Monday, August 31, 2015

Short Story Review # 7: The Transcendent Tigers (1964)


First off, I want to say that I’ve been reliably informed that Lafferty’s own title for this story was ‘Needle’ and that a magazine editor chose its present title.  Once you’ve read the story, Lafferty’s own title seems far more powerful to me and I hope it will be restored some day.

(First published in Worlds of Tomorrow, 1964)

This is, among Lafferty readers, one of his better known and loved tales among the stories about precocious and preternatural children for which he is justly renowned.  Lafferty’s children seem quite unique in literature and are not to be missed.  Lafferty doesn’t see children as innocent, but often as almost amoral; and even more so as just wildly plastic with capacity for sheer power, which he portrays them as wielding in a very unwieldy fashion for good and ill at once.  He often refers to children and adolescents as ‘poltergeistic’ in his fiction.  Lafferty sees all humans as having a crucial ghostly element, but seems to see children as closer to that numinous quality, and thus… well, spookier.  Carnadine Thompson (the central seven-year-old girl of this story) is one of Lafferty’s most memorable child anti-heroes, along with Clarissa Willoughby of ‘Seven-Day Terror’ (1962) and the Dulanty kids of The Reefs of Earth (1968).

(Also collected in the 1972 anthology Young Demons)

‘The Transcendent Tigers’ is kind of a story about what precocious little kids would do with the planet if they had power to do whatever they wanted to with it at the largest and most complete scale, thus being able to treat the Earth as no more than a toy or an anthill.  Indeed, the kids do in this story exactly what many of us have done with our toys and with little architectures of nature:  poke holes in them, mutilate them inch by inch, for no particular reason, just to see what happens, just to watch the destruction; hell, just to break things.

In the opening gambit of the story, Lafferty’s sympathies are clearly with the smart flexibility of the mother and daughter over against the father’s inflexible intellectualism.  This comes out in a way that quite literally makes me laugh out loud every time the story comes to a certain point.  After the husband has already been bloviating to his fellow male for a few paragraphs about how ‘impossible’ it is to work the wire model of an ancient puzzle he has given his daughter for her birthday (ignoring his wife's  interjection that the girl had already worked and unworked the puzzle just a moment before), we get this:
“Carnadine,” said her mother, “let me see you work that again.”
Carnadine worked it again.
“The reason it is unworkable,” said Tyburn…
And I can't repress a chuckle, even before I hear whatever shape he gives his absurd reasoning.  So this is a story about possibility as well, and our rationalisations by which we try avoid such open possibilities.  (To some degree, this is a central element in all of Lafferty's fiction - it certainly is in the previous story I reviewed, 'Narrow Valley', which also featured a mother and her children accepting wilder ontologies than the father of the family was prepared to grant or experience.  One begins to wonder what the dynamic was with Lafferty's own parents.)

In many 50s/60s American homes the dynamic might well have allowed for the way Tyburn treats his wife when he says to her:  'Stop chattering, Geraldine.  I am explaining something to Horn' (the neighbour man).  But Lafferty clearly and amusingly subverts such uneven and demeaning gender and marriage dynamics (in this story and many, many others).  And it isn't that Lafferty views women as merely intuitive creatures while men are hidebound rationalists.  His men and women vary on such attributes throughout his fiction, but here Geraldine is quite rational as well as canny in accepting what her eyes see her daughter doing (even if she 'had been looking pop-eyed for a long time' because of such ontic antics).  When she asks her daughter how she can do such wonders (note her intellectual curiosity and innate sense of the need for causal order), we get this exchange between daughter and mother:
“There has to be a first time for everything, mama.”
“Maybe, but there has to be a first-class explanation to go with that first time.”
Geraldine's no intellectual slouch.

As to the pop-eyed impossible, the daughter Carnadine had already performed a feat more immediately spectacular than solving the 'unsolvable' puzzle:  she several times instantaneously turns her white rubber ball inside out and then back again without tearing it, turning its colour from white to red and back to white again because the ball is 'red on the inside' as she informs her mother when asked about it.  These little miracles are just the prelude to terrifying and gargantuan marvels to follow.  That's one of the things that made this a favourite story of mine from the first time I read it: the opening ropes you in with the oddity and humour, but you have no inkling of the tall-tale or wonder-story heights (and physical depths!) to which the story is about to leap.  It's one of the things Lafferty does best, setting out a little whizzer and then suddenly and swiftly stacking a gigantic whopper right on top of it, delightfully defying all sense of balance.

