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.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Reading the Argo Cycle - part 1

There's lots of Lafferty news afoot, but I'm not up for cataloguing it all in a Lafferty News post today. Most of you will probably be aware of it anyway.  Regardless, I will come back to that in a different post on a different day.  As you can see, with post-graduate work underway I have a lot less time to blog.  So with a spare moment today I'm going to talk about the Lafferty I've been reading.

I managed to get hold of physical editions of the complete Argo Cycle or Argo Mythos (well, all the novels anyway - the short stories in the cycle I only have piecemeal in print and the rest electronically).  This includes the so-called The Devil is Dead Trilogy:  Archipelago (1979), The Devil is Dead (1971), and More Than Melchisidech (1992).  The last novel of the trilogy was released in three volumes:  Tales of Chicago, Tales of Midnight, and Argo, each amply illustrated with some pretty wonderful art from Ward Shipman.  And there is one standalone novel in the cycle, Dotty (1990), which I was also lucky enough to obtain.  Except for The Devil is Dead, which was released widely as a mass market paperback back when Lafferty was actually recognised as a giant among his peers, the rest is in very limited small press editions that are all but unavailable now, and what is available normally costs more than I'll probably ever be able to afford.  But a very generous long time reader of this blog, whom I hadn't corresponded with before, gave me a great, affordable deal on all five books.  I was able to move on the kind offer thanks to the generosity of those who contributed to my PhD fundraising campaign, which exceeded its goal.

So, I've now read Archipelago, and cracked straight into The Devil is Dead to try to get the feel of reading the books as a series.  This is my second read of Devil (the first was over a decade ago) and I'm nearly finished.  I'll then head straight into the first volume of Mechisidech:  Tales of Chicago.  I hope to do a number of posts on Archipelago, with copious quotes since it's unavailable to most Lafferty fans out there.

First impressions:  the opening made me think this was going to be Lafferty's Ulysses or Finnegans Wake.  But after a handful of fairly dense pages, the novel settles into a more straightforward style, if not a conventional narrative.  Here's how Chapter One, 'In a Southern City', begins:

All this begins in a southern city and at nine o’clock in the morning, the same hour at which the world was made. It was a Thursday when originally man was not. 
Indeed, in these latter days there were few people in the streets and not many in the pubs. But beer was available (barley and hops had been made on the third day), and the morning had a freshness as in the earliest weeks of the world, as the older people remember them. A fast wind was driving the clearing clouds, and the pavements were wet. (When the world was first made it was as though it had just rained.) 
The first man in the world was drinking the first beer. He was Finnegan (not in name, but in self), and he looked at himself in the bar mirror. He saw for the first time that first face, and this was his appearance: he had a banana nose, long jumpy muscles along cheek and tempora, and a mouth in motion. He was dark and lean, like a yearling bull. His eyes had a redness that suggested a series of stormy days and nights, were not previous days and nights impossible. He was a little more than half Italian and a little more than half Irish, as was Adam his counterpart in a variant account. 
His mind was clear but not of a pattern. He was rootless and renegade. A moment before this, he had been in the Garden. Then he raised his eyes from the drink. The Garden was gone, and he was in the middle of the World. Finnegan looked at the World with new-made eyes, and he doubted that he would ever find a place in it.

It makes me feel as if Lafferty is signalling that he's setting up a very epic work in both narrative and philosophical scope.  The book of Genesis from the Hebrew canon is, of course, a key 'intertext' here. But there is a deep sense of amnesia and cyclical recurrence not found in the founding narrative of the Bible.  This is very much a post-creation scenario, in the thick of an old and weary world, and yet the sheer freshness of the Genesis account is intruding in the introduction to this strange man Finnegan.  The antidiluvian world feels as if it were there just yesterday; the Garden of Eden has just slipped from view as Finnegan looks up from his drink.  To see this fallen world as suddenly appearing from its unfallen state only a moment before is certainly to see it 'with new-made eyes'. Even though I've heard that Lafferty was very much not a fan of James Joyce, it's hard not to hear echoes of the 'riverrun' opening of Finnegans Wake here.  They're either totally unintentional resonances, showing like minds in spite of themselves, or it's Lafferty taking on Joyce directly to somehow combat and/or subvert him if he was indeed no fan.

