Saturday, May 30, 2015

And what if the dog is right?

This idea of his—to enter into the mind of another, to peer from behind another's eyes into a world that could not be the same—this idea had been with him all his life. He recalled how it had first come down on him in all its strength when he was quite small.

“It may be that I am the only one who sees the sky black at night and the stars white,” he had said to himself, “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.”

Or: “I may be the only one who can see the outside of a cow, and everybody else sees it inside out. And I say that it is the outside, and they say that it is the outside; but when they say outside they mean inside.”

Or: “It may be that all the boys I see look like girls to everyone else, and all the girls look like boys. And I say ‘That is a girl,’ and they say ‘That is a girl'; only when they say a girl they mean a boy.”

And then had come the terrifying thought: “What if I am a girl to everyone except me?”

This did not seem very intelligent to him even when he was small, and yet it became an obsession to him.

“What if to a dog all dogs look like men and all men look like dogs? And what if a dog looks at me and thinks that I am a dog and he is a boy?”

And this was followed once by the shattering afterthought: “And what if the dog is right?

“What if a fish looks up at a bird and a bird looks down at a fish? And the fish thinks that he is the bird and the bird is the fish, and that he is looking down on the bird that is really a fish, and the air is water and the water is air?”

“What if, when a bird eats a worm, the worm thinks he is the bird and the bird is the worm? And 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?”

This was illogical. But how does one know that a worm is not illogical? He has much to make him illogical.

~R. A. Lafferty, 'Through Other Eyes' (1960)

Cover by Paul Orban

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Short Story Review # 2: The Wooly World of Barnaby Sheen (1973)

Rating:  3/5

This has always been a minor favourite of mine.  I like other stories from this cycle (most of them collected in Through Elegant Eyes: Stories of Austro and the Men Who Know Everything) far better, but each one is crucial to the whole that they together build, and this one in particular is just fun to me.  It does get a little deeper with each reading.  It is overtly theological in theme, especially as regards creations and creators, but, as with Lafferty's similarly themed story 'Snuffles' (1960), it is rather baffling as to its theological point.  Yet fascinating.  This one feels quite light and playful though, just touching on the themes, getting you thinking in that direction, rather than fully immersing you in theological ruminations.  It is consequently not the masterwork that 'Snuffles' clearly is.  In addition to the theology, this is one of many stories that exhibit Lafferty's absolute delight in geology.  Indeed, Barnaby expresses that it is only to study some geological issues that he has created this two-ton, cubic meter chunk of world.  Laff paints a nice little picture of this odd creation with its periscopic microscopes protruding from its transparent dome.  The ghostly figure of Mary Mondo hovering over that little world issuing her various Latin fiats was more suggestive to me this time, adding some weight.  But it seems to me essentially a humorous little prank story, an entertaining diversion.  (It also pairs nicely with its companion story in this cycle, a yarn with very similar theme and tone:  'The Ungodly Mice of Doctor Drakos'.)

Interestingly, despite its title and premise, this story didn't strike me as being about 'world-building' all that much, which is generally the mega-/meta-theme of Lafferty's entire body of work.  I didn't really get the sense of being invited to participate in building new worlds that you often get from Lafferty.  We do, however, get the bang, the explosion, that so many stories in this cycle, and elsewhere, do include.  Indeed, it seems more about minor world-destruction than creation, but again in a merely playful way and not leading to 'new worlds from old'.  But I'm probably missing something.

* Discussion of 'The Wooly World of Barnaby Sheen' on Facebook

* Comments for 'The Wooly World of Barnaby Sheen' on

(From Interior Art by Joe Staton for Through Elegant Eyes)

Monday, May 25, 2015

Short Story Review # 1: Phoenic' (1960)

The Facebook group East of Laughter: An Appreciation of R. A. Lafferty is now running a weekend reading club.  A story is selected and discussed there weekly.  I'm going to see if I can keep up with it and post my own thoughts on each story here, along with a rating out of 5 stars.  There's already been great discussion there and I'll continue to be a part of that.  But I want to keep a record of some of my own thoughts here as well.  For each story I review here, I'll include a link to the discussion of it in Facebook group and, when available, a link to Andrew Ferguson's review of the story on his Lafferty blog Continued On Next Rock, and a link to the story's comment thread on as well, which I think is the most public, accessible, permanent place to keep a record of open, ongoing discussion of the stories.  (And perhaps occasionally I'll also link to reviews of the stories elsewhere on the web that I might have run into.)

