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.


Kevin Cheek said...

This is dangerous to read at work. At first I could suppress the chuckle, but as it grew into an irrepressible gasping guffaw, I was getting looks from my co-workers. Fortunately, they're used to me by now.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

So glad to hear it cracks you up! It really tickles me too, especially the more times I read it. It's such an involved passage that I wasn't sure others would see much of the humour in it. I've also been the one being looked at as I bark loud laughter. But only by my family at home so far, heh.

Gregorio Montejo said...

In some ways this is Lafferty at his most Joycean; this almost reads like a lost episode from Ulysses in the way that the passages shift effortlessly from one subject to another subject, and even from time frame to time frame (classical, medieval, modern), all without losing the thread of the narrative. Yet it is still uniquely stamped in every line by Lafferty's signature use of language and humor. As you say, this is vintage Lafferty.

PurplePoet said...

Just about as new to this as a sperm cell, but ‘And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire’ infected me shortly after it was injected into the book world, (never to be forgotten!) and now Y'all are making me want to read everything Lafferty has written. "Thank You for Your contribution to my continuing education!"

Curtis Delk Rose said...

hmmm. i 'was' or 'am?" the "PurplePoet" just above. Just added my 'name and url' which i have not done before. Sorry. When i said i was 'new' i meant it. i mean i am rather old, but 'new' to this.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Gregorio, I couldn't have said it better (or even that good). Thanks.

Curtis, good to have you here! 'And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire' was about the fourth or so story I read by Lafferty (this was back in the mid 90s) and it lit a fire under me with its wonderfully odd theological/spiritual theme mixed with the kind of post-apocalyptic ecosystem setting. It's been a favourite story for me ever since and is probably what catalysed me into starting on the long, thrilling journey of collecting everything by Lafferty that I could. Hope to see you round!

Kevin Cheek said...

In some ways this is a very complex passage. At first, it is straight narrative explanation that Hans is in love, but then it transitions into Hans' reverie about Marie's eyes and classical allusions to green. There is no clear point of transition, but you realize at some point that the point of view has shifted from an external narrator to Hans' own internal stream of thought. Then Marie's voice in his head transitions very cleverly to her voice in their actual conversation, though that transition is signaled concretely by the two sentences, "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."

Kevin said...

I keep returning to this passage. It works even better read aloud. When I got to the punchline "... wallabies can't read" my son cracked up.

It is very patiently written and demands patient reading. We start with the reverie on green eyes, clacissism, and the color "vair". This sets the tone, and prepares us for what to expect. Then we have two tall tales in Marie's imagined voice about Her Hochheimer and Belloc/Biloxi before launching into the tall tale about Shakes Pearson.

There is an often obeyed unwritten rule of threes in storytelling. In the overarching structure of this passage, Lafferty does give us three tall tales. However, the story of Shakes has four parts, giving us six tall-tale interludes. This allows for four verses of Hans' poetry. Why take so much time to let these thoughts full out? In part because this is a drunken reverie, and the thoughts meander like that. But underneath that he brings he brings it to s close with laser-like focus.

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