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.