Saturday, December 28, 2013

Laffertian fragments

Searching for Lafferty book covers to put on my 'pulp' SF Pinterest board, I came across the following isolated snippets from Lafferty's story 'Through Other Eyes'.  (I found the snippets HERE.)  

I find the paragraphs strangely fascinating out of context like this:

It kind of gives me a fresh view of the Lafferty madness/sanity.  It looks freshly science fictional and philosophical too, in a way so unique I'm not sure you'd see it as pungently if you excerpted Delany or Zelazny or Dick this way:

I've used a lot of images on this blog too, which is fun to me and provides a certain kind of window into Lafferty's work.  But seeing only the words in scanned isolation like this also furnishes a kind of illumination.  Enjoy.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

anthropological SF and Lafferty

So I've started doing general SF reviews over at my blog They Have Pulled Down Deep Heaven On Their Heads.  The latest is of Michael Bishop's short novel Stolen Faces (1977), which is a specimen of 70s anthropological quasi New Wave science fiction.  The general discussion of the book may be of interest to Laffertians.

But it's got me thinking about anthropological SF (maybe most emblematically exemplified by Ursula Le Guin) and Lafferty:  does his work fit into this category/phase/expression of science fiction?  Probably not any more than his work fits into the New Wave in general.  But just as his work is amenable to the literary, experimental, psychological, linguistic, philosophising characteristics of New Wave (such as the likes of Zelazny and Delany exhibited), so too his work is amenable to the emphasis on indigenous identity, worldview, magic, ancestry, ritual, and culture in the anthropological SF of the likes of Bishop, Le Guin, and Tiptree.

One potential difference I see in Lafferty over against other practitioners of anthropological SF is that Lafferty's exploration of 'tribal' ethnicity and culture feels much more insider than what I've read in other authors.  Other writers often feel more like the compassionate and self-censuring view of a master race who is trying to repent of its atrocities and make amends.  Don't misunderstand that:  Le Guin and Bishop, for example, are exemplary liberal humanists (Taoist and Christian respectively) who are earnest about repentance and new policies toward the Other, working that out deeply and powerfully in their fictions.  But Lafferty feels more like a tribesman speaking out on behalf of the People.  His voice comes across to me more like a Chinua Achebe or Black Elk.  (It's interesting to note in this connection that Gene Wolfe said Lafferty's unique genius would have been taken more seriously in the USA if he had been of South American or some other non-white ethnicity.)

Lafferty deals often with other ethnicities and tribes than his own, sure - Native Americans and Native Indonesians spring to mind - but I think his empathy comes from the inside of his experience.  And those other Others sometimes stand in symbolically for his own, I think.  I know he self-identified as an ethnic and religious minority.  In one interview he said he just narrowly missed being a WASP by being instead a Ruddy Irish Catholic.  His own worldview too was far more in line with various indigenous peoples of the world than with the modern secular humanist worldview dominant in the West.

While I can think of quite a few short stories which are explicitly anthropological in theme, I'm not sure I can think of any of his novels that are really centred in this concern (aside from the obvious Okla Hannali).  Past Master, for example, seems more about sociology and political philosophy (and class is more at issue than race).  Anyway, here are a list of some of the short stories, off the top of my head, that are pretty deeply anthropological I think:

'Narrow Valley'
'Ride a Tin Can'
'Groaning Hinges of the World'
'How They Gave It Back'
'Frog On the Mountain'
'Nine Hundred Grandmothers'
'Land of the Great Horses'
'Smoe and the Implicit Clay'

More stories that feature anthropology, but I'm not sure whether they centre in that theme:

'Cliffs That Laughed'
'Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne'
'Name of the Snake'
'Old Foot Forgot'
'Tongues of the Matagorda'
'Happening in Chosky Bottoms'
'Days of Grass, Days of Straw'

Can anybody think of other instances and perspectives on this?

Monday, December 16, 2013

Globular Narratology (and glimmerings of a case for the greatness of Lafferty's late works)

'The insoluble problem for any narrator is to express the perfect sphere by means of a straight line, or even a shaggy sphere by a crooked line. For any subject or happening is globe-shaped, or at least glob-shaped, of some solidity and substance. And any narration must have sequence, which is line.

But why narrate spheres? Why strive for such an ideal or ideated form? Surely there are other shapes more curious, more open, more pregnant, though pregnancy does tend toward the spherical. There are other shapes more varied. Why not narrate saddles or quarries?  What kind of saddles, then?

Dromedary saddles, I suppose.  They're the closest thing to the shape of it.'

