Sunday, February 7, 2016

Reading the Argo Cycle - part 1

There's lots of Lafferty news afoot, but I'm not up for cataloguing it all in a Lafferty News post today. Most of you will probably be aware of it anyway.  Regardless, I will come back to that in a different post on a different day.  As you can see, with post-graduate work underway I have a lot less time to blog.  So with a spare moment today I'm going to talk about the Lafferty I've been reading.

I managed to get hold of physical editions of the complete Argo Cycle or Argo Mythos (well, all the novels anyway - the short stories in the cycle I only have piecemeal in print and the rest electronically).  This includes the so-called The Devil is Dead Trilogy:  Archipelago (1979), The Devil is Dead (1971), and More Than Melchisidech (1992).  The last novel of the trilogy was released in three volumes:  Tales of Chicago, Tales of Midnight, and Argo, each amply illustrated with some pretty wonderful art from Ward Shipman.  And there is one standalone novel in the cycle, Dotty (1990), which I was also lucky enough to obtain.  Except for The Devil is Dead, which was released widely as a mass market paperback back when Lafferty was actually recognised as a giant among his peers, the rest is in very limited small press editions that are all but unavailable now, and what is available normally costs more than I'll probably ever be able to afford.  But a very generous long time reader of this blog, whom I hadn't corresponded with before, gave me a great, affordable deal on all five books.  I was able to move on the kind offer thanks to the generosity of those who contributed to my PhD fundraising campaign, which exceeded its goal.

So, I've now read Archipelago, and cracked straight into The Devil is Dead to try to get the feel of reading the books as a series.  This is my second read of Devil (the first was over a decade ago) and I'm nearly finished.  I'll then head straight into the first volume of Mechisidech:  Tales of Chicago.  I hope to do a number of posts on Archipelago, with copious quotes since it's unavailable to most Lafferty fans out there.

First impressions:  the opening made me think this was going to be Lafferty's Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.  But after a handful of fairly dense pages, the novel settles into a more straightforward style, if not a conventional narrative.  Here's how Chapter One, 'In a Southern City', begins:

All this begins in a southern city and at nine o’clock in the morning, the same hour at which the world was made. It was a Thursday when originally man was not. 
Indeed, in these latter days there were few people in the streets and not many in the pubs. But beer was available (barley and hops had been made on the third day), and the morning had a freshness as in the earliest weeks of the world, as the older people remember them. A fast wind was driving the clearing clouds, and the pavements were wet. (When the world was first made it was as though it had just rained.) 
The first man in the world was drinking the first beer. He was Finnegan (not in name, but in self), and he looked at himself in the bar mirror. He saw for the first time that first face, and this was his appearance: he had a banana nose, long jumpy muscles along cheek and tempora, and a mouth in motion. He was dark and lean, like a yearling bull. His eyes had a redness that suggested a series of stormy days and nights, were not previous days and nights impossible. He was a little more than half Italian and a little more than half Irish, as was Adam his counterpart in a variant account. 
His mind was clear but not of a pattern. He was rootless and renegade. A moment before this, he had been in the Garden. Then he raised his eyes from the drink. The Garden was gone, and he was in the middle of the World. Finnegan looked at the World with new-made eyes, and he doubted that he would ever find a place in it.

It makes me feel as if Lafferty is signalling that he's setting up a very epic work in both narrative and philosophical scope.  The book of Genesis from the Hebrew canon is, of course, a key 'intertext' here. But there is a deep sense of amnesia and cyclical recurrence not found in the founding narrative of the Bible.  This is very much a post-creation scenario, in the thick of an old and weary world, and yet the sheer freshness of the Genesis account is intruding in the introduction to this strange man Finnegan.  The antidiluvian world feels as if it were there just yesterday; the Garden of Eden has just slipped from view as Finnegan looks up from his drink.  To see this fallen world as suddenly appearing from its unfallen state only a moment before is certainly to see it 'with new-made eyes'. Even though I've heard that Lafferty was very much not a fan of James Joyce, it's hard not to hear echoes of the 'riverrun' opening of Finnegans Wake here.  They're either totally unintentional resonances, showing like minds in spite of themselves, or it's Lafferty taking on Joyce directly to somehow combat and/or subvert him if he was indeed no fan.

At any rate, this opening filled me with wonder as well as the obvious confusion and tension it exhibits, especially with this man who already doubts he'll ever find a place in the world as it is. (The physical description of Finnegan is wonderful too.)  The sense of dialectic continues:

But he was not alone. He had a companion named Vincent. Vincent, however, was neither rootless nor renegade. His mind, not so clear not so deep as that of Finnegan, did have a pattern. He had not known the Garden. He was born in the World, and he would always have a place in it. 
In principio,” said Finnegan, “creavit Deus masculum et feminam, that is to say, God made the first pair a man and a woman.” 
“But the earliest stories always begin ‘There were these two guys in a bar,’ ” Vincent contradicted. “I'd say it in Latin if I knew how.” 
“The two versions cannot be reconciled, and I worry about it,” Finnegan said. “But, every time the world begins, it does begin with two young men in a pub. All things else are subsequent to this.”

