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.


Bruce said...

I generally recommend OKLA HANNALI as Lafferty's most accessible work for first-time Lafferty readers. Then the NINE HUNDRED GRANDMOTHERS collection, followed by PAST MASTER.

Interestingly, my wife, who rarely reads outside "normal" books and authorial voices, enjoyed ARRIVE AT EASTERWINE. But it was a "bathroom book" at the time, without a bookmark, and she read it in brief sections and in random order.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Ha, maybe everyone should approach Arrive At Easterwine that way!

Thanks for your suggestions, Bruce.

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