Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add? by R.A. Lafferty
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Gene Wolfe has said of writing short stories that it is not enough to simply show people your ideas. He uses the analogy of a lion-tamer. A writer can’t just say to people, “Hey, look at this lion” and expect them to be impressed with her skills at showing them a lion. A writer has to do something with the lion, preferably something daring and unexpected. Wolfe says that the writer has to put her head in the idea’s mouth.
For me, that is the most difficult part of writing. Often I simply want to show people my ideas– an interesting imaginary place, for instance, or a character or device or image– but finding that narrative twist and plunge that makes the idea spark and come alive as a leaping, writhing story is something very different.
As important as Wolfe’s advice is though, I don’t feel like his requirement applies to R. A. Lafferty. There are in his stories– and specifically in the stories of this volume– rarely those unexpected twists that make you feel as though the bottom has fallen out of the narrative. In many of the stories that make up this collection, a reader can feel the end coming, can get a sense for the ultimate trajectory of the story, within the first few paragraphs. Part of this is because Lafferty does not craft those literary artifacts called short stories. Instead, he tells fables, and most fables have been told in some form before. But I think there’s also something deeper going on here with Lafferty and Wolfe’s lion-tamer analogy.
To return to Wolfe’s image, Lafferty does not need to stick his head in the idea’s mouth. Lafferty is the lion-tamer, but he’s a lion-tamer saying, “My God, it’s a lion. No, you haven’t ever really looked at a lion before. And you haven’t seen a lion like this. Look at it. This is the lionest lion that ever lived; this is the Ur-lion.” And then the lion– which, you realize, is indeed wilder and more savage and yet more merry than any lion you’ve seen before– rips out the lion-tamer’s throat and eats it with a wet chuckle, and both lion and lion-tamer have a good laugh together because that’s what lions are and that’s what lions do.
The story “Golden Trabant” in this volume is a good example of this approach. Narratively, the story is incredibly simple and has indeed been told many times before: a man discovers the El Dorado of asteroids, a rock not far from Earth formed completely of gold. What happens next? Exactly what you would expect. Pirates lay claim to it and become fabulously rich. Earth’s economy becomes unbalanced by the sudden influx of off-planet gold. The pirates build a kingdom with their new gold, sail the high skies hauling back their treasure in ship-loads, and ultimately turn each other. The asteroid becomes an irradiated waste haunted by a ghost. It’s every lost treasure story you’ve heard before with only the (now-blasé) element of being set in space. Maybe that was a new wrinkle when Lafferty wrote it, but beyond that there’s no unexpected twist that makes the story leap up out of the page like a living thing.
And yet it’s a fantastic story. Like so many of Lafferty’s, it simply works. The whole thing is alive. This is the case with many of the stories here. In some, it’s unclear what exactly is happening or has happened, plot-wise. “About a Secret Crocodile,” “Nor Limestone Islands,” and “Boomer Flats” are examples of this. “Boomer Flats” and “Maybe Jones in the City” in particular I found a bit frustrating, but the richness and jollity of Lafferty’s tone always wins me over eventually, even when they seem spun around nothing. If the bones of the story are a bit hollow, you still get Lafferty telling them. And that’s what you want. I’m convinced that had Lafferty taken it upon himself to re-write a phone book, it would be fun to read.
To be fair, there are stories with twists. There’s one at the end of “In the Garden” and “This Grand Carcass Yet” and “The Ultimate Creature.” “The Weirdest World” is all twist, and it may be one of the funniest Lafferty stories I’ve read yet. But the twist is secondary; the story is not built around it. And you probably saw it coming anyway. Moreover, the twist is usually twisted: this is a volume that highlights Lafferty’s brutal, grotesque humor, which is especially ripe in “This Grand Carcass Yet,” “Pig in a Pokey,” and “The Ultimate Creature.”
An annoying and puzzling (though easily ignored) feature of this volume is the needless division of the stories into those related to “Secret Places” and those about “Mean Men.” The stories in this work alternate back and forth between these two headings. In my edition of the book, this is even reflected by stories under each division having a differentiating font. Lafferty (not surprisingly) offers no explanation for this division, but it’s unlike Lafferty to offer much explanation for anything.
The reason the division doesn’t work though– or at least seems unnecessary and arbitrary– is that all of Lafferty’s stories are in some sense about secret places, and they’re all in some sense about mean men. They’re stories about the hidden, real world lurking just below the skin of this one and about the god or the devil lurking just below our own skins. That’s why their twists aren’t wholly unexpected: we feel them in our bones. We catch hints of them when we we’re not asleep.
If you’re new to Lafferty, this is as good a place to start with him as any. It’s hard to know what angle to approach his writings, but wading out into his short stories and learning how they rise and fall is easier than diving into one of his novels. Because, to be fair, you might not like his bright and bloody world. You might not want to get too close to that lionest of lions and hear its throaty chuckle. With his short stories, it’s easier to run away.
If Gene Wolfe’s talking about dangerous engagement with ideas (which makes more sense to me than to say he’s asking for twists and turns, at the end or anywhere else) then Lafferty exemplifies that approach. He generally wrestles with his lions, and invites the reader to. What attracts me to Lafferty more than anything else is his open invitation to full participation in every aspect of a story he tells, including its danger: “Die a little. There is reason for it.”