Two guys in a bar vs. 'male and female he created them'.  Interesting.  And funny.  Lafferty is, of course, doing his usual exploration of just how storytelling and stories work.  How do you start them? How do you do a Beginning, when really everything's always already in the Middle?  He seemed genuinely obsessed, vexed, and impassioned by how narratives work and his whole career seems to be a philosophical exploration and explication of the puzzle, Lafferty's exploration itself being in story form since this was the natural apparatus with which he was endowed.

But after this enigmatic introduction things start to get a little more pedestrian.  This is appropriate, of course, for Lafferty wants the mundane world to take over this supra-mundane entrance into it.  The tale transitions nicely this way:

Beer before breakfast, and you'll have sudden luck all day. Toohey's, Tooth's, K. B. Lager, the same beers they had in Paradise: it hadn't all been a dream. The boys left the pub but they didn't leave the pubs; there were many of them to visit.

After this the tale is one of war buddies playing drinking pranks in their time off.  Then it moves episodically to the events of the war buddies leaving the war and returning home, and then their lives back in the States.  We'll come to that in time.  But suffice it to say that many more moments of philosophy, etymology, and philology, peppered with some wonderful moments of myth and folklore, feature throughout the ostensibly mundane main narrative.

Before concluding this post I want to note that moving in to The Devil is Dead was very much an experience of moving into a very different kind of narrative.  Archipelago is a rather meandering account of the lives of five friends (the Dirty Five) and their associates, somewhat centred on the task of theological zine-making - yep!  Whereas Devil is a tight, fast-paced adventure narrative through and through.  Archipelago does its philosophising directly in long-ish asides, digressions, and dialogue.  Devil does most of its philosophising through the strange events of the narrative itself and the reeling psychology of those experiencing the events.  Devil does totally work as a standalone. Archipelago is not needed as a 'prequel' or anything like that.  But you do understand a number of the references in Devil more if you've read Archipelago, though knowing the people and events referred to does not necessarily illuminate the central and unresolvable mysteries of Devil.  I'd say Archipelago is crucial to the Lafferty completist or scholar or truly geeked out fan of Lafferty.  Such people would not want to miss some of the passages and themes in Archipelago.  I'd also say it's crucial to understanding the very, very strange and fascinating character of Finnegan (as I'm sure the rest of the cycle will prove to be as well).  In fact, that's my favourite aspect of Archipelago on this first go:  further insight into Finnegan, one of Lafferty's greatest creations I'm beginning to think. Archipelago doesn't always follow Finnegan's POV or life.  He's off stage for a lot of it.  But when it does feature him it's always fascinating and illuminating, at the same time only deepening the mystery of just what or who he is.

More to come.

(photos by my wife, who also supportively suggested I spend the overflow of funding on rare books - the gal's a keeper!)


Kevin Cheek said...

A couple of years ago, I riffed on the same opening retelling of Genesis, comparing it to the opening of Philip K. Dick's Humpty Dumpty in Oakland:

Bill Reynolds said...

I look forward to the rest of the series on the Argo Cycle!

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Kev, your ahead of me as always. It's one of Laff's strongest openings - not surprised we pause to savour it.

Bill, thanks, I'm looking forward to it too!

trawlerman said...

Some "response" to the "call" of your post here:

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Wonderful, John! I commented over at your blog. Glad we're cyber-psycho-echoing across the Atlantic.

Antonin Scriabin said...

Not fair! Every time I read one of these, I get all amped up to read more Lafferty. Do you know there is a limited amount of the stuff in the world, to say nothing of my shelves? What if I run out?

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Ha ha! I know your dismay only too well, Antonin. Always great to know you're out there reading the blog. Take care.

Nathanael said...

If only someone would republish the whole cycle. It cries out for an omnibus but that seems unlikely to happen.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

I'm almost finished with it and based on content and style, it's almost certainly gonna remain a slightly rare series to obtain from Laff. I have hopes it'll one day be available at an expensive, but still reasonable, price for either a nice matching set or, as you say, a one volume omnibus. The Devil is Dead genuinely works as a standalone and is by far the most 'pop' of the volumes, so I'm sure it'll remain widely available in paperback etc.

Nathanael said...

The real dream of course would be to have a publication of the complete works of Lafferty (including previously unpublished works) kind of like what Ignatius Press did for G. K. Chesterton. But, given that such a thing may not happen in my lifetime, I would at least like it if I could get Archipelago or Dotty for say, less than $400. A man can hope.

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