Tag Archives: Lafferty

The Man With the Aura

The Man with the Aura: The Collected Short FictionThe Man with the Aura: The Collected Short Fiction by R.A. Lafferty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Who is the weirdest writer? Obviously that’s a huge question, and the answer will be contingent on both your definition of the word and the scope of who you’re reading. There are probably more than a few unpleasantly strange or shockingly bizarre authors writing fiction right now, though mainstream publishing seems to do a pretty good job of shutting them out for popular audiences. But if you were looking for an author who managed to squeeze in for a while and who isn’t so much macabre or grotesque (though he is certainly that more than occasionally) and rather more like just wonderfully, rollickingly weird, you wouldn’t have to look farther than R. A. Lafferty.

Lafferty is a puzzle, and I’ve written about him on the blog several times before without getting into much deeper analysis. (If you want deeper analysis, check out Feast of Laughter.) I keep writing reviews about him as though I’m writing for an audience that’s never read him. That’s okay though, because that audience is still far too large, and Lafferty seems to bring out the evangelizing tendencies of his readers.

Lafferty’s work– which flourished in scifi and fantasy magazines at the weird height of the New Wave– doesn’t so much straddle all the borders of speculative fiction (horror to fantasy to weird western to science fiction) so much as it seems blissfully unaware that such borders exist. His stories are tall tales, whether set in outer space, the far future, or the living room. They create lumbering, larger-than-life characters with a language more akin to a Native American story-teller (which is why his work does so well read aloud) than prose satisfied with sitting quietly on the page.

The problem with Lafferty though is that you have to look for the guy. His collections are out of print and hard to find. His novels are hit and miss at least on a first read. What’s rescuing him from obscurity at the moment– besides the eloquence and enthusiasm of devotees far more well-spoken than me– is yet another obscurity: the small press. Centipede Press to be exact, which is in the process of releasing all his collected works. (I’ve reviewed volume 1 previously.)

So what does one find in this second volume? For one thing, don’t worry if it’s the only volume you can find, as the stories appear in these collections in no particular order or chronological progression. This volume (like the first) is a grab bag so that, as the editor explains, a reader new to Lafferty can experience him as readers in the sixties, seventies, and eighties did: a large, bright voice stumbled upon in stories scattered through magazines and collections of the decades in no apparent order.

The volume itself is a significant, lovely edition, polished enough to give Lafferty a worthy place on the shelf yet weird enough to fit the contents. There are, however, still some editorial mistakes (or teases). For example, in the section listing first publication info for each story, there’s story listed that doesn’t actually appear in this volume. (The first story slated for volume 3?)

What about the stories themselves? What does one stumble upon in this collection? Wide open vistas. And jokes. In fact, looking down the list of the table of contents for this volume, I’m struck that this might be a common theme here. Not that these stories aren’t serious or well-written, but rather that each of them (or at least most of them) contain a central hidden hook, something that you only catch looking at you and winking when the story has wrapped up. I can’t tell you the punchline for each story (and in at least one of them I simply didn’t get the joke) but I’ll highlight a few of my favorites.

“Land of the Great Horses” is a good place to start. It’s a mosaic tale, told from a variety of perspectives, including a fictional encyclopedia article, about the reappearance of the lost homeland of the Romany, shot through with Lafferty’s celebration of language. Then there’s “Ride a Tin Can,” which combines music with folk anthropology to give a tragic, grotesque, and hilarious first contact story against the background of economic exploitation in the worse sense possible. Another favorite in this collection is “Hog-belly Honey,” which illustrates Lafferty’s unique ability to combine aspects of hard science fiction with a homespun, raggedy narrative voice and give it all the feel of genuine folk medicine and showmanship. Finally, I loved the piece “Great Day in the Morning,” which pokes fun at some of the assumptions of the modernist paradise but doesn’t flinch to go all the way and take such assumptions to their ludicrous conclusions.

I saw a spectacularly disheartening graphic the other day that proposed to break the art of the story down to its component pieces, outlining the different types of general characters and plots and settings like you’d pick them off a menu and use to build your own narrative value meal. The graphic also reminded helpfully of the basic narrative arch: the character experiences conflict or a problem, this conflict goes through climax and resolution, and then the story ends with the character changed in important ways. This is all useful enough, but Lafferty is the sort of writer who reminds that to do really interesting things it’s better to just ignore helpful narrative flowcharts altogether. Or rather, Lafferty turns the narrative flowchart on his head, because it’s not his characters experiencing this arch– it’s his readers.