Here Lafferty takes a characteristic structural turn and inserts a series of what we might call para-narrations:  first an aside about the kids' club Carnadine has formed (and presides over) with her little brother and two other boys younger than her; then an excerpt from an article in a French academic journal (the article's in English) about powers and visitations coming to the Earth; and then the main event. This last is a fairly swift but amazing description of the peculiar mass destruction of various rural and small towns of the USA that most people have never heard of (I verified the existence of all but two by googling them).  That these, beginning with Kearney, Nebraska, are mostly midwestern and southern towns (with a few from New England) is also characteristically Laffertian and the listings of them, to my ear, make up little snatches of Weird Americana poetry:
Hanksville, Utah, Crumpton, Maryland, Locust Bayou, Arkansas, and Pope City, Georgia. [...] Highmore, South Dakota, Lower Gilmore, New Hampshire, Cherryfork, Ohio, and Rowesville, South Carolina.  
Lafferty also performs his characteristic juxtaposition of the high and the low, the academic and the homespun, when he first refers to a farmer's report of the unbelievable size of the thing ('more than a mile thick, and a hundred thousand miles long') that came from the sky and caused the destruction. Lafferty wryly and exaggeratedly heads off the reader's incredulity at such a report from such a source:
Did he know how to judge distances?  Certainly, he said, I know how to judge distances. It is ninety yards to that windmill.  That crow is flying at right onto eighty yards above the earth, though most would guess him higher.  And that train whistle is coming from a distance of five and one-quarter miles.
Then he inserts the writings of yet another theoretical academic, cited only as 'Winkers' (wink wink); a longer and more abstruse passage this time, but elucidating further on the Power and Visitation that the specialists are claiming has come to the Earth.  After several paragraphs it breaks into this pile-on of jargon and theory:
The characteristics of the Power, the Visitation, as projected by these methods (and always considered in the Oeg-Hornbostel framework) is that it is Aculeiform, Homodynamous, Homochiral, and (here the intelligence reels with disbelief, yet I assure the lector that I am deadly serious) Homoeoteleutic.
Yowza!  The italics are Lafferty's and all the terms are real, meaning respectively (and roughly):  'like a prickle'; segmented; a substance where 'all the constituent units are molecules of the same chiral form'; and 'having the same or similar endings'.  Just when we might be tempted to think Laff is splashing some pseudo-academic nonsense our way merely for the sake of its amusing contiguity with the previous banter from the farmer, the article continues:
For there is a Verbal Element to it, incredible as it seems.  This raises old ghosts.  It is almost as if we hear the returning whisper of primitive magic or fetish.  It is as if we were dealing with the Logos - the word that was before the world.  But where are we to find the logic of the Logos?
(Again, the italics are his.)  Any reader of Lafferty's 1971 novel Arrive At Easterwine will know that he is not likely to invoke the concept of the Logos only for arcane laughs.  There is buried in this simultaneously funny and disturbing story (a simultaneity Lafferty achieves very frequently) some real philosophical concerns of the author.  But they remain mostly buried, to be linked up by the attentive reader with their reappearance in many other passages across his body of work.  But the academic extract here does nevertheless serve to hilariously over-explain the very simple ritual by which Carnadine is presently seen to be wreaking all this gargantuan havoc.

The narration returns to an amusing exchange between Carnadine and her mother where her mother asks how Carnadine, who had previously been a poor reader, now knows how to say the names of the towns that are being reported as destroyed in the newspaper:
"Oh, it's no great trick, mama.  You just tie into the stuff and let go.  Crumpton! Locust Bayou! Pope City! Cherryfork! Rowesville!"
Lafferty's definitely reveling in the odd poetry of listing out these towns that I mentioned above.

True to the patchwork narrative structure the story has taken, we then observe a scene of a wholly different nature than all these earthly happenings:  'Far out, very far out, there was a conversation.' The subsequent description of these somehow spherical yet non-physical intelligences is to me a very comic take on Lovecraftian Old Ones or Elder Being types of super-cosmic entities.  Contra Lovecraft, such ultra-beings are not necessarily out to eat us and make us subservient - indeed, they might even be out to 'bless' us with new powers and potentialities.  Yet we are indeed so ontically inferior to them that they wouldn't have any qualms about casting us aside into the cosmic rubbish heap if we prove unworthy or incapable of receiving and properly utilising their blessing.  (For a somewhat similar, though more poignant, take, see Stephen Graham Jones's short story 'Catch and Release', collected in his 2013 Zombie Sharks With Metal Teeth.)

