Thursday, June 30, 2016

Reading the Argo Cycle part 3 - The Human Race is Made Up Entirely of Glowing Geniuses (some initial thoughts on the complete 'The Devil is Dead' trilogy)

Well, I finally read the very last words of the very last book (Argo) of the so-called The Devil is Dead trilogy, which is the novelistic centrepiece to Lafferty's Argo Cycle (the total cycle consisting of the three novels of this trilogy, Archipelago, The Devil is Dead, and More Than Melchisidech: Tales of Chicago, Tales of Midnight, Argo, plus a short novel, Dotty, plus a few novellas, plus a handful of short stories; and, as if all this weren't enough, the cycle tangentially connects to another short novel, The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny, and to a tetralogy known as the Coscuin Chronicles).

These last words of the trilogy that I've read were Lafferty's closing essay explaining the book's alternate endings. It's titled 'AN ESSAY EXPLAINING THE ALTERNATE ENDINGS OF THE BOOK OF ARGO In The Course of Which I'm Obliged to Explain The Detailed Workings of The World Itself' and it's nearly worth the price of the whole trilogy.  We'll come to it another time, however.

But the final words of the first or primary ending of Argo (and really, to me, the true conclusion to the trilogy - the remainder is, though vital, meta) go like this:

"The world is a kaleidoscope, ever-changing, ever-enchanting, did you know that, My Reflection? And one best strides happily laughing and singing through it. And the fact that one is striding through the hot ashes of Hell every step of the way is no reason to be less merry. If one looks down and sees that he is no more than ankle-deep in Hell, let him continue with a happy heart. But if he sees that he is more than knee-deep in Hell, then he must, then he must, what must he do then, pale reflection of me?" 
"I don't know," said the creature with its paler face of Duffey. 
"Maybe that's when he should leave the land for a while and walk on the water," Melchisedech declared. "Remember, Reflection, that man in his original nature was able to walk on water. He is still able to do it, but sometimes he forgets that he is." Then Melchisedech Duffey turned and ran to the city singing happily. 
"I lied to him and I lied to myself," said the unhappy Angel who wore Duffey's face. "No, no, I'm not certain at all which one of them I serve. I'm afraid to be certain or even to think about it. Is it God or the Devil that I serve in my confusion and darkness?" 
But Melchisedech Duffey, singing happily, was into the city in the bright morning. And he didn't hear the creature at all. (Argo, pp. 133-134)

It's a mysterious, beautiful, and hopeful conclusion, yet fraught with a tension that is characteristic of the entire trilogy.  You can easily see why it's often quite difficult to reflect on such a complex, ambiguous work.  But reflect we shall!

I've read the essays by Dan Knight and Robert Whitaker Sirignano on More Than Melchisedech (collected in Feast of Laughter vol. 2) and an unpublished essay by Andrew Ferguson on the Argo Cycle.  These each contain tasty tidbits of insight, but it seems to me that they also each skirt round really tackling the overall shape and theme(s) of The Devil is Dead trilogy (never mind the whole cycle). I'm not really going to buck that trend in this blog post.  I'll mostly be skirting like the rest. But I do hope that at the end of this whole 'Reading the Argo Cycle' blog series, when I've had a chance to lay out lots of long bloody slabs of prose from each of the books and reflect on these passages, that I'll have acquired the courage to take a shot at something like a more comprehensive review that tries to grasp what in the world the trilogy's all about.

For now, let me sketch a few thoughts.  First of all, I think it's worth noting that these books are examples of Lafferty's historical fiction.  They're mostly set in middle America (USA) but there are recurring episodes abroad, mostly on islands and coasts, including Mexico, South America, Africa, Australia, and the South Pacific.  They roughly take place from around the 1920s to the early 1950s. More Than Melchisedech's first book, Tales of Chicago, dips into slightly earlier territory for the Bildungsroman-like moments of Melchisedech Duffey's early biography.  And MTM's third book, Argo, dips forward into several possible near futures.  But the bulk of the first two volumes of the trilogy, Archipelago and The Devil is Dead, take place in WWII and post-WWII eras, the 40s and 50s.  After Duffey's early years are accounted for in More Than Melchisedech, the action, if I remember correctly, moves progressively through the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and 50s.  (So if you wanted to read the trilogy in exact chronological order, I think you'd have to do something like start with Tales of Chicago and then alternate between chapters of Archipelago and Tales of Midnight, then read The Devil is Dead and then finish with Argo.  Reading those latter two volumes directly together strikes me as an exciting prospect as they are the two most adventuresome.)

