Wednesday, April 3, 2019

A Tall Jail-Break in Scotland

One pleas­ant af­ter­noon Ma­zuma O'Shaunes­sey was in jail in a little town in Scot­land. The jailer was gloomy and sus­pi­cious and not given to jok­ing. 
“No tricks from you now. I will not be taken.”
“Just one to show I have the power. Stand back so I can't reach you.”
“I'm not likely to let you.”
“And hold up a pound note in one hand as tightly as you can. I will only flick my handker­chief and the note will be in my hand and no longer in yours.” 
“Man I defy you. You can­not do it.”
He held the note very tightly and closed his eyes with the ef­fort. Ma­zuma flicked his handker­chief, but the Scots­man was right. He could not do it. This was the only time that Ma­zuma ever failed. Though the world quivered on its axis (and it did) yet the note was held so tightly that no power could dis­lodge it. But when the world quivered on its axis the ef­fect was that Ma­zuma was now stand­ing out­side the cell and the Scots­man was within. And when the Chief came some minutes later Ma­zuma was gone and the Scotch jailer stood locked in the cell, his eyes still closed and the pound note yet held aloft in a grip of steel. So he was fired, or cash­iered as the Old Worlders call it, for tak­ing a bribe and let­ting a pris­oner es­cape. And this is what usu­ally comes as pun­ish­ment to overly sus­pi­cious per­sons.

 -from "Adam Had Three Brothers" (first published in New Mexico Quarterly Review, Fall 1960)

This is a classic Laffertian take on the tall tale. The stacked reversals and jokes, the simultaneous understatement and overstatement, the simultaneous effect of both laugh-out-loud humour and heart-stopping wonder - it's something you see probably hundreds of times across his body of fiction in little self-contained vignettes like this. He inflates the comic exaggeration technique of the tall tale and thereby giantizes giantism, here at the level of the entire planet (or cosmos, depending on how you read 'the world'). The planetary axis-quiver produces a particular physical wonder that is almost Lynchian rather than just wildly funny and marvellous. Traditional tall tales often narrate the impossible, but here Lafferty's impossibility is not a mere verbal flight of fancy or 'whopper' of a lie. It has strong hints of the uncanny. It's a little (or a lot) disturbing in its casual disturbance and redistribution of reality. But no sooner are readers perhaps feeling some heebie-jeebies than Lafferty hits them with the final topper of a punchline: that the jailer was fired for taking a bribe. Hilarious. You've barely registered the gigantically weird and uncanny aspect of the tale before what began as a chuckle has turned into a guffaw. And it is in just such ways that Lafferty achieves what I call a 'horror-comic' mode of storytelling. The world-shift and spatial reversal is so huge and outrageous that it's not out of order to call it monstrous. But it is narrated through particularly effective comedy and thus the trembling of both laughter and terror are combined (as Lafferty explicitly maintains in his story 'Days of Grass, Days of Straw'). Admittedly, the valence of 'horror' in this episode may be quite buried and perhaps slight. I was in fact surprised to note that it was an element of my emotional response to this yarn when I read it this time. I hadn't noticed that before. In any case, as any reader of Lafferty knows, he makes the horror far more explicit in any number of stories and novels, usually with no less humour and laughter.

One more tidbit: there's an implied joke about tight-fisted Scots here (whether conscious or incidental on Lafferty's part I don't know). Scots are famous even among themselves for being 'cheap' or thrifty. It's something I've heard them joke about since we moved to Scotland in 2002. One of my favourite jokes they've told me is that there were three British ministers telling each other why they loved the Christian gospel of salvation (indicating the national stereotypes of being intellectual, emotional, and frugal respectively). Englishman: I love it because you can analyse it with your mind. Welshman: I love it because you can sing it with your heart. Scotsman: I love it because it's free.

No idea if Lafferty intended it or not, but it's hilarious to me that only a Scotsman could hold onto his money so tightly as to constitute the only instance in Mazuma O'Shaunessey's life in which he failed at performing one of his powerful tricks.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Glimpse of the Thesis Bibliography

Always want to post so many things, but too swamped with thesis work. Due to submit this September. (!!!!!!)

For fun, here are some titles I'm consulting for my 'ecomonstrous' reading of Lafferty's bioregional fiction (i.e. mostly his stories set in Oklahoma or the Southwest—or that are flavoured that way even if taking place, say, on another planet, e.g. 'Smoe and the Implicit Clay'—and which feature the nonhuman). The major areas of research are basically the U.S. (South)West (mainly through Native American Studies and Frontier Tall Tales), Ecocriticism (mainly through Object-Oriented Ontology and New Materialism), and Ecotheology (mainly through contemporary ecological readings of Thomas Aquinas and Hans Urs von Balthasar, though also through some theologians engaging New Materialism and the concept of the Anthropocene). As to the Monsters and Monstrous element, I feel like I'm largely forging my own way here. Monster Studies is still a fairly nascent field and it tends to deal almost exclusively with culture (race, gender, class, etc.) and very rarely with ecology or nonhumans. And even with all these conceptual parameters I am, of course, only mapping a small portion of Lafferty's erudite brain. At my lowest times I feel overwhelmed, out of my depth, and/or off on a goose chase of implausibility. (If it's a mud goose, then maybe I'm okay. See Lafferty's story 'Boomer Flats'.) At my highest times, I'm absolutely soaring with the joy of learning about all of these fields and far more so with the joy of reading Lafferty's fiction closely and feeling as if perhaps a few things are just possibly unlocking and connecting a bit.

