Friday, July 8, 2011

Some Initial Thoughts on R. A. Lafferty's Fourth Mansions

It's usually agreed that Lafferty is stronger at his short stories than his novels. The wonderful weirdness that is usually a strength at the short story length can sometimes threaten to become overwhelming, or even unreadable incoherence, at novel length. Nevertheless, besotted fans of Lafferty's short stories are impelled by sheer addiction to his prose--the sweaty, shaky need for more Laffertian lore, from any source whatever--to wade into the novels and grapple with Lafferty's uber potent strangeness in depth, for one long sustained narrative. And though Lafferty fanatics are often not a little baffled by the novels, we tend to go back for more!

Besides Fourth Mansions, I've read the following novels by Lafferty: Past Master, Reefs of Earth, Space Chantey, Arrive At Easterwine, The Devil Is Dead, Annals of Klepsis, Where Have You Been Sandaliotis, and The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney. That's nine novels in total (over a period of about as many years), so it's not as if they're unreadable. Indeed, you get the hang of them. You start to love some of them, or parts of them, as much as the short stories. In fact, I've read the afforementioned Past Master, Annals of Klepsis, and Space Chantey at least twice-over each (the latter two I even read out loud to my children!) for sheer pleasure--just delighting to savour again the prose and the narrated events.

The bottom line is that I've found, basically, however Lafferty's novels may compare to the short stories, however much they may or may not 'succeed' as cohesive versions of that particular art form - they usually ALL contain some amount (usually quite a lot) of solid Laffertian gold.

Interestingly, despite the sometimes overwhelming concentration (or diffusion) of weirdness in Lafferty's novels, I have usually found them quite 'easy' reads. I can usually get through them in fairly short order. Despite the wonkiness, they still manage, oddly, to have a fairly page-turning flow. The novels sometimes reel, roil, and riot, but they seem to be eminently finishable.

But this is where Fourth Mansions was the exception to the rule for me. When I first tried to read it some 8 or 9 years ago, I just couldn't finish it. I had finished all the ones I had read before that and have subsequently finished all the ones I've read after abandoning it. I knew that a number of fans and critics considered Fourth Mansions Lafferty's best (and some even said it was possibly his most coherent plot), but this just baffled me as I found that its story just didn't pull me in beyond a few chapters and the strangeness wasn't cohering into anything inviting for me. I gave up half way through. I knew also that some fans found Fourth Mansions to be one of Lafferty's 'worst' novels. (The R. A. Lafferty Devotional Page categorises it as 'lame'--below even 'OK'--then again, how LAME is it that a site 'devoted' to Lafferty even has the category 'lame' for his works! Honestly, I admit I've read what comes close to 'average' from Lafferty, but 'lame'? Never.)

Anyway, I assumed that since I had more or less easily downed all the other novels I'd tried, this one was just truly flawed. Still, I had always intended to go back and get through it. I recently read a 1975 paper by Sheryl Smith on Arrive At Easterwine that mentioned Lafferty had written three 'end-of-the-world comedies'--Past Master (1968), Fourth Mansions (1969), and Easterwine (1971)--which she recommended reading in that order if possible. I found this to be a fresh way of labelling and grouping some of his works. Having recently re-read Past Master and planning to re-read Easterwine soon, I decided now was the time to finally muscle through to the end of Mansions.

Basic result? I totally missed it on my first reading. This is an amazing book. Definitely one of Lafferty's very best and most important. It is packed with tons of the finest of Lafferty's prose on a lot of levels. It is also packed with fantastic marvels and action-adventure (of an utterly bizarre variety, of course) as well as Lafferty's usual long and creative portions of exposition - ranging from various types of conversations to college lecture Q&A sessions to prophets preaching on the streets. It is bristling with a wonderful cast of weird and well-sketched characters of various ethnicities and powers and beings. The pedestrian protagonist, newspaper reporter Freddy Foley, is a bumbling favourite for me alongside Past Master's Thomas More.

The novel is still very, very strange and hard to follow and even hard to finish toward the latter half (though all the later chapters are as good as the early chapters - it's just that mere mortals flag in trying to quaff one of Lafferty's most potent brews). Yet it is full of joys and thrills and pleasures.

In one sense it is a sustained meditation on a theology of monsters (which is very exciting for one of my lifelong study projects). But even more centrally, it is another crucial piece in the puzzle that Lafferty's body of work constructs: a profound, pungent, tenacious argument that we need to wake up and rebuild intellectual and spiritual DIMENSION in an intellectually and spiritually FLAT modern/postmodern world.

‎'Somehow there is the belief that people in the Dark Ages believed that the world was flat. They didn't. But it is the contemptuous ones of today who have made a really flat world that is the sad answer to everything. What is wrong with the world and why is it not worth living in? It's flat, that's what.' (Fourth Mansions, p. 59)

This novel, as all of Lafferty's work, joyously and rambunctiously attempts to diagnose this problem and proffers a beautiful and scary cure: unleash all the metaphorical, metaphysical, and material monsters inside us and outside us, reintegrated under the good rule of God again, freed to gleefully destroy a fake world that has been foisted on us and gruesomely rebirth a real one again.

That diagnosis and cure is no doubt unpalatable to many, but Lafferty is cooking and seasoning a musky rump roast according to his own recipe (yet one he claims is not at all his own) and he has a disarming and seductive way of wafting wonderfully inviting aromas our way, inciting our salivating mouths and rumbling bellies.
'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)