Sunday, July 15, 2018

All Pieces of a Lafferty Dissertation: Ad Hoc Update On the PhD (sort of)

Can't believe it's been over a year since I posted on this blog! I've got the hankering today, so, instead of trying to craft a thoughtful post and then not getting round to finishing (or sometimes starting) it - which is what's kept me from posting for the past year - I'm just going to launch in.

I can tell you one result of my doctoral work on Lafferty: his fiction holds up extremely well to critical, close reading. Not that I doubted it would. But it's a great pleasure to see how it even exceeds my expectations so often. Sure, there are stories that perhaps don't yield as much depth for analysis as I might have hoped. But then there are so many more that turn out to be far more layered than I had realised. My most recent example is his wonderful regional yarn 'All Pieces of a River Shore'. Just a few months ago I completed a 10,000 word draft chapter on that story alone. I didn't mean for it to take up a whole chapter, but it just kept on giving and giving with its depth of bioregional detail and ecophilosophical ideas. It's no wonder it was the inspiration for a 2003 contemporary art installation of the same title (which I only discovered as I researched the story).

All Pieces of a River Shore from Metabolic Films on Vimeo.

Some other richly layered stories I'm finding want to sprawl into their own lengthy chapters include 'Boomer Flats', 'Days of Grass, Days of Straw', 'Smoe and the Implicit Clay', and 'Narrow Valley'. These are all stories that I was always planning to include in the thesis, along with 'Snuffles', 'Oh Tell Me Will It Freeze Tonight', 'And Name My Name', and 'Animal Fair' (and probably 'Love Affair With Ten Thousand Springs'). There's also brief engagement with 'Eurema's Dam', 'All But the Words', 'Condillac's Statue', 'And Read the Flesh Between the Lines', 'Mud Violet' and probably a few others I'm forgetting.

Other stories crowding in, which I hadn't planned on including, but which I now hope to make at least some mention of, include 'Cabrito', 'The Wagons', 'Configuration of the North Shore', 'Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas', 'Ghost in the Corn Crib', 'Rain Mountain', and 'Continued On Next Rock'. And now I've also got the idea to include a brief discussion of 'And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire' as a coda to the thesis. (Oh and there's a bit where I'll probably at least nod toward 'In Deepest Glass'.)

As to novels, Okla Hannali was always going to get some engagement, and for some time I've been planning on a whole chapter dedicated to Fourth Mansions as I think it's indispensable for unpacking the theological sources for Lafferty's ecomonstrous vision.

Now I'm also wanting to give about half a chapter toward the earlier part of the thesis to The Reefs of Earth, establishing Lafferty as a distinctly Oklahoman writer through this delightfully bizarre Southwestern Gaelic-Gothic s.f. novel. Lately I've been describing it as a fever dream mashup of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Martian Chronicles (which, of course, doesn't even begin to capture it.)

Also toward the beginning of the thesis I plan to quote some relevant passages from Past Master as to Lafferty's overt monster discourse. In the closing chapter I also plan to quote excerpts from The Fall of Rome, Serpent's Egg, and Arrive At Easterwine in regard to Lafferty's cosmic vision.

As you can imagine, all this is going to challenge a word limit of 100,000 words. So a lot of the puzzle in the coming year will be what to include and exclude. (I'll be submitting a final draft of the thesis by September 2019.)

The incredible mosaic that is Lafferty's body of work simultaneously invites and defies large-scale analysis. One can easily get lost in the plenitude of tiny details and connections, which are a delight in themselves. But seeing the potential for even some hint of a coalescence of the whole is pretty awe-inspiring. The fact that he built an open-ended aspect into his work makes large scale interpretations all the more strange, unstable, risky, and exciting.

If I have any readers left, please feel free to ask me questions or give me advice, juicy tidbits, warnings, opinions, anything!


Fernando said...

Nice to hear about your thesis. Sounds like it will be worth reading in the end. I’d love to see your analysis of some of those stories, especially the ones I have found puzzling.

Best of luck with your writing!

jre said...

I will confess I had no idea.
Please let us know when you defend, and know that we are cheering you on.
I want to know when your thesis is published, and I want to read each of its 100,000 words.

Kevin Cheek said...

I can easily see mentions of Past Master to illustrate Lafferty's overt monster discourse expanding almost into its own mini-thesis. Of course, Ouden is the biggest monster, and the mechanical killers are the most pervasive. But are the programmed people monstrous in their own way, especially when they are indistinguishable from humans? How many layers are in the fishing story where they fish for the Devil and feast on its brains. And what do you make of Evita?