Below is a tiny fraction of the bibliography, and of course doesn't touch upon all the journal articles that go into it as well. But it's a quick colourful distraction. Here's hoping I can make a coherent argument out of what might appear to be all these disparate materials:

Image result for turtle island liars club

Image result for humor of the old southwest cohen dillingham

Image result for oklahoma a history david bairdImage result for kenneth lincoln ind'n humor

Image result for vine deloria c.g. jung and the siouxImage result for the significance of the frontier in american history macat library

Image result for celia deane-drummond the wisdom of the liminalImage result for smith and hughes ecogothic

Image result for catholicism and american borders in the gothic literary imaginationImage result for anne carpenter theo-poetics

Image result for material ecocriticism iovino oppermannImage result for timothy morton dark ecology

Image result for staying with the troubleImage result for keller rubenstein entangled worlds

Image result for graham harman object oriented ontologyImage result for ian bogost alien phenomenology

Image result for religion in the anthropoceneImage result for routledge companion to summa theologiae

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!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Flame is Green (1971)

[Cross-posted from Goodreads.]

Four and a half stars. It's probably five stars in the sense of being one of the ‘high art’ novels that Lafferty produced (along with the likes of Fourth Mansions, Okla Hannali,  The Fall of Rome, Archipelago, and others). But it didn't resonate with me quite as strongly as the novels I like best by Lafferty. It's pretty incredible though, as I would expect from his unique genius.

The first chapter is one of my favourite things I've ever read by Lafferty. It hits all the right notes of myth and marvel and history and narrative sophistication, in the way that only Lafferty can hit and combine those notes - and in the setting of 19th century Ireland, which I don't think I've run into before in Lafferty.

The rest of the book is more mixed for me. There are many more marvels of both language and event, but there are also long sections of comparatively mundane material and plot motivations that I don't fully understand (due to unfamiliarity with this era of European history generally and Lafferty's more arcane interests in it particularly). After the first chapter, the setting moves swiftly from Ireland to Spain and eventually to a few other European locations. (It’s worth comparing in this respect with his novel East of Laughter). So The Flame is Green is more of a European tale than a specifically Irish one, though the fact that the protagonist, Dana Coscuin, is Irish remains central. The cast of supporting characters are very tall and salty as you'd expect from Lafferty. The geographical descriptions, after the first chapter, are perhaps not as strong as I could have hoped, though a significant amount of the action takes place in the mountains and this setting is firmly felt. I happened to be reading this section of the novel whilst travelling through mountains in Spain for the first time, on holiday with my family, which was a very exciting coincidence. (We live in Scotland, so this trip isn't as huge as it may sound to USA readers of this review. It's kind of the equivalent of a Midwesterner taking a vacation in Florida.) But the richest fun is to be had more in the character descriptions and their darkly comic and mythopoetic interactions.

There are the usual philosophical and theological discourses and asides, which I always enjoy and find enlightening for understanding Lafferty's body of work as a whole. The novel is about some sort of freedom fighters on the eve of another European revolution. In the idiosyncratic ideological terms of the novel, it is the Green Revolution (to which Dana and his company adhere) vs. the Red Revolution (to which an equally tall and salty company adhere). Dana and Co. are ‘Carlists’, at least in their Spain setting. Brief visits to Wikipedia, together with speeches given in the novel, suggest the Green Revolution represents a sort of counter-Enlightenment movement, which opposes, among other things, the reductionism of the alleged Age of Reason. As a member of Dana's company argues:
The rational age has cracked wide open with the realization that man is not a rational apparatus. He is a stolid animal, or he is an hysterical ghost, or he is an effete avatar; but he is not a reasoning machine. But should we not respect and strive for reason? For reason in grace, yes. For reason out of grace, no. (Ch. 3/p. 49)
Or as is later urged: ‘There is no rationality at all without passion, and no logic. What would one hang them upon?’ (Ch. 5/p. 87) (This is remarkably close what Timothy Morton argues in his latest book, Dark Ecology: For a Logic of Future Co-Existence.) This anti-reductionist ideology is vividly portrayed as well as argued in Lafferty's novel. Take a scene involving recovery from a battle injury:
Certainly the six-inch-deep knife wound had not been healed in three days, nor had the great ragged slash on his face. But Dana had sloshed wine immediately into his wounds, and he had been blessed with curative magic when he lay atop Magdelena Brume and imbibed grace from her and covered her with his blood for a sign. Moreover, Dana had had his wounds cleaned and bound by a doctor in Isaba before he had come to Pamplona. (Ch. 3/pp. 54-55)
Folk ways and modern medicine combine here. Many scenes such as this make this novel (along with a number of other novels by Lafferty, notably Okla Hannali and Archipelago) significantly overlap with the international genre of magical realism.

