'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