Though there is some kind of elusive and insubstantial quality to this series in some ways, it nevertheless sparkles and flashes reasonably frequently with fulsome style and imagery and philosophy. Take the following for example. I quote the entire passage - which is part 6 of Chapter One of Archipelago (1979), the first book of the trilogy - so that you can see absolutely all that Lafferty's doing and layering in an extended scene like this. Neil Gaiman, when recently asked what sticks out to him about Lafferty's writing, responded that first of all it is the sentences. I couldn't agree more. Even mere clauses within sentences can effervesce, delight, or gore in Lafferty. That's why I have a whole Twitter account of Lafferty quotes. I think he works wonderfully at the micro level. But the following shows how you have to see him at larger, longer levels as well to catch all of his genius.
Hans Schulz is one of the mystical 'Dirty Five', a group of post-WWII army buddies whose lives and times (told in idiosyncratic Lafferty fashion) are the subject matter of this novel. Each of the guys pairs off with a gal, most of them eventually marrying. What would young love feel like to the Laffertian mind? You need wonder no longer. But this passage is so much more than romantic. Lafferty's remarkable linguistic and cultural erudition are on full display here, interwoven with several micro tall tales tucked inside a larger one, and rustic local colour (by which enters Lafferty's ubiquitous ecology, in this case flora and fauna). All this juxtaposes high and low registers very amusingly. There's also narrative experimentation with voice and structure, an instance of Lafferty's frequently exemplified 'metafictional' habit (long before that word was hot and in a way that's on the opposite end of douchey; it's clever, but it's fun - not boring or snobbish or detached). There are several wee punchlines to laugh out loud at, as well as the whimsy of the whole segment. And, of course, there's one preternatural or paranormal aspect very casually asserted in an almost sleight of hand manner. For my money, this is Lafferty firing on all cylinders.
Hans was in love. He was in love with Marie Monaghan. This had come swiftly to him who usually made up his mind slowly on important things.
Marie might not have seemed exceptional to anyone else. She had regular, nice features, but her hair was too red and her face was too freckled. She was chubby by contemporary standards, though divine by classical. Hans’ feelings were classical. Marie's eyes were green, but were green eyes classical? Were any of the goddesses green-eyed? You couldn't trust Homer with colors.
“—my uncle Homer Hochheimer,” it was Marie speaking in Hans’ mind, “he had a fortune but he missed it because he was color-blind. He had a purple cow and he thought she was black. He kept her till she was fourteen years old and then sold her to the butcher. ‘Man, you're throwing away a fortune,’ the butcher told him when the sale was consummated. ‘You've the only purple cow in the world and you've sold her for a pittance. I'll have a million pounds for her,’ and he did.”
But to the green eyes, this would have to be solved. The paint is gone these two thousand years from the Greek statues that were colored in their prime, but they were still painted when Pausanes had seen them. Did he call any of them green-eyed? How would he call them green-eyed? Not chloros surely. Chloros was light yellow-green. Nobody would have eyes that were chloros. Prasino was a nice green, but was it classical? What was the Greek word for eyes the color of Marie's? In Romany it was sheleno, Gypsy green. And once in French vair, the green they sang:
Nicolette had eyes of vair,Something, something, yellow hair—
But vair had become vert with the disintegration of the French soul, and it was no longer the green of the Troubadors: ignorant wise men even said that vair was a shade of gray.
The Blessed Virgin was red-headed and green-eyed in early Flemish Annunciations. Witches were green-eyed. Lilith who was before Eve was a witch and therefore green-eyed. This would give primogeniture to the green-eyed women of the world.
Belloc wrote the only stanza to green eyes, this little bit out of all the game-legged verses that have walked on anapest and pentameter on all the lesser subjects.
“—Belloc? I mean my uncle Biloxi Brannagan. They called him that because he went ashore then. From his window he could see the top of an old piling and he thought it was the mast of his ship. ‘There's no hurry, she's still there,’ he would say. My aunt Gertrude, she's a Biloxi girl, never did tell him any different. He's still there. He never did catch his ship.’ Marie talked so in Hans’ mind as he waited for her at the Lotus Eaters. Then she came in person and sat down with him.
“What are you doing, little Hans?” she asked.
“I'm writing a poem about you. You can't see it. You won't scan and you won't rime; that's the trouble with you.”
“Shakespeare had the same trouble, Hans dear.”
“He did not.”
“My uncle Shakes Pearson had the same trouble. We called him that because he always had them. He entered a jingle contest once. It was put on by a chewing tobacco company and he had to write a limerick. He drank pop-skull whisky and he shook all the time. His verse would go like this:—‘There was an old lady from Gacko—Who doted on chewing tobacco—’, then Shakes would get the shakes after so much effort and have to go after more pop-skull. When he got back the squirrels would have eaten what he had written. They lived so far back in the boondocks that they didn't have any paper and he wrote on bark with oak-ball juice.”