The Green counter-revolutionaries are theologically motivated, of course, as can be seen by the references to ‘grace’. It is also seen in their concerns about turns the Catholic church is taking toward empowering bishops who seem to be sexually and theologically decadent in not fully fleshed out terms in the novel. They also oppose what Lafferty presciently (this was published in 1971) calls the coming ‘pornocracy’, calling it the ‘easiest way, the cheapest way, the stultifying way, the indulgent way’ (Ch. 7/p. 111).

It's not quite as reactionary as some of this may sound (though I sometimes worry ‘alt-right’ leaning readers might think, mistakenly I hope, that they have an ally in the author of this novel; that an Afro-Caribbean man, one Charley Oceaan, is included in the company of the Green Revolution counts for something one hopes). Lafferty is well-known as a self-professed conservative, sure, but one not easily pigeon-holed. The rhetoric he puts in the mouths of the Green Revolutionaries contains nuance, if also tending toward the irascible and polemical, such as this quote that has been passed around the web for some years, even though there must be very few readers of this obscure, limited-run novel:
Things are set up as contraries that are not even in the same category. Listen to me: the opposite of radical is superficial, the opposite of liberal is stingy; the opposite of conservative is destructive. Thus I will describe myself as a radical conservative liberal; but certain of the tainted red fish will swear that there can be no such fish as that. Beware of those who use words to mean their opposites. At the same time have pity on them, for usually this trick is their only stock in trade. But do not pity them overly: it is your own death and your soul's death that they work by their deception. (Ch. 5/p. 78)
There is pity, even if limited, toward ideological enemies here. More than can be said on many a social media account. That said, the rhetoric can be more strident at times, though admittedly compelling in some respects:
“There are only two possible statements that can be made about the worlds,” the Black Pope of the Carlist Hills had lectured one day. “Alpha: There is a God. Omega: there is not a God. To adhere to either of these two statements strongly is to be logical at least. Not to do so is to be in the snivelling wasteland between and to have no point of contact with logic or reason. Upon either of these two statements a total system can be built, and it can be true to itself in each of its million details. But the two systems cannot have points of contact in even the least detail.”
I can't agree with that last sentence especially (and I'm pretty sure Lafferty's work overall shows that he didn't fully agree with that idea in any strict sense as well). Nor can I agree that all those who remain undecided between these poles are ‘snivelling’. Some occupy that ‘wasteland’ quite honestly in doubt and deferral. Some do so by principled agnosticism. I sympathise with doubters and agnostics, yet I also feel the force of the alleged logical divide set up in this quote. At any rate, it makes for fiery reading.

Yet the way the details of the novel play out show a more generous and muddy view. Dana is a very compromised character, especially by his own movement's lights. He quite fleshily falls from grace by literally sleeping with the ideological enemy. And is restored by grace. And this ‘enemy’, though she is portrayed somewhat villainously, is nevertheless drawn with some complexity and sympathy. Mind you, the ‘good’ characters are of no more, or less, depth than the ‘evil’ ones - that's just the way Lafferty writes. As some have said, Lafferty's characters are more like archetypes than traditional characters; but I would add that they have many telling human details as well, so that they hover between the mythical and the ‘naturalistic’. Even the ‘son of the Devil’ in this novel (one Ifreann Chortovitch, an apparently literal offspring of the Devil, in keeping with the magical realist tone) is portrayed with some sympathy, even as a genuine friend of sorts to Dana whilst also a dangerous, corrupting enemy. Dana and other characters have a huge drinking party with the son of the Devil at one point in the novel, another falling from grace moment, from which they are again restored. Saints and sinners, as in most of Lafferty's fiction, often blend in this novel. Trajectories of good or evil may be strong in various characters, but no one is untainted by either grace or sin. It's richly human reading in that respect.

And the Green Revolution rhetoric can be downright beautiful and strange and inviting as well. A character named Catherine Dembinska, who eventually marries Dana, speaks like a St Francis or a Black Elk:
Listen, all you people, the green-growing world is not restricted to its vegetation. There is a green-growing God above, there are green-growing people on the earth, and plants and rocks and ores and machineries, and graces and dedications and ideas and arts. There are green-growing prayers arising. But the devils in Hell are not green-growing, and those on Earth are not. [...] I even say ‘Listen, all you people’ when I talk to birds in the parks or to cats sunning themselves in windows. Listen, all you people: no, I am not a pantheist, not even a green one. To be that is to confuse the bridge with the ultimate shore. It is to confuse the pot with the potter. But I am a living pot; I am a green vessel of earth; I am the perfume of a full vase. (Ch. 9/p. 157)
There are many wonderfully weird battles and visions and travels and chases and spaces in this novel as well, but I will conclude this overlong, yet under-sufficient, review with another quote from Catherine (which has also made its rounds on the web for years). It would seem a caution to anyone wanting to slap some final interpretation on Lafferty's work, much less the world. Not because of some facile catch-phrase like ‘there is no truth’, but rather because full truth will always be both prior and higher than our finitude, requiring our constant adventurous maturation from its deep roots toward its towering radiance:
Beware of those who manufacture final answers as they go along, of those who will catch you on their catch-phrases and let you perish in the traps. All the final answers were given in the beginning. They stand shining, above and beyond us, but they are always there to be seen. They may be too bright for us, they may be too clear for us. Well then, we must clarify our own eyes. Our task is to grow out until we reach them. 
We ourselves become the bridges out over the interval that is the world and time. It is a daring thing to fling ourselves out over that void that is black and scarlet below and green and gold above. And we must be rooted deeply. A bridge does not abandon its first shore when it grows out in spans towards the further one. (Ch. 9/p. 158)

Saturday, December 24, 2016

"I always break them," said the monstrous face.

