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


Antonin Scriabin said...

This is one of those Lafferty stories where I can certainly identify something AS a clue, but get lost in the complications of figuring out what it is a clue TO.

The Women are described at the beginning as being "Greek" in their beauty. There are certainly other "Greek" things going on in this story ...

For example, one of the Women has three daughters who are described as being as beautiful as "three golden apples". In the legend of Atalanta (also known as Artemis, who is, surprise surprise, mentioned in "Parthen"), three golden apples are given to her would-be suitors to slow them down in a footrace. The winner of the footrace against her would win her hand in marriage. This appears to be a conscious allusion by Lafferty; the children are a distraction, a ploy meant to pull away the attention of the men, and to a greater extent, their wives, so they "lose the race". In other words, so they are blind to the alien invasion.

In Greek literature we also have the story of the mathematician Thales, as related by Socrates, who was so intent on studying the stars (certainly a "higher plane") while walking that he falls into a well. The men in "Parthen" are so similarly distracted by the higher plane opened up to them by the Women that they fall into a likewise mundane, earthy trap; the death of their bodies.

Also interesting to note is the fact that Artemis is the goddess of virginity (the Women have no husbands; are they virgins?) and the moon (often set against the sun, which is gradually hidden by fog in the story). She is primarily known as the goddess of the hunt, however, and I'm not sure if this bit is incorporated into "Parthen" somehow. They are definitely hunting bankrupt businesses!

Anyways, there is a ton packed into this 8 page story, and I'm not sure what it all adds up to. I certainly won't argue with your 4.5/5 rating! Of course Lafferty was incredibly well-read and probably had thorough knowledge of Greek mythology and philosophical history, so unless I am seeing something that isn't there, these allusions are intentional. Maybe there is a Feast of Laughter essay hidden in here!

Antonin Scriabin said...

Sorry, I had misremembered the Atalanta story. Artemis gives Atalanta the golden apples so that her suitors can't win the race. They are in fact different entities, but that doesn't impact much when it comes to interpreting the story. Oops!

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Wow, this story is getting deeper and more layered all the time! Talk about 'deceptively light'. Thanks for enumerating all those connections, Antonin! I think YOU should definitely write that essay for FoL 3!!

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