In the company of Shakes Pearson, Hans did not feel so incompetent, so he let go with one of the stanzas he had written:
“The muses sang when Eve was small,And they were but diurnal;But you were long before them all,For you're at least eternal.”
“You make me seem old,” said Marie. “Am I the eternal one? Well, Shakes would get another piece of bark and start again: ‘There was an old farmer who grew it—And never had leisure to chew it—’, then Shakes would get them again and go off for more pop-skull. And when he came back it would be as before: the squirrels would have eaten his epic.”
So Hans read again:
“I dreamed of you before we met,I never was without you;And all the masters praise you yet,For they all wrote about you.”
“I thought they were referring to me, Hans, but I didn't know that anyone else knew. Well, Shakes would start another one (all our family are very persevering): ‘There was an old farmer named Glugg—who was always cutting a plug—He'd whittle and whittle—till it was too little—’, then Shakes would go off for more of the same before he got to the last line.”
So Hans read more boldly:
“But here the brighter pearls are strungAnd rings for all your fingers:I'll sing you as you ne’er were sungBy all the Minnesingers.”
“That's nice, Hans. So Shakes would start another one: ‘When I was a cocky young Jacko—we made our own chewing tobacco—We chopped up old sacks—and boots and boot-jacks—’, then he'd go off for more of it, and what do you think the squirrels did to his opus while he was gone?”
“Ate it up. We poets have a hard time.” He continued:
“And though the globe become a shellYou still will be the leaven,And I'll remember you in HellWhen you forget in Heaven.”
“That's Swinburnish, which is the next thing to swinish, and untrue, dear,” said Marie. “We shall be together: I have decided that. Well, Shakes killed himself. His is the only blot on our escutcheon. And the only note he left said ‘Miriam’ (I'm name after her), ‘You've got to do something about those damned squirrels.’ She never did know what he was talking about or why he killed himself. I'm the only one in our family who understands these things.”
“Why didn't the squirrels eat that last note too?”
“Naturally when they read it they were frightened and ran away.”
“Are there squirrels in Australia, Marie?”
“Not that I know of. Are you trying to trap me? If I'd said wallabies I'd have had to explain what a wallaby was. And besides, wallabies can't read, so there goes the story. I have a letter from Loy to Finnegan. I stopped by the house to kiss the boys good morning. They weren't up yet so I brought their mail to them.” This was the letter:
Cambeltown, New South WalesThursday, February 11, 1943
John Solli:Dear Finnegan:
Margaret and I will be in town tomorrow. If you haven't any more girls, we'll see you and have a big picnic. And if you do have some more girls, bring them, and we'll get two more boys and join you and Marie and Hans. And bring the other Dirty Fiver that we didn't meet and we'll get him a girl too. No news. The garden I planted in November is all weeds. Papa wouldn't hoe the damned thing. But he killed the fatted calf for his prodigal daughter yesterday.
Meet us at the train at 7:45 AM (yes, I said AM). I know that you think it's decadent to get up in the morning and I know that you're right. But it isn't necessary that you be wide awake; I like you better the way you are.
Margie says to tell you that she loves you too. She wants you too now. She switched to you just because I did. But tell Vincent we both still love him also. We love Hans, we love Marie, we love your friend Casey whom we haven't yet met. Meet us tomorrow.
Love— Loy LarkinMe too— Margaret Murphey
The passage is somewhat the classic 'I wish he'd stop writing verses about me long enough to kiss me' act, but it also shows a male-female dynamic that Lafferty visits again and again in the couples that frequently cross his fiction, where the man is a bit of an over-theoretical windbag while the woman is wry, witty, insightful, sensible, and cheeky. Lines that sneak up on me and make me smile, chuckle, or guffaw (thanks especially to what precedes them) are: 'Hans’ feelings were classical'; 'Something, something, yellow hair'; 'I thought they were referring to me, Hans, but I didn't know that anyone else knew'; 'We poets have a hard time'; and, of course, 'Naturally when they read it they were frightened and ran away'. And what a wonderful phrase: 'out of all the game-legged verses that have walked on anapest and pentameter'. The ending of their conversation exemplifies Lafferty's recurring investigation of what makes storytelling storytelling, tall and otherwise. And I left in the transition to the letter because that's how Lafferty ends his numbered chapter segment, creating yet more formal stylisation, appending a written personal letter to a scene of dueling love poetry and tobacco jingles and tall yarns all nested inside a dialogue that was preceded by a linguistic rhapsody. I'm almost glad that the entire novel's not written this way. It might (might) be too much. But there are plenty more interwoven experimentations and styles and registers in the remainder. To more of which we'll turn next time.