There was the morning that Dana saw the whole fair landscape from horizon to horizon and realized that it was all on the inside of one very large soap-bubble. He saw then, beyond and dwarfing it all, the pipe that was blowing the whole bubble, and the face that was blowing the pipe. The wide world was quite small in comparison to that face. It was the face of a rather lack-eyed monster, somehow like an old Irish bummer, a little like that of one of the Other People who live under the hills. "Be careful, you'll break it if you puff any more into it." "I always break them," said the monstrous face. "I wish I could keep one of them sometime."

R. A. Lafferty, The Flame is Green (1971), p. 224

Almost finished with this sometimes incredible, sometimes baffling, novel, the first in the Coscuin Chronicles. (Pseudo) review forthcoming!

Have a happy Christmas Eve.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

A rundown of a dozen or so of Lafferty's novels

A year or so ago someone asked me on Facebook where they should start with reading Lafferty. (I've been asked many times.) In response I went a bit overboard and said a little something about nearly every novel I've read by Lafferty. This is because the collections of his short stories are in such short supply. These days more and more people first encounter Lafferty through his novels, which are usually thought to be not the place to start. Yet many who start there become just as hooked as those who started with the short stories.

Anyway, I'm re-posting here more or less what I wrote on FB. I'm also doing this because I hear from time to time that my particular Lafferty blog is 'not for beginners' or something similar. Maybe this slightly helps the uninitiated.

Past Master (1968) features Thomas More as its main character. He's brought to a future utopia on another planet and there's a ton of wild stuff going on.  A band of nonconformist misfits traverse golden cities of perfection, horrifying cities of deprivation, and the freakish ecology of the planet's feral lands. I suppose the writing can be slightly uneven at times, but it's really genius, potent stuff and one of Lafferty's most overtly theological and political and philosophical works. It's also perhaps his most formally s.f. novel, though don't let that lull you into expecting the conventional.

Fourth Mansions (1969) is also richly theological and bizarre, drawing on Theresa Avila's mystical work Interior Castle and involving a bunch of weird psychic visionary stuff mixed with gumshoe news reporter stuff, almost like a comic strip meets medieval theology and the trippy 60s. I found it a little hard to get into on my first read, but most Lafferty fans think it's his best. I now think so too after subsequent re-reads.

Space Chantey (1968) is a very loose retelling of Homer's Odyssey in space, following the episodic adventures of planet-hopping astronaut-warriors (each chapter is basically a short story). It too reads almost like a comic strip or animated cartoon but, as with all of Lafferty's works, there's a richness (though lightness) of language and slyly buried philosophy that makes your back brain feel that there are deeper things going on. It's a deliciously fun romp.

The Reefs of Earth (1968) is perhaps the book most to my personal tastes out of the early novels, sort of Lafferty's take on a Southern Gothic novel (with the ostensibly s.f. premise of a family of aliens visiting earth) and featuring his characteristically Laffertian child characters, joyfully murderous and mischievous and yet somehow weirdly angelic. It's gleefully grotesque and just one of the weirdest things I've ever read (and surprisingly poignant on re-reads).

Arrive At Easterwine (1971) throws absolutely everybody on a first read and can seem like a fairly incoherent tangle until you see its very clear pattern emerge from all the raucous details (usually on a re-read). It's the 'autobiography' of a 'Ktistec machine' (a supercomputer named Epiktistes) but it sounds more like a Southwestern mystical philosopher sitting in wise judgment of humanity, showing them themselves and the cosmos as these things truly are, which can only look like madness to our unenlightened eyes. Something like that! But, like all of the above, it's very comic as well as dark, almost like conducting unscientific pranks as a means of experimental theology. (Epikt and the members of the Institute for Impure Science, who make up the cast of this novel, also feature in a number of Lafferty's seminal short stories, most of them collected in Nine Hundred Grandmothers.)

Okla Hannali (1972) is a historical novel of the Choctaw nation in the 19th century, as seen by following the life of its central eponymous larger-than-life character. It has some admittedly 'dry' material that sticks close to historical reporting at times, but this is liberally interspersed with Lafferty's characteristic tall tale style and humour and some western adventure bits and some mystical passages and poignant reflections on the loss of the Native Americans' original way of life and it all adds up to a very, very rich read, one of the few novels that made me feel teary as I read the last word and closed the book. Very powerful.

Not To Mention Camels (1976) is Lafferty madness at full throttle. It's sort of his Inferno, very diabolically witty and sharp but also dense and impenetrable, involving movement between several worlds (or versions of the world) by a particularly nasty politician. It has some of Lafferty's best metaphysical scenes, a great satirical theme on 'Media Lords' and the like, and it alternates between the language of analytic philosophy and very colourful and grotesque poetic imagery. But it's very hard to follow and at times perhaps a little too hellish for some. (But see on Aurelia below.)

