Strange Doings by R.A. Lafferty
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
According to certain interweb sources, R. A. Lafferty is making a comeback. There are several new (and very well done) websites dedicated to him and his work, a new journal just in time to celebrate his 100th birthday, and (finally) a series of his collected works that might make it incrementally easier to read some of his stuff that’s been out of print for years. Though not much easier. That first volume of his collected works, for instance, is published by a specialty press and is already out of print. It’s so difficult to get one’s hands on, in fact, that even my heroes– the interlibrary loan librarians at my university– couldn’t get me a copy. Instead, they found a few early Lafferty collections for me to read.
Lafferty shines brightest in his short stories. His romping, boisterous, almost drunken exuberance comes across better in these than extended across an entire novel. I’ve read plenty of Lafferty novels, but they’re more of an acquired taste. You have to go into them knowing what you’re going to get and prepared to weather the storm. Because Lafferty’s novels are like riding out the storms at the core of a gas giant: there’s a good chance diamonds are going to be falling, but there’s also a good chance you’re going to get turned inside out before it’s done.
His short stories are a bit easier, not because they’re more muted or less powerful but simply because they don’t last as long. What is it about this guy? He’s not simply a science fiction writer, though he has plenty of stories about humans on new worlds. He’s even less a fantasy author, though there are fantastic elements in almost all his stories. What he is, is a story-teller. He’s someone who tells tall, sweating, shambling, horrifying, and beautiful stories– who tells stories like they used to be told when the world was a lot younger– and at the time he was writing it was only in the fantasy and science fiction and horror pulps that stories like this still found a home.
The pieces in this particular volume seem to cluster around a theme. They are stories of breaking out, of some new, larger reality breaking into the world. They’re stories of superhuman genius (“Rainbird,” “The Man with the Speckled Eyes,” “The Transcendent Tigers,” and “Aloys”) and of making contact with transcendent creatures or transcendent places (“All but the Words,” “World Abounding,” “Entire and Perfect Chrysolite”). Lafferty writes stories of phase transitions, of tipping points, of new or unseen (and sometimes horrifying) worlds breaking in on this one (“Continued on Next Rock,” “Once on Aranea,” “Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas,” “Dream”). They aren’t always the most narratively dense or developed; they don’t necessarily have tight plots or stunning plot twists. What they all are, however, are huge, rollicking yarns told in Lafferty’s unmistakable voice.
And this is what makes them work. There is a grotesque jollity about Lafferty. For him, the world is a bloody, beautiful, terrifying place– but never simply grim or grey. He is more than a little drunk on the world. This is a huge, holy brutality similar to but rowdier than Chesterton and far less tidy than the subdued mysteries of Borges. Wolfe has this in flashes, like shots of light through his stories’ elaborate puzzles. But in Lafferty it’s all there on the surface, naked and undistilled.
If you want to hear Lafferty’s language, head over to Daniel Otto Jack Petersen’s blog, where he regularly lays out slabs of Lafferty prose in all their bloody, dripping glory for passers-by to admire. Besides his language, Lafferty has a strength in creating characters, but his characters are like his stories– super-humans, larger than life, more alive than alive. I’m reminded of the sort of things people say about van Gogh, that he saw colors more vibrantly than other people. When I read Lafferty’s stories, I can’t help but wonder: is this how he saw the world? Is this how he saw people? It’s as though someone was living as Chesterton wrote in Manalive, with a certainty that the world was more gruesome and deep and joyful than could be properly grasped. There’s nothing slow or sedate or studied in his character sketches.
The stories that are the most effective in this particular collection are the ones that attempt the least. “Rainbird,” which opens the volume, tells the story of an early American inventor and the way he did– or did not– shape the modern world. It has all the pieces of Laffertian excellence in an easy-to-swallow morsel: the language that takes an obvious delight in lists and the bright mundanity of the workshop in all its sawdusty glory, the hint of the fantastic and the ease of the impossible that makes the entire, simple time-loop drama shine. And then there’s “The Ugly Sea” near the volume’s end. Again, something as simple as a tale of how a man falls in love with a woman and with the sea– and yet nothing could be more significant. This is what Lafferty does. He tells stories, but they are the stories that live down deep in the bones of the earth. He’s a grave-robber, and he does it all with a deep-throated laughter and terrible bright eyes and words that are thick with soil.