Monday, September 7, 2015

A Prelude to Lafferty's Weirder Tales

I want to review Lafferty's short story 'For All Poor Folks At Picketwire' (1975) next, but I feel compelled to try to get this off my chest first.  It's probably completely unnecessary for a lot of readers, but it's something that puzzles and intrigues me.  Feel free to demur from or expand on the view expressed below.

Since I first started publicly writing about Lafferty in 2009, I've claimed that Lafferty is weird, odd, strange, experimental, and bizarre in a way that the first-time reader is just not going to expect. Nothing will have prepared you for how Lafferty goes about being offbeat, even 'crazy'.  I know that people often hear about 'the Lafferty madness' (as the likes of Harlan Ellison and Samuel Delany called it when Lafferty's fiction emerged on the scene in the 1960s) and they understandably think of the experimentations of the likes of Captain Beefheart perhaps, or the paranoid but fascinating open and subversive universe of the likes of Philip K. Dick perhaps.  Or you name it.  Whatever your background makes you think of when you hear the claim that someone is utterly original and 'insane' and the like, that thing you're thinking of, it's almost guaranteed to not be an apt comparison or preparation for Lafferty.

Even as I say all this - that no one is like Lafferty, nothing can prepare you for his brand of weirdness - you're getting the wrong idea!  Why?  Because when we hear such encomiums we generally think of one of two things (or both).  We think either of something crazy in a really cool and 'hip' sort of way, something experimentally-minded college students might get into maybe, or something a well-(if-defiantly-)dressed 'alternative' crowd of one variety or another might champion. I get that.  I was a teenage punk rocker and never grew out of it.  When I think of crazy and original, I think of bands like The Birthday Party or The Fall (or in an alterna-metal direction, Mike Patton and his projects Mr. Bungle and Fantomas).  If you're thinking speculative literature, you might think Neil Gaiman or China Mieville.  If film, maybe David Lynch or the wackier and wilder aspects of the Coen brothers or Tarantino.  But Lafferty's work is not (or not immediately) like all this, not soaked in these kinds of aesthetic assumptions and expressions.

On the other hand, the 'crazy-original' claims might make us think of really 'out there' bizarro examples like maybe Daniel Johnston or the aforementioned Captain Beefheart.  If film, then maybe the likes of Terry Gilliam or John Waters.  This impression is closer to the mark.  But in most of these cases there can still be an aura of (usually countercultural) 'coolness' about the weirdness.

Now don't get me wrong.  I often exclaim 'Cool!' in response to what I read in Lafferty.  But I mean it the way I meant it as a kid in the 80s - an expression of sheer enthusiasm for something that strikes me as in some way excellent.  Not as a confirmation of something's 'hipness', something's trendy now-ness, even by 'alternative' or 'indie' standards.  Nor do I mean to deny that Lafferty is deeply countercultural in his own way (indeed, he's probably better called counter-ontological so reality-bending is his work and perspective).  Lafferty was indeed what he called a 'queer fish', swimming crankily but joyously against the mainstream.

I also don't want my denial that Lafferty is 'cool' to give the impression that his weirdness is 'geeky'. Lafferty isn't comic-con weird either.  Lafferty can, in certain respects, fit in both worlds - the geeks and the hipsters.  Yet he is a misfit in both as well.  That was seen to be the case when the 1960s/70s New Wavers of U.S. science fiction - Harlan Ellison, Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delany, and the like - championed Lafferty.  They never lost their love of Lafferty's work, but they eventually didn't know how to categorise him as he was clearly not of or in the fold.  All in all, Lafferty is by turns too literary, too genre, too experimental, too dark, too comic, or too difficult for various groups.  That's why his work has tended to generate its own category of literature (what Theodore Sturgeon called 'lafferties') and its own following of Laffertyans or Laffertians, a diverse fan base comprised of all schools and allegiances, the unifying commonality being that they are struck and captured by Lafferty's unique genius.

So what should you think of when you hear that Lafferty is 'a genius, an oddball, a madman' and 'a genre in himself' (Neil Gaiman) or that 'Lafferty has the power which sets fires behind your eyeballs' (Zelazny) or that Lafferty 'bends or breaks normal story restrictions apparently at will' and has 'the most unfettered imagination' (Terry Carr) or that 'Lafferty is fun, sophisticated, and utterly insane', 'a madman, a wild talent' (Reader's Guide to SF)?