Apocalypses (1977) is actually two short novels collected in one volume and it's territory not terribly far away from Not To Mention Camels. The first novel, Where Have You Been, Sandaliotis?, is a detective adventure of sorts, but in a metaphysical strain with lots of weird happenings and a fair amount of grotesquery and a central speculative premise that I found pretty awesome: that a new land mass has suddenly appeared where there was only ocean before, contiguous with the known mainland, and it appears to have inhabitants and history. It's all about whether it's real or not and about 'consensus reality' and the like. The second novel, The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney, is on the same theme about what's real or not but this time as relates to the 1st and 2nd World Wars (and a 3rd abrewing), which have somehow been wiped from the historical record (or we are in an alternate history in this tale) and are being brought (back) to the record by the eponymous character's Armageddon-themed operas. It's got some wonderful historical passages of the first half of the twentieth century, told punchily and amusingly, and some great metaphysical passages. I really, really liked it but it also made my brain properly hurt with its affirmation of mutually exclusive realities. Logic absolutely melts at points in this novel. Again, most Lafferty fans think it's one of Lafferty's greatest works.

The 80s novels go into freshly weird narrative territory for Lafferty. You can tell he'd gotten a second wind and was pushing his whole art practice forward to its final flourish. Most readers have dismissed them as too far off the deep end, but a few of us argue that they represent his mature expression.

Aurelia (1982) is sort of the gospel answer to the hellish Not To Mention Camels, again critiquing politics and media, but also offering a more compassionate and theologically rich euangelion and, as always, some great imagery and ideas. It's Lafferty's most overt treatise on Aristotelian-Thomistic Virtue Ethics and also his most overt work on a 'theology of monsters' since Fourth Mansions. We eventually get actual homilies from the teenage girl from another planet who is the protagonist of the novel, but it's a bizarre and bawdy ride (if a little difficult to follow), returning somewhat to the comic strip/cartoon s.f. quality of some of the early novels, though fusing this with new levels of weird philosophising.

Annals of Klepsis (1983) goes back to Space Chantey and Past Master interplanetary territory, but with heaps more colour and density and viscous metaphysical journeying (and those early novels weren't in short supply of these qualities so that's saying something). It's maybe my favourite Lafferty novel for its pure joyous riot of xenogeography (as well as being a quite serious meditation on historiography). Oh, and did I mention it takes place on a Pirate Planet?! I personally have never partaken of psychotropic or psychedelic drugs, but having read this novel twice, I'm pretty sure I never need to. (I say that with a big wink because I've argued from time to time that I think Lafferty's 'trippiness' is actually doing something quite different, and to my mind far better, than psychedelia.)

Serpent's Egg (1987) also returns to comic strip type writing to a certain degree, but with a Laffertian 'future history' type of tone (of a dystopian future mind you). It's language is more plain than some of Lafferty's work, but it's events and characters are anything but:  it features a number of juvenile talking animals (and a juvenile robot and angel) as protagonists in a future where they've been augmented to this state and it's chock full of little myths and fables of wit and wisdom and it goes into wonderfully phantasmagorical territory late in the book when the whales are making monuments on the ocean floor (a dream ocean that's formed in the middle of Oklahoma), etching enigmatic mosaics on the huge stones by means of telepathically controlled sea lice. Yep, that happens. It's a fascinating update on the Rebellion Against Utopia theme of his first novel Past Master.

East of Laughter (1988) is an incredible network of tall tales threaded through a group of people's quest, yet again, to discover what's really real, including themselves. Like Serpent's Egg, it's perhaps not quite as linguistically rich as some of Lafferty's works, but again has a corresponding and compensating vivacity of wonderful characters and events. This one's another riot of garish metaphysics and mystery, but this time in the field of European fairy tale and classical mythology, albeit in a contemporary (or perhaps future?) setting on Earth. It has some of my all time favourite passages from Lafferty. (Then again, I could say that about every single book I've mentioned.) It also has some deeply woven theology in it, akin to how that's done in Arrive At Easterwine. Like the rest, it's very weird and very wonderful.

And there are a half dozen or more novels from early to late that I haven't even mentioned here!  I hope people will augment this list with their own impressions and opinions about the novels in the comments section.

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)

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Lafferty's 80s novels

Academia and family have obviously kept me far too busy to keep up with this blog over the past many months.  (The last post was in late February!)  I've got so much to share on various fronts, but I always find myself tucking away a blog post idea that gets buried into the deep geological layers of ye ol' To Do list.  Today, I'm going to try to break that trend by posting here a comment I just made on a thread in the Lafferty Facebook group (East of Laughter: An Appreciation of R. A. Lafferty).  I really want to write about LaffCon1, which I just attended in New Jersey last weekend, but that too will have to wait.  (Spoiler: it was wonderful.)