Thanks for the update! I'm seriously excited for you!

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Thank you both very much! I'll definitely make the thesis available by some means or other when it's finally all corrected and defended and whatnot. Whether it turns into an official book at some point will probably still take another two to five years to pan out I'm guessing.

Some of the stories and novels remain very puzzling to me, but others open up to a surprising degree when analysed carefully, though always to further weirdness. Lafferty's fiction is a scholar's playground to be honest. I just hope my superiors let me get away with playing there! It's of the essence to do so with Lafferty's work really, to be a playful, pliable critic. But, of course, that can be done well or poorly. I'm trying my best! :)

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Kevin, thanks! I was posting the previous comment at the same time you were posting yours I guess.

You have no idea what tied-to-the-mast siren resistance I have to perform to refrain from writing too much on any single piece of Lafferty's fiction. Much more so with a novel. And yet more so with a novel so rife with monsters and the monstrous!

I'm not discussing Past Master at the same length as Fourth Mansions simply because my thesis tries to focus mainly on Lafferty's fiction overtly set in Oklahoma or the Southwest. I, of course, hope to tackle other aspects and settings of Laff's fiction (not least the interplanetary stuff) in later work.

Ouden will be engaged briefly as I am engaging nihilistic-leaning ecophilosophies somewhat in the thesis. Mechanical killers and programmed persons will get only brief mention at best. Evita as a witch gets mention mainly as a member of Thomas More's marginal, misfit crew of 'monsters'. The key things my discussion of Past Master will focus on are Rimrock as a 'eutheopathic' seal-person (human/animal/collective-unconscious hybrid being, a 'good monster') and the game of 'playing monsters' in the Feral Lands. Landscape, biome, ecology, and monstrosity converge strikingly in these themes I think. The devil fish will be discussed in this connection too as I note Lafferty's range of engagement with monsters from the 'sacramental' (Rimrock) to the diabolical (devil fish) and from relationships of alliance (Rimrock) to hunting and slaying and consuming (devil fish). But in all cases, Lafferty gives monsters a central and crucial role in constructing a sense of self and of world.

Bill Rogers said...

Continued On Next Rock is chock full of gems. And I'm definitely with you on Boomer Flats. For me Boomer Flats seems to be several things at once. I can't wait until you finish your work and of course we'll all want to know the details.

Kevin Cheek said...

It's funny, I think of Rimrock as a far more human character, even though he looks somewhat like a giant seal and has meter-long incisors, than the Programmed Persons who are indistinguishable from humans in form, but who I see as truly monstrous.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Thanks, Bill! 'Boomer' is definitely another one of those that has a LOT going on when you start to look closely.

Kev, yeah, Rimrock is very 'humane' if you like (remember I called him a 'good monster'). But it sounds like you're thinking of 'monstrous' in strictly moral terms. And you're not alone. I have to explain in my discipline(s) frequently that I'm using 'monster' and 'monstrous' in a larger sense, one that certainly can include discussion of moral monstrosity but that is largely concerned with ontological monstrosity, the metaphysical strangeness and sort of scary resplendence of being itself and of all beings in particular. That kind of monster isn't 'evil', it just *is*. It may threaten us just by existing (as does, say, a shark or a bog or a tornado - all of which are weird hybrid collaborations of element and animal or climate and land). An ecomonstrous poetics (the theoretical theme of my thesis) leans into this 'category crisis', as one monster theorist calls it, and intentionally represents the environment, the nonhuman, in a manner that reflects this inherent weirdness and even danger in things. I think that's what Lafferty's eco-rich fiction does. There are still more complexities than this, but that at least begins to stretch and widen the concept of 'monster' I hope.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

I forgot to mention that Rimrock also explicitly casts himself in the category of the monstrous when he says (as quoted in the sidebar on this blog):

"Regular people have sealed off the interior ocean that used to be in every man... They closed the ocean and ground up its monsters for fertilizer. That is why we so often enter into peoples' dreams. We take the place of the monsters they have lost."

And I'm quite sure Rimrock does not consider himself morally monstrous. He's talking about a different sense of monster here. Indeed, Lafferty is no doubt including a resonance of ancient sea monsters: Leviathan, *tannanim* (Hebrew for 'sea monsters', part of the oceanic life created in Genesis chapter 1), and the like.

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