Well, maybe start by thinking of the likes of Amos Tutuola or Black Elk.  Like them, Lafferty is a native primal force, an individual that grows out of the fecund soil of an ancient communal worldview and speaks the cosmic magical vision of a people, stamped with his own idiosyncrasy, sure, but overflowing with more than what one individual could ever imagine or convey.  Yet Lafferty had more than one soil to grow out of - not only his family's Irish-Catholic soil, but also the Southwestern American Frontier and the lives and lore of his Native American neighbours.  If you cut Lafferty, he bleeds all three.

Further complicating this possible resonance, Lafferty was classically educated in Augustinian and Thomist traditions, well-read in history and theology and philosophy, knowledgable of the hard and soft sciences, abreast of some major 20th-century developments in thought such as Jungian psychology and Teilhardian cosmology. Lafferty was a largely self-taught but impressive polymath. So his weirdness is going to be not only primally visionary like Tutuola and Black Elk, but also inevitably book-learned (albeit inclusive of some cranks and conspiracy theorists).  So maybe when you hear about Lafferty's mad experimentation you should be thinking also of Joyce's Ulysses and Finnegans Wake.  Or in a slightly different register, the wildnesses of Chesterton's buoyant dialectics and carnivalisations.   (The weirdest parts of Kafka might be appropriate here too, but minus the unmitigated bleakness.)

Yet Lafferty is even more than the above hybridity of Mystic and Man-of-Letters (+ a pinch of crackpot) suggests, for he also embodies regional and class (Oklahoma and blue-collar) dialects, dictions, and perspectives that liberally salt his visions and sophistications with homespun wit and wisdom.  And these perspectives puncture a whole helluva lot of pomposity and intelligentsia-speak along the way (though they don't foreclose Lafferty's own arcane and sesquipedalian theorisings, which are frequently embedded into his stories).  I suppose Lafferty might be a bit of a Mark Twain in his knowing and humorous use of colloquialism, except that he comes across as more thoroughly from these classes, child of an extended frontier family as he was.  This sincere rusticism is one crucial way in which Lafferty will surprise many a reader expecting The Cool Weird from him.

Now, all that said, once you've encountered and immersed yourself in Lafferty a while, it's not altogether unlikely that you will indeed end up thinking of him as a literary-yet-rustic Beefheart or Lynch, an 'outsider artist' and auteur in one.  And dammit, Lafferty's weirdness is cool!  So utterly cool, what would've made us 80s kids exclaim with approbation:  'Bad!'  And it does get crazy weird and beautifully bizarre and sometimes disturbing.  And its weirdness is deep, because Lafferty, like Lovecraft, is playing for keeps.  This is a cosmic view of things that gets beneath the surface into the ontic architecture of existence.

All right, let's get back to reading these stories one by one.


boldsaintcroix said...

Good try! I think you're close.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Ha ha, I did fizz out at the end!

Antonin Scriabin said...

This was a good read! I think that the image of Lafferty as the crazed uncle spinning larger-than-life Tales around a campfire is an apt one. There is something very homey and personal about his stories that sets him apart from a lot of the other New Wavers. You can almost feel the warmth of the fire and bugs chirping in anticipation of the twists and turns of the story.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Nice image! He has an essay or two about campfire storytelling I believe (usually in a cave setting I think, invoking prehistoric peoples and Plato at once!). If you've never read his stories aloud to someone, you must try it! I accidentally discovered whole new levels of cadence and lyricism by reading his short stories to my kids (and I've heard others say the same). Some of the stories - or parts of stories - don't work so well that way, tripping the tongue and rhythm. But a lot of them really surprise you. I believe there's going to be a reprint of an essay that links Lafferty to oral storytelling in the upcoming volume of Feast of Laughter.

Thanks for reading this post, Antonin, and for commenting!

Nathanael said...

I'm commenting a year late and more than a dollar short but for my money I'd say the writer who comes closest to Laffery's craziness (albiet from a different culture and in a different way) is Jorge Borges. He also has that combination of folk tale and sf and he also seems to have read more or less everything. If you describe Lafferty and Borges on paper they sound very similar though the effects of reading them are quite different. Italo Calvino might also be in the ballpark.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

I only really started reading some Borges a few years ago, but I was immediately struck with some similarities to Lafferty. And it's worth noting that both Borges and Lafferty admired and were influenced by Chesterton. Lafferty is funnier than Borges and mixes in low registers with higher ones, but both are elegantly complex and erudite and allusively layered in ways that resonate between them. I'd love to see that connection explored more. From the bit I've heard about Calvino, I do think he also will be a writer to compare Lafferty with, and perhaps aspects of Nabokov as well (again, from what I've heard about him).

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