Someone in the FB group asked when Lafferty's novel Sindbad: The 13th Voyage, published in 1989, was actually written by Lafferty.  Here's my rather hearsay and anecdotal response:

I once saw Andrew Ferguson write that all of Lafferty's 80s/90s novels were written sometime in the early 80s - 80 to 82 I think. Possibly some as early as 79. I remember Andrew writing that this was Lafferty's second wind sort of period where he landed on a newfound inspiration and approach and became very productive for a while in some quite new directions. Andrew argues that these later novels are not the incoherent mess that some readers have thought them, but are rather Lafferty's maturation as a writer where he finally broke into the new ground that all his earlier novels were urging readers to break into. I.e. think of the 'cliff hanger' endings of Past Master (1968) and Fourth Mansions (1969). Lafferty's novels written in the early 80s are the next and continuing chapters as it were. These late novels are the new worlds that were birthed through the struggles of his earlier novels. These new worlds are, admittedly, just as embattled and yet-to-be-finished as those of the earlier novels, but there are definitely new levels of perception and narrative experimentation happening. I think this groundbreaking creative aspect is also why the late novels remain somewhat 'choppy' (as Lafferty said in an interview) in style. Sometimes even knottier than the earlier novels. Even less commercially viable. But I'm pretty convinced it was because Lafferty had entered uncharted territory, even for him! And as a trailblazer he was bound to look rather 'primitive' (nay, primordial) in his slashing and hacking at the undergrowth he'd entered with this fresh spate of novels. I know Andrew's gonna cover this period in his biography of Laff (due out late 2017 perhaps?) and I hope to pick up his argument after it's published, developing the idea that Lafferty's late novels represent some of his best and most important work, at least as regards their groundbreaking aspect.

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Skokie Who Lost His Wife

This is the way they tell it. 
A Skokie heard a Shelni jug flute jugging one night. 
‘That is the voice of my wife,’ the Skokie said. ‘I'd know it anywhere.’ 
The Skokie came over the moors to find his wife. He went down into the hole in the ground that his wife's voice was coming from. But all he found there was a Shelni playing a jug flute. 
‘I am looking for my poor lost wife,’ the Skokie said. ‘I have heard her voice just now coming out of this hole. Where is she?’ 
‘There is nobody here but myself,’ the Shelni said. ‘I am sitting here alone playing my flute to the moons whose light runs down the walls of my hole.’ 
‘But I heard her here,’ said the Skokie, ‘and I want her back.’ 
‘How did she sound?’ asked the Shelni. ‘Like this?’ And he jugged some jug music on his flute. 
‘Yes, that is my wife,’ said the Skokie. ‘Where have you hidden her? That is her very voice.’ 
‘That is nobody's wife,’ the Shelni told the Skokie. ‘That is just a little tune that I made up.’ 
‘You play with my wife's voice, so you must have swallowed my wife,’ the Skokie said. ‘I will have to take you apart and see.’ 
‘If I swallowed anybody's wife I'm sorry,’ said the Shelni. ‘Go ahead then.’ 
So the Skokie took the Shelni apart and scattered the pieces all over the hole and some of them on the grass outside. But he could not find any part of his wife. 
‘I have made a mistake,’ said the Skokie. ‘Who would have thought that one who had not swallowed my wife could make her voice on the flute!’ 
‘It is all right,’ said the Shelni, ‘so long as you put me together again. I remember part of the way I go. If you remember the rest of the way, then you can put me together again.’ 
But neither of them remembered very well the way the Shelni was before he was taken apart. The Skokie put him together all wrong. There were not enough pieces for some parts and too many for others. 
‘Let me help,’ said a Frog who was there. ‘I remember where some of the parts go. Besides, I believe it was my own wife he swallowed. That was her voice on the flute. It was not a Skokie voice.’ 
The frog helped, and they all remembered what they could, but it did not work. Parts of the Shelni could not be found again, and some of the parts would not go into him at all. When they had him finished, the Shelni was in great pain and could hardly move, and he didn't look much like a Shelni. 
‘I've done all I can,’ the Skokie said. ‘That's the way you'll have to be. Where is Frog?’ 
‘I'm inside,’ said Frog. 
‘That's where you will have to stay,’ the Skokie said. ‘I've had enough of both of you. Enough, and these pieces left over. I will just take them with me. Maybe I can make someone else out of them.’ 
That is the way the Shelni still is, put together all wrong. In his wrong form he walks the country by night, being ashamed to go by day. Some folks are startled when they meet him, not knowing this story. He still plays his jug flute with the lost Skokie Wife's voice and with Frog's voice. Listen, you can hear it now! The Shelni goes in sorrow and pain because nobody knows how to put him together right. 
The Skokie never did find his lost wife. 
This is how it is told.

~R. A. Lafferty, "Ride a Tin Can" (1970)

Art (fromthe story's original publication in IF Magazine) by Jack Gaughan.
Image found here:

What's interesting about isolating this passage (and two other similar passages I recently blogged from this story) is that it shows, simply by virtue of its authentic indigenous voice, how naturally sympathetic Lafferty was with the aboriginal imagination.  These micro-stories genuinely sound like tribal folk tales from around the world.  But, just as interestingly, what isolating such a passage doesn't show is that in this story Lafferty is actually writing overall in the voice of a rather traumatised anthropologist who is watching an indigenous people being wiped completely out. Lafferty shows real knowledge of this 'soft science' in the larger story as well, and of how the researcher on the ground must compete, often unsuccessfully, with larger stronger forces such as the scientific establishment and powerful commercial concerns.  It's a prime example of how Lafferty holds in one head a genuine 'native' sort of perspective as well as that of a 'modern' educated perspective, and one highly sensitive to 'post-colonial' issues at that.  The story is very dark and poignant beneath its rather joyful and rambunctious prose style.  That exuberance is authentic though, not mere style.  It is the joy of the oppressed refusing to die even if their bodies are slain (and eaten!) by the corporate cannibals. The story is grim, and yet this indomitable joy (though it can be silly in some respects, leading even to an undeserved credulity and trust that leads to death) is somehow crucial, a refusal to give the oppressor the very last inch of his conquest - your own bitterness.  That's how it's striking me at the moment anyhow.  It's one of his more complex tales in a way and will require further rumination and analysis.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Reading the Argo Cycle part 2 - Archipelago Ch. 1: Hans & Marie & the Poetry-Eating Squirrels