At any rate, this opening filled me with wonder as well as the obvious confusion and tension it exhibits, especially with this man who already doubts he'll ever find a place in the world as it is. (The physical description of Finnegan is wonderful too.)  The sense of dialectic continues:

But he was not alone. He had a companion named Vincent. Vincent, however, was neither rootless nor renegade. His mind, not so clear not so deep as that of Finnegan, did have a pattern. He had not known the Garden. He was born in the World, and he would always have a place in it. 
In principio,” said Finnegan, “creavit Deus masculum et feminam, that is to say, God made the first pair a man and a woman.” 
“But the earliest stories always begin ‘There were these two guys in a bar,’ ” Vincent contradicted. “I'd say it in Latin if I knew how.” 
“The two versions cannot be reconciled, and I worry about it,” Finnegan said. “But, every time the world begins, it does begin with two young men in a pub. All things else are subsequent to this.”

Two guys in a bar vs. 'male and female he created them'.  Interesting.  And funny.  Lafferty is, of course, doing his usual exploration of just how storytelling and stories work.  How do you start them? How do you do a Beginning, when really everything's always already in the Middle?  He seemed genuinely obsessed, vexed, and impassioned by how narratives work and his whole career seems to be a philosophical exploration and explication of the puzzle, Lafferty's exploration itself being in story form since this was the natural apparatus with which he was endowed.

But after this enigmatic introduction things start to get a little more pedestrian.  This is appropriate, of course, for Lafferty wants the mundane world to take over this supra-mundane entrance into it.  The tale transitions nicely this way:

Beer before breakfast, and you'll have sudden luck all day. Toohey's, Tooth's, K. B. Lager, the same beers they had in Paradise: it hadn't all been a dream. The boys left the pub but they didn't leave the pubs; there were many of them to visit.

After this the tale is one of war buddies playing drinking pranks in their time off.  Then it moves episodically to the events of the war buddies leaving the war and returning home, and then their lives back in the States.  We'll come to that in time.  But suffice it to say that many more moments of philosophy, etymology, and philology, peppered with some wonderful moments of myth and folklore, feature throughout the ostensibly mundane main narrative.

Before concluding this post I want to note that moving in to The Devil is Dead was very much an experience of moving into a very different kind of narrative.  Archipelago is a rather meandering account of the lives of five friends (the Dirty Five) and their associates, somewhat centred on the task of theological zine-making - yep!  Whereas Devil is a tight, fast-paced adventure narrative through and through.  Archipelago does its philosophising directly in long-ish asides, digressions, and dialogue.  Devil does most of its philosophising through the strange events of the narrative itself and the reeling psychology of those experiencing the events.  Devil does totally work as a standalone. Archipelago is not needed as a 'prequel' or anything like that.  But you do understand a number of the references in Devil more if you've read Archipelago, though knowing the people and events referred to does not necessarily illuminate the central and unresolvable mysteries of Devil.  I'd say Archipelago is crucial to the Lafferty completist or scholar or truly geeked out fan of Lafferty.  Such people would not want to miss some of the passages and themes in Archipelago.  I'd also say it's crucial to understanding the very, very strange and fascinating character of Finnegan (as I'm sure the rest of the cycle will prove to be as well).  In fact, that's my favourite aspect of Archipelago on this first go:  further insight into Finnegan, one of Lafferty's greatest creations I'm beginning to think. Archipelago doesn't always follow Finnegan's POV or life.  He's off stage for a lot of it.  But when it does feature him it's always fascinating and illuminating, at the same time only deepening the mystery of just what or who he is.

More to come.

(photos by my wife, who also supportively suggested I spend the overflow of funding on rare books - the gal's a keeper!)

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