You start a Lafferty story and immediately realize something is off or strange. This isn’t the world you were expecting. The sense of uncertainty grows as you read it, but you’re drawn along by his voice. And then at some point you abruptly get it: the concept or the punchline or the up-side-down world snaps into focus and the reader (never mind the main character, who might well be dead, dismembered, or eaten at this point) leaves the page changed in important ways.

Yet even that approach is a model Lafferty can discard whenever he sees fit. Some of the stories are simply straightforward and lovely, like the pseudo-biographical piece, “Gray Ghost: A Reminiscence,” which is in the strain of the very best Bradbury. Another, the final in this volume, is a post-apocalyptic tale that may be Lafferty’s world building at the most compelling I’ve seen. In the space of a short story he spins out a tiny kingdom, characters, and ecological tangles that seem in some respects as contemporary as The Hunger Games and as haunting as Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind.

I continually find when I reach the end of reviewing a book by Lafferty that I haven’t really done it justice. Well, then you read some of his stuff and try to explain it. Or rather, imagine this. Imagine a man who no longer exists, maybe your great-grandfather or maybe the person you always hoped your great-grandfather was. Someone a little strange but who has been places you never have (because most of them no longer exist either) and who tells spinning, staggering stories with the voice of an older generation. Someone who has one foot in the American West with its tall tales and the other in the technology that was sprouting like mushrooms at the height of the Space Race. And this man tells stories, and no one ever told him how he was supposed to tell them, so he tells them like he wants.

There you go. Lafferty is a little bit like that imaginary man, raised to the third power, at least.

Feast of Laughter 3

Feast of Laughter 3: An Appreciation of R.A. LaffertyFeast of Laughter 3: An Appreciation of R.A. Lafferty by Ktistec Press, R.A. Lafferty

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Welcome to the feast of laughter. The banquet has been set, the feast is open, endless, varied, and delicious– if you want rich fare and strong drink. Yet the banqueters are few. One of the opening (reprinted) essays of this, the third volume of a festschrift of sorts to the wild, wonderful, and largely neglected author R. A. Lafferty, sets out the imagery: those (in this volume and elsewhere) who have discovered and celebrate Lafferty’s works are the Family of the Empty Hall.

If this is true, I’m struggling to find a metaphor for what the third volume of Feast of Laughter is. It’s more than a toast given in one of the echoing corners of the hall. It is, perhaps, a congregation of fellow discoverers gathered around a table, in the light of a sputtering flame, discussing, sharing, tasting what they have found.

Feast of Laughter is now in its third volume, and rumor has it the indefatigable editors are putting together a fourth. Once was an event and twice a happy coincidence, but three times seems to imply we’ve struck a vein of precious ore (to abruptly switch metaphors here) and are following it out, mining it through, bringing to light as much of the rich writings and life of the spooky old man from Oklahoma as possible.

So what have we found this time around? Here we have another (thicker) collection of essays, analysis, correspondence, interview, and imitation of Lafferty. Some of it, as with previous volumes, is original, some reprinted from hard to find sources. Most all of it is pretty good.

Yet it’s also for a closed audience, of sorts. That’s not to say there’s anyone who would be unwelcome to the feast. But it is to say if you’re new to Lafferty you don’t necessarily want to start with this (though the volume does include two of Lafferty’s own stories, including “The Configuration of the Northern Shore,” which I’ve always found especially haunting). Rather, you want Lafferty himself first un-distilled and uninterpreted (perhaps by dipping into one of the three or four collected volumes of his fiction out or forthcoming from Centipede Press). But if you’ve read him and are bemused or enchanted, maybe a little confused or delightfully bewildered, and you want to get at his work from other eyes and angles, this is where you want to be.

Literary analysis is not necessarily my thing, and I find often find myself most annoyed with essays that repute to explain the deeper meanings of some of my favorite authors (some of the recent work on Gene Wolfe immediately springs to mind). But what I enjoyed about this volume is that several pieces focused on Lafferty’s novels, including interpretations or reprinted forwards for The Devil is Dead, Fourth Mansions, The Annals of Klepsis, and at least a few on Past Master, I found these quite helpful in approaching works that have seemed (and sometimes remain) a bit of a tangled thicket to me, even as I’m enjoying pushing through them. Reading these pieces helped me catch the things I had missed and see overall structures and themes click into place.