The lampooning of human failings and frailties from a superior alien perspective in this scene is perhaps somewhat standard fare of 1960s sf - with Lafferty panache, certainly - but the ideas also fit into larger explorations about the kind of 'confidence to con' (my phrase, not Laff's) that these beings expound on here, a theme which Lafferty repeatedly plumbs across his body of work with characteristic tension and ambiguity. (The very dark Not To Mention Camels and the more redemptive Aurelia come to mind as novels by Lafferty that explore this theme; the Wreckville con men of the story 'Hands of the Man' come to mind as well.) The scene also, of course, serves to juxtapose yet another vast greatness with comparative smallness: the picture of these meta-cosmic super-intelligences towering over human understanding resonates with the giant holes in the cities next to the tiny holes on the globe or the verbose academic articles next to the childish, badly rhyming couplets of the kids' club.

The penultimate scene of the kids making their rhymes and jabbing needles into the globe in order to destroy major cities is a fantastic coup de grâce.  It gives us Laffertian children in full ferocity,
And Carnadine stuck it in with full assurance of her powers, red cap atilt, eyes full of green fire.
the chuckling silliness of the rhymes -
“Peas and Beans—New Orleans!”[...]
“Candy store—Baltimore,”[...]
“Fatty's full of bolonio—San Antonio.”[...]
“Eustace is a sisty—Corpus Christi.”[...]
“Eggs and Batter—Cincinnater.”[...]
“Hopping Froggo—Chicago.”
- and the stunning summaries of the jagged destructions they thereby wreak:
“He rhymed and jabbed, manfully but badly.
“That didn't rhyme very good,” said Carnadine. “I bet you botched it.”
He did. It wasn't a clean-cut holocaust at all. It was a clumsy, bloody, grinding job—not what you'd like.
“I do wish that you people would let me handle this,” said Carnadine. “That was awful.”
It was. It was horrible. That giant needle didn't go in clean at all. It buckled great chunks of land and tore a ragged gap. Nothing pretty, nothing round about it. It was plain brutal destruction.”
(Also included in Lafferty's 1972 collection Strange Doings)

The story ends as many Lafferty stories do, with a fourth-wall-breaking call to participate.  Usually, however, his readers are called to participate in the creation of worlds, not destruction.  So this ending is clearly meant to disturb. It's quite a nasty trick because you absolutely cannot fail to add in your own ending.  Just reading the prompt - the final three words of the story - will automatically put the corresponding two words in your head.  The story finishes - or rather, Lafferty's part of the story finishes:
“Knife and Fork—
And we have no choice, given the pattern that's been effectively planted into our heads from previous pages, but to supply:  'New York!'

I suppose it probably seems like nothing more than an amusing little ending until you delve further into Lafferty's narratology.  But even if you don't, Lafferty's fiction has a way of working on you beneath the surface whether you consciously take note of it or not.  As I said at the beginning of this review, would we have done any different if we had been the kids endowed with such power?

And more generally, Lafferty's fiction is always probing us, pricking us like a needle, goading us to wonder: have we been endowed with Powers, and what creations or destructions are we unleashing with our gifts?  (Admittedly, the destruction here, as Andrew Ferguson has argued about Lafferty's works in general, can actually be a necessary part of the creation of new worlds, and I do think that valence is in play here.  But the satire on humans that the alien conversation performs requires that we also feel troubled by our participation in this destruction.  Was it really making way for new worlds or was it just a brutal botch job that only served our cruel and callous desire to see things break for no good reason?)

Note:  one of the elements I still don't grasp about this story is the name Carnadine and the crucial red cap.  Is the emphasis on red an allusion to blood, another theological element alongside the mention of the Logos?  Please enlighten me with your thoughts on this.

* Facebook thread on 'The Transcendent Tigers'
* Entry on 'The Transcendent Tigers' at Andrew Ferguson's blog
* 'The Transcendent Tigers' thread at


Kevin Cheek said...

I have always categorized this story in my mind as a gleeful little ditty about the total destruction of the world, along with "Doctor Strangelove," the first chapter of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and of course, Tom Lehrer's gleeful "We Will All Go Together When We Go".

Just sing along with me:

"And we will all go together when we go.
Ev'ry hottentot and ev'ry eskimo.
When the air becomes uranious,
And we will all go simultaneous.
Yes we all will go together
When we all go together,
Yes we all will go together when we go."

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

You know, crazily, I never quite saw this as an end-of-the-world story until I saw another reviewer characterise it that way recently, and then your comment here. I don't know how I missed that. It does seem to imply that this will go on to the demise of the whole planet. Seen that way, it is quite the unique apocalypse - gleeful as you say, even silly, and thereby all the more terrifying. Another song running through my head (making me laugh and scaring me all the more) is 'Needles and Pins'. :)

I saw her today, I saw her face
It was the face I loved and I knew
I had to run away and get down on my knees and pray
That they'd go away
But still they begin
Needles and pins
Because of all my pride...

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