Well, I've begun reading the last book of the so-called The Devil is Dead Trilogy.  That is, I'm reading More Than Melchisidech Book III: Argo.  I will say this:  whatever the trilogy's ups and downs, strengths and weaknesses, mysteries and marvels and madnesses, it makes me want to re-read not only the trilogy itself but the entirety of Lafferty's oeuvre in light of it.  The Argo Cycle seems to be some kind of metaphysical template or manual or schema by which to better grasp what Lafferty's doing in everything else.  At times, in certain respects, it almost lacks substance in and of itself while seeming to promise to flesh out everything else, like a spirit or soul or ghost that is elusive and ephemeral in itself but utterly animating when inhabiting a body.  Lafferty said that he thought the entirety of his body of work kind of added up to one long unfinished novel that he called A Ghost Story.  The Finnegan/Melchisidech Trilogy (as I'd prefer to call it) and the Argo Cycle more generally seem to be something of the ghostly animus/anima of that Ghost Story.

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 strung
And rings for all your fingers:
I'll sing you as you ne’er were sung
By 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 shell
You still will be the leaven,
And I'll remember you in Hell
When 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 Wales
Thursday, 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 Larkin
Me 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.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Shelni Who Turned into a Tree

This is how they tell it.

There was a woman who was neither Shelni nor Skokie nor Frog. She was Sky Woman. One day she came with her child and sat down under the Shelni tree. When she got up to go she left her own child who was asleep and picked up a Shelni child by mistake. Then the Shelni woman came to get her own child and she looked at it. She did not know what was wrong but it was a Sky People child.

‘Oh, it has pink skin and flat eyes! How can that be?’ the Shelni woman asked. But she took it home with her and it still lives with the Shelni and everyone has forgotten the difference.

Nobody knows what the Sky Woman thought when she got the Shelni child home and looked at it. Nevertheless she kept it, and it grew and was more handsome than any of them.

But when the second year came and the young Shelni was grown, it walked in the woods and said ‘I do not feel like a Sky People. But if I am not a Sky People, then what am I? I am not a Duck. I am not a Frog. And if I am a Bird, what kind of Bird am I? There is nothing left. It must be that I am a Tree.’ There was reason for this. We Shelni do look a little bit like trees and we feel a little bit like trees.

So the Shelni put down roots and grew bark and worked hard at being a tree. He underwent all the hardships that are the life of a tree. He was gnawed by goats and gobniu; he was rough-tongued by cattle and crom; he was infested by slugs and befouled by the nameless animal. Moreover, parts of him were cut away for firewood.

But he kept feeling the jug music creeping up all the way from his undertoes to his hair and he knew that this music was was what he had always been looking for. It was the same jug and tine music that you hear even now.

Then a bird told the Shelni that he was not really a tree but that it was too late for him to leave off growing like a tree. He had brothers and sisters and kindred living in the hole down under his roots, the bird said, and they would have no home if he stopped being a tree.

This is the tree that is the roof of our den where we are even now. This tree is our brother who was lost and who forgot that he was a Shelni.

This is the way it has always been told.

-Excerpted from R. A. Lafferty's short story “Ride a Tin Can”, first published in Worlds of IF, 1970; also collected in Strange Doings, 1972

The Shelni Who Lost His Burial Tooth

It is told this way.

There was a Shelni who lost his burial tooth before he died. Every Shelni begins life with six teeth, and he loses one every year. Then, when he is very old and has only one tooth left, he dies. He must give the last tooth to the Skokie burial-person to pay for his burial. But this Shelni had either lost two teeth in one year or else he had lived to too great an age.

He died. And he had no tooth left to pay with.

‘I will not bury you if you have no tooth left to pay me with,’ said the Skokie burial-person. ‘Should I work for nothing?’

‘Then I will bury myself,’ said the dead Shelni.

‘You don't know how,’ said the Skokie burial-person. ‘You don't know the places that are left. You will find that all the places are full. I have agreement that everybody should tell everybody that all the places are full, so only the burial-person may bury. That is my job.’

Nevertheless, the dead Shelni went to find a place to bury himself. He dug a little hole in the meadow, but wherever he dug he found that it was already full of dead Shelnis or Skokies or Frogs. And they always made him put all the dirt back that he had dug.

He dug holes in the valley and it was the same thing. He dug holes on the hill, and they told him that the hill was full too. So he went away crying for he could find no place to lie down.

He asked the Eanlaith whether he could stay in their tree. And they said, no he could not. They would not let any dead folks live in their tree.

He asked the Eise if he could stay in their pond. And they said, no he could not.

