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

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