I like that idea of “dangerous engagement” regarding Wolfe’s challenge. I’m going to have to give that some more thought. I’m also intrigued by what you mean regarding Lafferty’s “invitation to full participation.” How does he do this? I think I agree that he does, but I’m not sure how. The language? The concepts themselves?
‘Secret Crocodile’, ‘Boomer’, and ‘Maybe Jones’ were all stories that passed me by a bit on a first read and have subsequently taken on great weight and power and pleasure for me. ‘Golden Trabant’ has always seemed a kind of minor story among Lafferty’s works to me, yet has always been one of my personal favourites. As you note, it’s hard to say just why it works so well. ‘Grand Carcass’ and ‘Pig in a Pokey’ are also minors to me, but favourites (I tend to love Lafferty’s ‘fables among the stars’ stories that involve interplanetary action). Aside from the initial delightful premise, ‘Weirdest World’ passed me by a little on a first go and has subsequently struck me as poignant genius – an example of Lafferty hiding fairly ‘literary’ fiction in SF clothing (that’s neither an ironclad distinction, nor a slight on SF, but merely the provisional acknowledgment of a division of artistic labour).
(And I do love what you say here about Lafferty writing fables rather than short stories.)
I’ve been in love with ‘Ultimate Creature’ since the first time I read it – used to read it out loud to friends – though I can’t decide if that’s more personal and the story’s minor or if it should be considered among his greater or greatest stories. The humour and description of the body of the story has always been a delight to me, but the strange, dark poetry of the ending lines positively punches me in the gut. ‘Nor Limestone’ has always seemed great and important to me, but it’s one of those I still haven’t got back to in order to discover why it strikes me so.
I wonder what you thought of ‘Adam Had Three Brothers’ (another one I thought was okay on first read and amazing on subsequent reads) and ‘Groaning Hinges of the World’ (one I loved from the get-go because of the sailor’s head and one I noticed was intensely rich in prose style on subsequent reads; another poignant one too, which also feels very akin to some African writing I’ve read).
I think DAEHSFTA is one of the most ‘lightly’ *entertaining* of Lafferty’s collections – ‘Mad Man’, ‘The Man Underneath’, and ‘Seven Story Dream’ can all be added to those we’ve mentioned already. Ironically, this at first made me feel like the collection wasn’t as strong and pungent as others. Nowadays I’m realising how many musky ones I missed in this collection and how some of the ‘entertaining’ ones are deeper and more artistically accomplished than they’re accessibility make them seem. But overall I think I’d agree with your reviews so far in rating Strange Doings slightly above DAEHSFTA (I’ve seen other Lafferty fans both affirm and reverse this judgment).
Thanks for the thoughts. I’ve yet to revisit ANY Lafferty. I’m still working through his things for the first time, so it will be interesting to see how my thoughts develop if I ever get around to a second orbit. If I survive the first. I also liked “Groaning Hinges,” especially the bit with the talking head. It’s the little things like that, just sort of thrown out there with a steady nonchalance, that often appeals to me the most in Lafferty: the touches of the surreal. I liked “Three Brothers” as well, but I’m not quite sure how to take Lafferty’s fables about other races.
The title of the anthology, as well as the suggested divisions and alternating typefaces, came from the purchasing editor at Scribner’s, Harris Dienstfrey.
Lafferty, (almost) always eager to please when it meant getting a volume sold, went along with it, putting together a table of contents that broke down roughly as Dienstfrey wanted: “Some of the selections are ambiguous: the Mean Men often lurk in the Secret Places and a few stories could go in either class.” After some back-and-forth, the two came up with the volume as it now stands—when I can get back to my blog, and I reach up to that volume, I’ll have more about this stage.
The thing Lafferty wouldn’t budge on, though, was paying for spot illustrations out of his own royalties—understandable, given the thin margins of genre publishing. Since Scribner’s also wouldn’t put up the $300 or so for the art, however, that meant we were denied the possibility of the likes of Gahan Wilson or Ed Koren illustrating a Lafferty collection.
Great info, thanks! This was sort of my suspicion. The whole division had a kind of “tacked on” feel. I’m curious what your source base for this is– do you have access to Lafferty’s letters or journals? Also, how soon will we see his biography?
Letters, yes. Journals, no, for the reason that he never kept any that I’ve found. Since he so rarely spoke about his work publicly (was rarely given the opportunity, to be honest), the letters are invaluable. One of my medium-term projects will be to get a volume of selected correspondence, at least between him and his agent, Virginia Kidd.
I am wrapping up the biography, just doing checks on everything, adding material about the centennial events, and trying to connect one troublesome section in the mid-70s (it is no accident that this corresponds to a gap in the Kidd-Lafferty letters). Once I’m done, then I’ll have it off to the publisher and, once I make any necessary revisions, it should be out within a year of submission. The only barrier is I’m also trying to complete dissertation material during this time, and the two projects not only differ widely subject matter, but also in the approach required to get the writing done. Heartening though to know that people are looking forward to it!
Very much so. I’ll be sure to review it here!
One clarification: the title, of course, comes from “Nor Limestone Islands”; the idea to use that as the title, though, was all Dienstfrey.
I like the title, and actually thought more or less reflexively that it must have been Lafferty’s idea.
Dienstfrey had a Laffertean inspiration I guess.
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