they disappeared.  And other sorts of fish appeared, all traveling a parade in the same direction, coming out of the glass itself (for all that could be discerned of them), traveling across the bowl in a straight line and disappearing into the glass wall again.  There was optical illusion or there was strong current flowing through that bowl.

Was the underwater breathing of Overlark somehow the key to suspended animation?  It was a funny key; it didn't seem to fit any of the locks.  It was plain that an ordinary man would be dead, as it was now ten, now fifteen minutes that Overlark had his head and breathing below the surface.  It was plain that he was not an ordinary man.

Then the water went out of the bowl.  It could not be said that it drained out, for there was no drain. Air followed water in the current-parade across the inside of the bowl, and then the inside was dry. Overlark pulled his head out.  He was beaming and greatly refreshed.

"Wonderful, Foley, wonderful.  You should try it.  There's nothing like it to set a man up."

-R. A. Lafferty, Fourth Mansions (1969)


Laurent "The Croco" said...

Wonderful extract from a wonderful novel ! I have translated FM in French two years ago - it was a puzzling affair, but not so difficult, actually. At the moment, I am in a very discomfort with the translation of The Camels. I realize now why the comments on this book are so rare… Is there anybody who has really read this one ? Or am I the only one to consider Not To Mention as Ray's ultimate chef-d'oeuvre ? I'd like to know, for sometimes I really feel myself like a lost camel in the desert. Has someone an opinion, has someone written something on this mysterious book ? Is there any Patrick here ? Let me know. Thanx.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Hi Laurent, did you see my 'review' of Not To Mention Camels on this blog already?

Another French reader commented there. The French seem to really connect to that novel, ha ha! Anyway, I personally LOVE Not To Mention camels. It about melted my brain to read it, but I loved it. Looking forward to a re-read soonish. Let us know how it goes translating it!

trawlerman said...


Are you aware of our efforts at ?

We'd love to have a contribution from you or any other French Lafferty fans for the next issue.

Daniel, sorry to hijack your comments! I do love this Fourth Mansions excerpt.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

No, I totally second the invitation for French contributions to Feast of Laughter issue 3 this autumn. We heard from Lafferty fans in Germany, Netherlands, Russia, Japan, and UK in this latest issue. Let's expand it to France and beyond!

Kevin Cheek said...

Yes, Laurent, I "third" (or further repeat) the invitation to join our efforts in publishing Feast of Laughter. From what little I have seen, it appears France has done a lot to preserve Lafferty's memory in Literature. Check our our website at You can reach me at

Daniel, Fourth Mansions is my favorite Lafferty novel - actually, it is my favorite novel. I have to re-read it every three to four years and have probably read it 5 or 6 times so far. I get something new out if it every time. It is a timeless novel, because it captures the sense we humans (we malodorous worms in the middle, we everylouts) have that we are on the verge of something great but that there are forces dedicated to our undoing. Gaah, look at the primary season in this country and tell me the returnees are not at work!

Thank you for posting this wonderful (and wonder-filled) excerpt!

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Kevin, I'm so glad so many of Lafferty's fans raved about Fourth Mansions because, as you know, I'm one of those that didn't completely get into it the first time I tried to read it and quit a little over halfway through, which I'd never done with any of his other novels. I didn't hate it or anything - indeed, I found at least a few of its images and themes quite the best among Lafferty's output. But for some reason I just didn't want to finish it that first time. Anyway, a second read totally changed my opinion and I read it right to the end very eagerly. I'm finishing up a very slow and intermittent third read (or second *complete* read) now - I have only the last chapter left and I'm going to savour it as I have done the whole book this time. It definitely holds up over a close, slow read. It's that rich.

One of the things I'm noticing this time, besides being further blown away and mesmerised by its language, is that it's so chock full of grotesque wonders that you just can't remember them all. I had completely forgotten about the passage I've copied out here, Overlark breathing water in his oceanic fish bowl. An incredible scene! I'm surprised more such wonderfully weird and unique episodes don't get passed around more often among Lafferty fandom - just in celebration and awe. There is certainly an abundant supply and we might do more to explain Laff's appeal to the unconverted by quoting him at length than by anything we can say ourselves about him.

You mention politics - I've said that Fourth Mansions is the weirdest theological treatise ever written. It's also the wildest political analysis ever written! A lot of real wisdom in its political insights too, Lafferty even seeing the pitfalls of his own quadrant, conservatism (the badgers), and that there are worse forms of it, such as fascism (the falcons).

