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)