-R. A. Lafferty, Arrive At Easterwine (1971), Chapter Eleven (attributed to the fictional work Ermenics of Shape by the fictional character Audifax O'Hanlon)

For years this has been one of my go-to passages on the craft and puzzle of writing and storytelling. In the scheme of Lafferty's novel I think it takes on cosmic and ontological significance as well.  But in regard to narration it speaks of a universal puzzle that all storytellers must confront.  Few perhaps have pursued it as rigorously as Lafferty did.  I think this is why his narrations can be so notoriously (yet delightfully) difficult (not least among them Arrive At Easterwine!).

Not all of his stories are narrationally difficult, of course.  As one commenter on this blog aptly put it: Lafferty wrote the 'storiest of stories'.  Some of them positively hum and buzz with taut style and plot and the reader happily trips down the paragraphs to the usually wham-bang ending.  But let's be honest, Lafferty also wrote some utterly brain-melting narratives:  wildly and joyously baffling novels like Easterwine as well as Not To Mention Camels and The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeney. And, of course, there are the woollier, idea-drenched and/or structurally experimental short stories like 'Selenium Ghosts of the Eighteen Seventies' or 'Rivers of Damascus' or 'The Man Who Walked Through Cracks' or 'St Poleander's Eve' or 'Inventions Bright and New'.

Lafferty himself admitted in an interview that he wrote 'choppy novels', but I think that was due as much to the unwavering integrity with which he genuinely tried to 'narrate a sphere' (or a saddle or quarry for that matter) as to any lack of skills or intuition he may have suffered as regards traditional notions of plot and so on.  (And just as is the case with the short stories, there are examples of novels that, for me at least, flow quite well - e.g. Space Chantey, The Reefs of Earth, The Devil Is Dead - even if what they narrate can be fairly mind-bending or mystifying.)

In some of the later and seemingly crazier-than-ever novels, Andrew Ferguson (in an unpublished paper) makes a very convincing case that Lafferty was stepping out into the true and un-plied innovation he had been calling for in his works from earlier decades.  From what I've read of those novels - mostly published in the 1980s - I couldn't agree more.  Among these too is showcased (intentionally) 'choppier' and more 'flowing' instances:  East of Laughter being an example of the former and Annals of Klepsis and Aurelia being examples of the latter.  They strike me as the fruit of a very mature and very exciting, if inevitably disorienting (because of the sheer newness of the endeavour), phase of an author finally truly stretching forth into the great work of his life.  (Pace Webster, who's excellent and engaging article I already took issue with when I 'fisked' it here.)  If illness (and at last, alas, the weight of obscurity) had not diminished him in the 1990s, I think we would have seen Lafferty write his final and fullest masterpieces.  But even the beginnings of that late and mature work are powerful statements to behold - if we have ears to hear.

In my opinion, the way to obtain such ears is to very carefully listen to the early works and follow where they lead.  That is the huge mistake I think so many of even Lafferty's ardent admirers make. They were fond of his 60s and early 70s stuff and revel only in that era and fail to see how those very works are paving the way for later greatness.  For probably a very long time to come, our best guide to grasping how these early works set us up for later works is Andrew Ferguson.  Start with his Master's Thesis 'Lafferty and His World' - don't worry about the passages of this paper that get incredibly dense with theory and jargon.  They lighten up again and bear a lot fruit when he starts analysing specific stories by Lafferty.  Then proceed to his mesmerisingly informative and insightful blog:  Continued On Next Rock.  Pay close attention, stay tuned in.  Beyond that, all one can do is pray for the day some sane and just publisher eventually gives Andrew the go ahead to write Lafferty's biography (I've seen a sample - it's gonna blow us away), and when that happens you'll see what I mean.  Our understanding of Lafferty is gonna go interstellar.  We'll still be mere half-conscious mortals plumbing infinities, but we'll be far better off than we are at present, trying as we are to see a mosaic from too close, lacking vantage and vista.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Complete Lafferty Library Volume 1!

It's finally gonna happen!  I'd heard about this, but I just now found out about a lovely page over at Centipede Press that outlines the project to publish all 200 of Lafferty's short stories (12 volumes' worth!) over the coming years.
Each volume, they inform us, will include 'a guest introduction by a notable author in the field of fantastic fiction' (the first being Michael Swanwick - you can see an excerpt of the opening paragraph over on the page linked to above).  They even give us the table of contents for the first volume:
I have all of these stories in one format or another besides 'The Ninety-Ninth Cubicle', a rare story only appearing in the Weird Tales Fall 1984 issue or the 1991 collection Mischief Malicious (And Murder Most Strange) from United Mythologies Press, both now all but impossible to obtain.

