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


trawlerman said...

I'm loving these story reviews, Daniel. Please keep them coming!

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Thanks, man! Gonna try!

trawlerman said...

Related to your meditations here:

"The second change in the nature of Suspense was at the time of the Redemption (those of other orientation may call it the End of an Era or the Anamnesis, but they must recognize that something happened then). The suspense was not abolished; perhaps it was sanctified. Some of the dread was removed, but the bow itself was not unstrung. The tension was likely increased, but tension in grace became more possible. Suspense is now a requirement of the pleasure principle, of the victory principle, of the high comedy of being. And it will be a requirement of the Vision, which will not be static. It is a necessity to the feeling of immediacy, to the constant newness of outlook and experience. It is at the heart (the courage) of things."
R.A. Lafferty, from "Review: Some Things Dark and Dangerous", found in True Believers.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yes! Wonderful. Thanks so much for sharing that. We need to get a whole colloquium together on Lafferty's collated and explicated views of the blessed state/afterlife/heaven, etc.

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