That said, the trilogy is decidedly a historical fantasy of sorts.  Sometimes it hews closer to something like magical realism, where the marvels are woven closely into a 'mundane' narrative.  Many pages can go by with little to no hint of the marvelous (aside from Lafferty's language or characters or sense of oddball farce and satire or poignant meditations on time and humanity).  Other times it is closer to a 20th century myth or fable or legend, by turns soaring close to epic heroic fantasy only to slip, often suddenly, into something like the grotesqueries of the New Weird or Bizarro fiction.

In fact, it now strikes me that the trilogy progressively transitions from least fantastical to most fantastical.  Archipelago is the most like magical realism (I'd rather call it mythical realism) and thus the furthest away from a work of fantasy per se.  (I know some balk at the distinction between magical realism and fantasy, averring that the former is simply ashamed of being the latter.  But I taste something different between the two modes, though both trade in the super-mundane.) Archipelago occasionally shifts into pure fable and at times it asserts preternatural qualities of time and personhood. But the bulk of it narrates, though oddly, the regular lives of (albeit unusual) people.

Specifically marvelous episodes are also sparse in The Devil is Dead, but its plot and premise are far more thoroughly fantastical, involving a separate race of quasi-human beings with preternatural powers (this could also, of course, be considered science-fictional).  I seem to recall there is some body swapping and other normally impossible elements.  Its narration also involves far more fabulistic language, where characters are referred to as mermaids and gargoyles and devils and so on in a way that hovers strangely between metaphor and myth and realism.  Its plot mechanics are also overtly heroic and questing and quixotic.  Thus the whole feels much more like a fantasy, even a high fantasy of sorts, but one peopled by 'low' characters, a working class heroic fantasy if you will.  And quite charming for that.  (I would add also that, though it's narratively the tightest book of the trilogy, it's also the most intentionally disorienting, having a sense of dark but often humorous mystery along the lines of something like David Lynch's Twin Peaks.)

More Than Melchisedech can exhibit both of its preceding volumes' modes, sometimes magically real for chapters at a time, describing rowdy urban merchant life among friends and colleagues in the first half of the 20th century with the occasional insertion of a monster man (Finnegan's father Giulio) or perhaps a bit of clairvoyance or the like in a manner similar to Archipelago (but coming across as less psychologically rich than Archipelago and in something more of an almost slapstick mode).  When MTM is more in the quixotic mode of The Devil is Dead, it is also far more overtly a full-on fantasy. Events become utterly magical or miraculous, where Melchisedech can clap his hands together to produce gold coins or can summon black giants to his aid, sometimes seen by others and sometimes not, but effective nonetheless.  And while The Devil is Dead is no stranger to the grotesque or uncanny, MTM ratchets this up even closer to borderline horror (but again in something closer to slapstick, hence the feel at times of something like Bizarro fiction).  These fantastical and grotesque elements seem to increase in each book of MTM until the final book, Argo, is a complete science fiction/fantasy/horror tale.

So the above thoughts are first attempts at plumbing the styles and modes and genres of the trilogy. What about themes or overall shape?  That's a lot, lot tougher.  You might well say that The Devil is Dead trilogy is Lafferty's most overt (albeit symbolic and emblematic) engagement with his own upbringing and pre-authorial years, an attempt to capture the half century that made him who he was; and then a transitioning into his most overt (and even more symbolic and emblematic) engagement with his life as an author, a creator of characters, a builder of worlds; and then finally, an engagement with his own mortality and hopes for immortality, both ontological and authorial.  That seems like at least one legitimate way to interpret the trilogy.  There's no doubt in my mind that Lafferty is essentially Melchisedech Duffey and that perhaps Finnegan is all that Lafferty hoped for his body of work and its best elements.  He knew that both he and his art were split-off (to use his own term in the trilogy) and uncertain and wracked by self-doubt and shortcomings and yet totally special and unique and powerful and game-changing masterpieces, if only they could come to full light and full realisation.  And as he reflects on the this trilogy of personal wrestlings in the form of universal yet idiosyncratic myth, he writes in his concluding essay that he has realised he has written the story of all persons whatsoever.  Every single person is a haunted, torn genius and so overflowing and multi-faceted that no one account (perhaps no one lifetime or timeline or corporeality) could possibly capture him or her.  And this resplendence and spectrality of character is what all people have in common.  No exceptions.  Their uncontainable and riven genius is what unites them across all times and locations.  And Lafferty means this quite literally, even while he states it in semi-symbolic and semi-ludic language. I'll conclude this post with his own words:

It is established that the human race is made up entirely of glowing geniuses. That's something. And it's pretty well established that the begeniused human race is totally ghostly in all the meanings of the word, that it is overflowing so that very often persons cannot be contained in a single body, that it runs pretty much on multiple and parallel tracks. It's agreed that every human person is really two or three different persons when in an overflowing mood. [...] In all meaningful moments a human may be seen in his multiplicity. [...] The people of the world are none of them common, are all of them geniuses, are all of them wonderful. So the power is always there, and the great overspilling of the multiplicity and the power. All the people are ghostly, and all of them are split or exploding people. They have rapport with all their fellows in time and in space, with all of them now in the world, with all of them who have been or will be in the world. (Argo, pp. 143-145)


trawlerman said...

Thank you for this post. I am convinced that the Argo sequence is the most important of all. Can we imagine a future in which Lafferty's Argo Cycle is the supreme representative fiction of the 20th century?

Split and exploding,
-Alley Oop
-Castor Oyl
-Kasmir Syzmanski
-John Solli
-John Owen?
-Oedipuss Wrecks

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Ha! Of course this would speak to your own cyber-exploding persona(s), John! Love it.

In all seriousness, I think I can just about imagine a future in which the Argo Cycle is at least seen as a certain kind of apex and interpretive key to all of 20th century (Western) literature (though reaching a little beyond the West as well perhaps). It is certainly a keystone to Lafferty's own body of work.

Subsequent reads will no doubt increase the cycle's estimation in my own mind, but I tend to doubt that it, as a whole, will ever be as much of a purely delightful and robust read as my other favourites by Lafferty such as Fourth Mansions, Annals of Klepsis, Okla Hannali, Reefs of Earth, Arrive at Easterwine, Aurelia, East of Laughter, and so on. That said, I think The Devil is Dead has finally entered my favourites list. And I can actually see Archipelago getting there. Maybe when More Than Melchisedech is bound as one volume and printed in as nice and standardised and well-edited an edition as that of Manuscript Press's Archipelago that might help me ingest MTM better and appreciate it more as a cohesive work. Right now it feels very, very 'bitty' to me (as the Brits say - very piecemeal, I guess, kind of fractured - which is, to be fair, half its point).

Andrew said...

Good stuff Daniel! I like the idea of the series moving from least to most fantastical, though I might locate a sort of heightened reality within the early Melchisedech stuff that gives way when the world ends in 1912. I'm interested to see where it might lead comparing Lafferty as Duffey vs. Lafferty as Enniscorthy Sweeny.

The article of mine you mentioned, if it's the same one, has since been published in Science Fiction Studies; only little bits of it will end up in the bio since I won't have room in the latter for that sort of theoretical depth. It's definitely my attempt to get at what Lafferty is trying to do with the Argo cycle and his work more generally--but I think combining it with his own historical circumstances and themes will be a very important extension.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Thanks for commenting, Andrew! I hadn't realised your Argo article was published in SFS. Apologies if I didn't do it justice, offhandedly claiming that it was merely 'skirting' like the rest of us! I'll read it again post-haste.

My characterisation of the trilogy moving from least to most fantastical is perhaps misleading once you come to MTM. That takes a while to get fully into a consistent fantastical mode, but some of the mythical scenes early on are some of the purest moments of fantasy in all of Laff's output: e.g. the scene of the swimmers near the beginning of Tales of Chicago. A couple island scenes early-ish in Archipelago are quite fantastical too. Those, however, seem somehow more meta, more fabulistic, the way they're woven in. But the general idea of least to most fantastical might work as a general characterisation of the trilogy.

Andrew said...

Oh, I definitely think I skirt round the Argo cycle, and will never be able to do anything but--it might even be the sort of thing that has to be taken slant, out of the corner of one's eye; look at it head on and it's already slipped away.

One other thing that might be worth thinking of in the line of thought above is the relative genre of various other of the Argo pieces, it's almost a tour of his range of writing in miniature, with everything except the more pulp-inspired science fiction present.

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