I'm very happy to see that some of the more obscure stories are already showing up, even those collected only in the Chris Drumm paper chapbook format from the early 80s (these are like little zines really - quite a cool DIY 'punk rock' sort of format in my opinion, but the typewriter lettering is a little hard to get into as a reader, to really feel like you're reading a genuinely published story and not just someone's unpublished manuscript).  The story 'Jack Bang's Eyes' is one of my favourites, especially because of the wonderful chimpanzee character Flip O'Grady.  It's the first story in Drumm Booklet # 13: Snake in His Bosom and other stories.
I'm a little surprised, however, that they're kicking the whole book off with the story 'The Man Who Made Models', the titular story of Drumm Booklet # 18, a story I found rather difficult and not as gob-smacking or exquisitely crafted as many other stories by Lafferty.
It just shows me once again that Lafferty fans differ so very widely as to what is his best work, or where to start with his work.  But I'll have to go back and re-read 'Models' thinking of it as the first story in this volume and see how it hits me.  I'm glad they go on to 'The Six Fingers of Time' right after that.  It's a story I've used to introduce and hook quite a few people to Lafferty.  Straightforwardly written and packing a vivid imaginative punch with its well-imagined slow-down of time and movement, with characteristic playfulness and mischief and, of course, rather diabolical consequences (and a poignant little love story too). 'The Hole on the Corner', next in line, is a classic and well-loved tale, which really shows off some of the outrageously weird lengths Lafferty can go to in two seconds flat.  Very funny, uproariously gruesome, wildly imaginative, unsettling. Both 'Six Fingers' and 'Hole' are from the ever popular first collection of Lafferty's short stories Nine-Hundred Grandmothers (1969) and unsurprisingly, they're not the only ones on the list. 'Square and Above Board' was not a story that particularly struck me when I read it (I have it in the 1983 anthology The Year's Best Fantasy Stories: 9), but I'd love to see it again in this new context.  I have a feeling most of his stories are going to take on a fresh shine in these new formats and constellations.

I could wish they had at least one more story from Lafferty's 1971 collection Strange Doings besides 'All But the Words', and also at least one more story from his 1974 collection Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add? besides 'About a Secret Crocodile', and perhaps also one more from the 1991 collection Lafferty In Orbit besides 'The Skinny People from Leptophlebo Street' (and these are probably not the stories I'd have chosen from those collections if it was only going to be one).  But I am happy to see a number of stories that I first encountered in the under-appreciated 1984 collection Ringing Changes:  'The Ungodly Mice of Doctor Drakos', 'Days of Grass, Days of Straw', 'Parthen', and 'Rivers of Damascus' (two of them being ones I'd definitely have picked).  As I said Nine-Hundred Grandmothers provides the lion's share of the collection with three more stories in addition to the two I've already mentioned:  'Frog On the Mountain', 'Narrow Valley', and 'Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne', the latter two consistently considered classics and 'Frog' being another very worthy choice in my opinion.
Inline image 1
That just leaves 'Condillac's Statue or Wrens In His Head' from the 1982 collection Golden Gate and Other Stories (a book which also first collected 'Days of Grass').  It's a great story, but it continues with the trend of this first volume to collect stories that are heavy on philosophy and complex ideas and narrations.  I think this first volume could do with a few less hefty numbers and a few more that are slam-bang fun - otherwise people might get the wrong idea about what all Lafferty accomplishes across the spectrum of his storytelling.

Then again, I guess this series is really only for those who are already dedicated fans, since it's gonna cost a pretty penny per volume and run into five or six hundred dollars to collect all twelve books.  To be perfectly honest, huge fan that I am, I'm going to have to really scrape pennies (and maybe auction off a few children) to keep up and collect each one as it comes out.  And that's the only way to be sure of being in on it apparently.  This first run is limited to 300!  Presumably the subsequent volumes will be similarly limited in number.  (If any rich readers want to sponsor my collection, I can promise the Lafferty Library in my hands will go to very good use and be thoroughly reviewed and publicised to the further fame of Lafferty!  The rest of you, stop judging my beggarly kowtowing to the wealthy!)

I'm gratified to see 'Parthen' and 'Six Fingers of Time' on this opening list as I've championed them as good starting points over the years and most of my fellow Lafferty fans have demurred.  Also, I'm very happy to see 'Days of Grass, Days of Straw' as it deserves to be widely known as one of Lafferty's very, very best.

Looking over the list again, it's also good to note that Lafferty's inimitable bending of space, time, and persons are all represented in these stories - the way he goes sideways and ultraviolet with the classic science fiction and fantasy tropes of time travel and multiple worlds and alien contact and planetary expeditions.  There are also several of his Native American-centric tales and those featuring animals to pleasantly odd effect.  Also included are tales showcasing how he can stretch and shrink both people and places at will.

All in all it's very exciting!  'This is beginning, this is happening!  Let no least part of it ever forget the primordial tumble that is the beginning!'

I'll conclude with the photo of Lafferty the first volume includes, which I've never seen before and I find just lovely.
'It was all strong talk with the horns and hooves still on it.'
(R. A. Lafferty, The Devil is Dead)