Antonin Scriabin said...

FM is an odd one for me. I'm willing to admit it is the "best" Lafferty novel I've read, though not the one I got the most enjoyment out of. It is quite heady, and thematically more darkly serious than I am used to when it comes to R.A. Apocalypses, my favorite, on the other hand, was a pure joy to read, from start to finish. I think FM is the one I will have to work the most on, in order to fully appreciate it. Once I've gone through everything else once, it will be the first I revisit.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Very interesting, Antonin. On the one hand, I have a very similar feeling about FM in that I acknowledge it as one of his clear masterworks, but it's not my favourite, not one of the ones that gave me most pleasure. (Reefs of Earth from the early years and Annals of Klepsis from the later years are examples of ones that gave me so much page-turning pleasure from start to finish on first and subsequent reads.)

On the other hand, I find tons of Lafferty's stuff 'darkly serious' and 'heady', *including* the likes of The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney (second of two short novels collected in the book Apocalypses that Antonin mentioned as his favourite, for those who don't know). I thought it was marvellous and certain episodes were so full of witty vinegar, but its premise melted my brain and its theme felt very dark indeed. That said, I do much prefer Apocalypses (both of its novels are great) to Fourth Mansions.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

But there are two things that set FM apart: one is the themes, which are some of Lafferty's most central and memorable, tied in with the Catholic mysticism of St Teresa of Avila as they are, and expressed so emblematically that they tend to stick out in his corpus as permanent markers of his thought (e.g. the Brain-Weave; the Badgers, Toads, Serpents, and Falcons; the Patricks; the Returned Men; the Everyman/Everylout).

The other thing is the language, the prose style. It took me three reads to really properly realise this very obvious feature (one of the things that I think has sold so many Lafferty fans on it from the get go). It's the kind of thing I usually notice right off and the kind of thing that usually sways me over all other considerations, including plot, theme, and so on. I think I missed it the first time partly because the 'plot' of the novel didn't grab me nearly as much as, for example, the weird characters and creatures and action and utopian theme of Past Master, or the rollicking humour and adventure of Space Chantey, or the outre Southern-Gothic-with-alien-children mode of The Reefs of Earth, or the wonderful, completely nettled, but mind-expanding memoir of Epiktistes in Arrive at Easterwine, etc. Even on this third read, there are aspects of Fourth Mansions that are still just too pedestrian for me. But, of course, that's one of the central points of the novel - it's about how the 'man on the street' pulled by all the powers-that-be still has a crucial role to play, etc.

Another more complicated reason I think I missed the delicious, vibrant, accomplished prose style of FM on the first go was that it's achieved in a very unique way, even for Lafferty. I'm not sure how many other of his works are really written in this style. I'm not equipped enough to analyse it yet, but it has this sort of animated quality right down at the level of the words and sentences that can be sort of hidden in plain sight, which creates an incredibly dense and textured concatenation of allusions and resonances - and also a lot of micro word-pictures and images embedded like bright shards into the larger emblems and set pieces. All of Laff's works are deeply intertextual, but usually more at the narrative and thematic levels, whereas this one is also so at the syntactical or word-choice level it seems to me.

That said, even at the sentence level, FM can at times go on for a bit in a fairly plain way, or so it seems. In those moments it feels like a more plain Raymond Chandler or something like that. Which gets the job done but I find a little underwhelming. But, of course, it's never too long before the style starts humming and jumping with vibrance again.

One more thing: you mention you may need to 'work' on it to appreciate it. I'm tempted to warn you against that. I read one frustrated reviewer on Amazon who read it three times over, studying it deeply, making notes, only to like it less each time, eventually concluding it was rather immature prolix. I think one has to read it fairly quickly and 'lightly' to have hopes of really appreciating it. If just once its effervescent aspects capture you, then I think you'll *want* to take the more leisurely stroll with it, and begin to reap its deeper dividends. Even I have only done a slow read on this third go and it's only after this that I'm now motivated to start digging in, taking notes, tracing out themes, looking up allusions, etc. I'm tempted to say that if one approaches Fourth Mansions doing all that 'work' *in order* to appreciate it, they never will. Just a hunch.

Do please share what you think when you revisit it. I'd be very interested to hear your take. (Maybe do a review for an issue of Feast of Laughter?!) Always great to hear from you here, Antonin.

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