They would not allow any dead folks in their pond.

He asked the Sionnach if he could sleep in their den. And they said, no he could not. They liked him when he was alive, but a dead person has hardly any friends at all.

So the poor dead Shelni wanders yet and can find no place to rest his head.

He will wander forever unless he can find another burial tooth to pay with.

They used to tell it so.

-Excerpted from R. A. Lafferty's short story “Ride a Tin Can” (1970)

Monday, February 8, 2016

Lafferty News (Issue 5)

The biggest Lafferty news of late is that he is finally being published again.  Only e-books for Kindle are available so far, and only in the U.K., but rumour has it that this announcement will be followed by further announcements of physical books, USA releases, and also a brand new Best Of Lafferty. I'm guessing these developments will happen within the year, but that's just a guess.  The electronic 'covers' of the new releases seem like fairly slapped together stock art, and I think they'll tend to be misleading to potential readers.  It seems as if the publishers are just trying to reach out to common denominator SF/Fantasy fans and such folks are likely to be disappointed, or at least confused, when they start to read what's 'under' these covers.  The artwork should reflect the oddity and idiosyncrasy of the product.  These images are certainly indicative of Lafferty's cosmic themes, but you'd never guess from these covers that those cosmic themes are going to be narrated in the folksy, 'outsider art', experimental, oral tall tale sort of way that Lafferty has.  Here's hoping the physical releases will feature something more original and appropriate to each book's content.  You can see the blurbed book descriptions HERE.

Japanese Lafferty fan and scholar, Kenji Matsuzaki, shared on the East of Laughter Lafferty Facebook group the following information:  'According to the LOCUS February issue, "R. A. LAFFERTY’s new collection The Best of R.A. Lafferty sold to Malcolm Edwards at Gollancz, along with classic SF novels Space Chantey, Past Master, and Fourth Mansions; another 18 books were resold to Edwards for e-book publication as part of Gollancz’s SF Gateway intiative, all via Eddie Schneider at JABberwocky Literary Agency in association with John Berlyne at Zeno Agency."'

Next in news is that the long awaited third volume of Lafferty's complete short stories, The Man Underneath, is out from Centipede Press.
Thanks to photos shared by Felipe Guerrero in the Facebook group, I think we can see that this is the most beautiful edition they've made yet.  I'm waiting with baited breath to get my copy (which takes a few months longer to get in the UK).

The story selection is a very good one, but it still has that overly random feel to it that each of the TOCs has had in this series.  It feels as if it's not curated at all, having no sensitivity for how stories might sit side by side with one another or how the experience of reading them straight through the book might be enhanced by some selection of which flows into which.  Oh well.

Finally in Lafferty publishing news, volume 3 of Feast of Laughter: An Appreciation of R. A. Lafferty has hit the streets as well.  It's available on Amazon for a number of countries.  For a list of those, plus a link to the free pdf, see  It's longer than ever and packed with goodness: more reprints of essays on Lafferty from years past, academic and otherwise; new essays, also academic and otherwise; new stories, poems, and artwork; more reflections from Lafferty translators; an interview with Harlan Ellison about Lafferty; letters between Lafferty and Alan Dean Foster (who, incidentally, wrote the new Star Wars: The Force Awakens tie-in novel); a rare and excellent Lafferty non-fiction piece, 'Tell It Funny, Og', and one of my all-time favourite short stories by Lafferty, 'Configuration of the North Shore'.  I once again contributed an essay (on Lafferty and monsters) and a short story.  

Michael Swanwick kindly wrote about our efforts with FoL on his blog:
Feast of Laughter has to be one of the most extraordinary fannish feats of recent years. It's a full-length book/zine containing new and reprint essays, appreciations, letters, whatevers pertaining to the man who was easily the most original science fiction writer of the Twentieth Century --Raphael Aloysius Lafferty. 
R. A. Lafferty, "Ray" as his friends called him, was, during his lifetime, recognized as one of the giants of the field. Now, alas, he's close to forgotten. 
But not quite! Some of the great man's friends and admirers have been working hard to reignite Lafferty's reputation. This volume of Feast of Laughter is the third collection of Laffertiana and it is a must for all serious Lafferty fans.

Feast of Laughter volume 4 is now underway and the content we have so far promises to be just as amazing.  The most exciting feature in the forthcoming volume for me is definitely that we obtained permission and rights to include a never-before-published short story by Lafferty, 'The Rod and the Ring'.  It's a great one too.  There is the usual open call for submissions, but with a special emphasis this time round on what our editor in chief, Kevin Cheek, is calling 'Lightning Essays':  around 300 to 600 words 'About Lafferty's writing, life, legacy, influence, or a personal reminiscence about your experience reading Lafferty'.  Again see for details and where to send your submissions.

Lastly, if you haven't heard, the first ever 'LaffCon' is being held in New Jersey this June. Michael Swanwick also kindly mentioned LaffCon1 in his blog post above, at which he will be the Guest of Honor. I hope to make it myself if I can garner travelling funds from my university.  We shall see.

Note the hilariously clever 'Join us' paragraph at the bottom of the flyer - better image HERE (art by Anthony Ryan Rhodes, wit by John Owen).  

Welp, that's all for now!  Very exciting times for all things Lafferty.

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