My rating: 4 of 5 stars
It’s kind of fun to be part of a renaissance, even if you were late to the party. It’s kind of fun to be part of something gathering steam, spilling open, being rediscovered. Right now, that’s more or less what’s happening to the writings of R. A. Lafferty.
If you don’t know Lafferty, you haven’t been reading my blog long, as I’ve reviewed at least two of his books here already. You also probably haven’t seen the lovely fanzine, Feast of Laughter, which celebrates the man and his work and in which in the latest issue I have a story and review. You haven’t heard there was this really odd guy in Oklahoma writing at the crest of the New Wave in science fiction who was– bizarrely– Catholic, conservative, and curmudgeonly. You’re one of the lucky ones, because you get to discover his work from the ground up.
The collection The Man Who Made Models is the best place to start. I’ve written about Lafferty’s novels before. They are, I would argue, an acquired taste (but one well worth acquiring). It is in his short stories though that his madness and exuberance come in more manageable bits. But these aren’t dainty snacks; even as short stories they’re bloody, quivering chunks of meat you have to unhinge your jaw to swallow.
Part of what makes a Lafferty renaissance fun to be a part of is that Lafferty’s writings are so immense and scattered. Only one of his books is still in print, and his short story collections are treasures for which used bookstores are to be scoured regularly. Many of his later works were never published on a large scale and only appeared in now-vanished small presses. His short stories are spread across decades and lost in a farrago of out-of-print collections, unpublished manuscripts, and copyright litigation. All of which makes this particular collection so exciting: it’s purported to be the first volume in Lafferty’s complete collected short fiction.
And it really is a great place to begin the strange odyssey that is Lafferty, assuming you can sweet-talk your local librarian in getting her hands on it. There’s a fantastic mix of Lafferties in here, though I don’t believe this volume was designed to be a “best of” collection. (My single complaint about this volume is that the editorial afterword doesn’t explain the selection process for this volume. It is not chronological, as the list of original sources at the volume’s conclusion shows these stories range from the 1960s to the 1980s and appeared in everything from big-name magazines to small-press chapbooks.)
Models a pleasant patchwork, but that makes it sound comfortable and cozy. It’s not. It’s a patchwork of monsters. You’ve got stories in here that are among Lafferty’s best and brightest: “The Six Fingers of Time,” “Frog on the Mountain,” and “Narrow Valley.” These are the ones you want someone to read for the first time when you’re trying to explain who Lafferty is any why people get so excited about him.
But when you want to go beyond that and highlight his exuberant monstrosity, you’ve also got plenty of choices here. You have “The Hole on the Corner,” for instance, which I think is one of the best examples of what makes Lafferty tick: the Chestertonian joy of the gruesome, bizarre, and hilarious. There are some that are genuinely frightening, whether that means chillingly subdued like “Parthen” or riotously macabre like “The Skinny People of Leptophlebo Street.” And you have the ones where Lafferty almost goes too far, leaving you with a simmering crackling in your mind, an effervescence that only hints at the things other writers feel they need to work into their stories such as plots or conclusions: “The Ungodly Mice of Doctor Drakos,” for instance, or the concluding work of the volume, “Rivers of Damascus.”
I’m not a literary analyst who can comment eruditely on the philosophical or theological things lurking below the surface of Lafferty’s prose, like some of the contributors to Feast of Laughter. But I want to comment briefly on two of the stories in this collection, because it’s not worth much to an outsider to simply say Lafferty is impossible to classify and leave it at that. Each one of his stories bears deeper analysis, and each one in some way forces eyes and minds toward a world where a multiplicity of options and universes await, something that is often off-putting for those coming to his stories hoping for tidy conclusions and explanations. Things are a bit larger than that here; it’s like waiting for a cloud-scape to fall into its final configuration.
But there are two stories in this volume I especially love. The first is “Days of Grass, Days of Straw,” which is absolutely strange. On first blush this story seems to be an alternate reality tale, in which a man comes to awareness in a “weird western” motif where Indians have a thriving civilization on the Great Plains. This, it is eventually explained, is a “day of grass,” an extra day in the calendar that doesn’t count, as opposed to the ordinary, mundane “days of straw.” Life in the day of grass doesn’t have much narrative structure: the characters eat and talk and make war with buffalo and dance beneath a floating mountain. Simultaneously, in our own reality the characters discuss the nature of these lost calendar days, and Lafferty lists several of them for us, days we’re led to believe he’s lifted from obscurity from half a dozen ethnic calendars. The story ends abruptly with no real conclusion: we’re left with only potentiality, a flicker of wonder around the edges of our own life, and some pseudo-philosophical discussion of time and potentiality. It’s gorgeous.
And then there’s “Thus We Frustrated Charlemagne,” which features– as much of Lafferty’s short fiction does– characters that form a recurring cast of sorts in many of his stories. A group of scientists has achieved the technological breakthrough of sending avatars back in time to alter the past. (One of the best things about reading Lafferty is the way he handles technology. His explanations, which border on the absurd, somehow have aged much better than some of the best “hard science” explanations for fictitious technology.) Each time they alter the past, the world around them is transformed. It’s a trope that’s been explored often in science fiction since, but here it’s as fresh and new and hilarious as an actual real world popping into existence.
That’s much of the deep magic here: new, real worlds. Lafferty’s science fiction is never about making fantasy worlds to replace this one. Rather, he writes to open our eyes to the weirdness and the wonder in this one. The world, Lafferty’s fiction seems to say, is stranger than you can imagine. This one. The one you’re sitting in. It’s going to eat you alive. All of the fantasy– all of the horror and monstrosity and laughter and joy– is just him shaking your shoulders. Shaking them hard. Wake up.