Up first is one of the diminishing number of Lafferty's stories that I had never read before:  'Phoenic''.

Pheonic' (1960) 3/5

I think this is a delightful tale, definitely a new personal favourite in the Lafferty canon.  It is a redemptive sartorial retelling of the phoenix legend, stitching together Pagan, Jewish, and Christian mythos, even stitching together science fiction and fantasy.  It's fairly loose, not as tight and deep as some other tales from this earliest era of Lafferty's writing, such as 'Snuffles' (1960) and 'Through Other Eyes' (1960), but the prose is strong and the imagination unique (the brief mermaid yarn being one of my favourite moments in Lafferty).  It sits nicely alongside Lafferty's other seafaring/seaside tales such as 'Groaning Hinges of the World', 'Cliffs That Laughed', 'The Ugly Sea', and 'Configuration of the North Shore'.  The Phoenician main character could be another 'odd one' collected by Sour John (see the opening of Lafferty's short story 'One At a Time').  Its theme of renewal, both creative and spiritual, was genuinely poignant to me.  The only real criticism I have of it is that the clothing technology at the end seemed just a little - but only a little - cheesy and of its late 50s/early 60s time.  But even that impression was largely subsumed by the resurrection language for me and by feeling the resonance this ending achieved as regards renewed creative productivity.  There was an ambiguity or ambivalence about an aspect of this ending though:  the last line is 'Whence is this newness?' and I think Lafferty means it as a genuine question that the reader must get involved with.  Normally Lafferty uses fashion trends as foils for truth and beauty, trends to be lampooned and subverted (see, for example, 'About a Secret Crocodile', 'The Man With the Aura', Not To Mention Camels, etc.).  Either he hadn't yet decided that would be a major running theme or he introduces it here more ambiguously, calling on the reader to declare 'whence this newness' and thus either validate or invalidate the renewed lines of creative clothing as arising either from false or true springs.  Lafferty often deals in such ambiguous, participatory story-endings, so that would be no surprise.  Even so, I think there is a note of genuine spirituality here, even if it is wrestling with mere trendiness.  It's a theme very relevant to our present time of viral meme-think and hashtag wars and the like.

* Facebook discussion of Pheonic'

* Phoenic' entry at Continued On Next Rock blog

* Phoenic' comments at

Saturday, May 9, 2015

a real one

“I took a live mermaid not far from here one morning,” said John Counts. And then he paused. “That pause, old Wiedervogel,” he said after a bit, “that pause was for you to say ‘Incredible!’ or something similarly apropos.”

“Consider it said. Was she real?”

“She said that she was. She seemed to be. She was ugly as sin, to use an old phrase. Her skin was green and rough, and perhaps it was scaled. She had a deformity of her feet and legs that turned them into serviceable flippers. She smelled like a mermaid, or at least like a fish. She was a diver, and it was as such that her husband made his living from her. Her hair would have been human hair, if the infestations that lived in it had been cleaned out.”

“What did you do with her?”

“I tried to sell her in England. There is a man there who goes in for such things. ‘But I already have a mermaid,’ this man said. ‘A real one?’ I asked him. ‘No, not a real one, but this is not the first real one that has been offered to me. What I have is better than a real one.’

“It was. What the man had was incomparably better than a real one. She was a beautiful human girl who happened to terminate in a fishtail. But she was no great whiz at swimming or deep diving. She wasn't a real mermaid. I gave my mermaid back to her husband on my return voyage and paid him for her service. We did not understand the same thing by the term, but she was a real mermaid.”

“I used to see them sometimes,” said Wiedervogel.

~R. A. Lafferty, 'Pheonic' (1960)

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