As far as the included correspondence and interviews, these are priceless and help Lafferty come alive, especially useful for those of us who discovered him after his time. The exchange with Alan Dean Foster, brief as it is, reveals much of Lafferty’s character and whets the appetite for the rumored forthcoming biography.

And then there is the part where people do their own stories inspired by the master. These are a nice garnish to the main course, but not really central to the feast (and I of course include my own contribution in this judgement). The two that stand out are “People are Strange” by Christopher Blake, which to me felt most clearly like a Lafferty homage, and J Simon’s “Bone Girl,” the best original piece in this collection, which could have easily found a home in any professional market and here really makes the rest of us look better just by being alongside it.

Flip the magazine over. There, on the back cover, is an image of the famous Door to Lafferty’s office. There’s a lot to be said (and a lot probably will be said) about this particular door, but this image alone is what you need to know about the man if you need to be convinced his words (and books like this filled with words about his words) are worth you time. It’s covered with clippings of art, diagrams, stickers, captions, and paintings in a contained sort of organized fractal. But totally covered so you can barely see a single spot of wood. Imagine walking down a hallway of doors (I don’t actually know where Lafferty’s office was– home or business or whatever) and seeing one like this.

Imagine the kind of guy who would be waiting on the other side.

Crack the cover, and come on in to meet him . . .

Norstrilia

NorstriliaNorstrilia by Cordwainer Smith
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

There’s something a bit strange about only children. Maybe it’s not polite to point it out, but not having siblings seems to leave one without context and make one a little bit more difficult to relate to. That’s what I felt with Norstrilia, the only completed novel of Paul Linebarger, a diplomat, foreign operative, and expert on psychological warfare who wrote and published science fiction under the moniker of Cordwainer Smith. Norstrilia is a strange only child.

Not only was it strange in content and tone, it was a bit awkward in form. The work was published originally as two separate pieces (serialized?) in magazines. It was only stitched together into a whole narrative later. And this particular work was compiled by a specialty press and included all the textual variations in an appendix at the end. Why do I get suspicious with textual variations? An author is never sure exactly what to say or how to say it, but usually they manage to hide this uncertainty. I suppose I don’t like the reminder of having it made manifest.

That all probably sounds like complaining, but I enjoyed reading Norstrilia quite a bit. I think I was prepared for it because even though it doesn’t have any siblings, it does have some cousins: those strange half-breeds and vagabonds that are the fiction of R. A. Lafferty. Norstrilia wasn’t a Lafferty, but it had several similar features: the strange, rollicking pace; the larger-than-life characters; the comfort with the bizarre; and the lack of emphasis on a tight, cogent plot.

So here’s what it’s about: in the far future there’s a planet called Norstrilia (a contraction of “North Australia”) that grows a viral serum that ensures long life for the rest of the galaxy and makes Norstrilia incredible rich by its export. (Think Arrakis with giant mutant sheep.) The planet is the epitome of the hardy, frontier lifestyle that Smith saw in his own time in Australia, and to preserve this way of life (as well as population control), Norstrilia has kept itself poor on purpose– even though most of its inhabitants are fabulously wealthy. One of the ways they do this is by making imports to the world incredibly expensive. The other is a test at the age of adulthood to determine whether the Norstrilian youth will receive full legal status or be killed (think the gom jabbar, also from Dune).

Against this weird background one Norstrilian grows up handicap, unable to telepathically spiek or hier like his peers. He uses a forbidden computer to play the markets and more or less by accident becomes the wealthiest man in the universe, and he buys the Earth. Traveling to Earth, he’s manipulated by various agencies– including Cordwainer’s famous Instrumentality of Man, the animal-engineered servants of humanity, and a mysterious agency living beneath the surface of the planet. Along the way a lot of things happen, with wild, lazy, larger-than-life brushstrokes that remind of Lafferty.

There’s a lot of bigness and beauty here, shot through with much weirdness. I don’t know if I would have appreciated it as much had I not already read things along these lines– again, had I not been inoculated, so to speak, by Lafferty. I don’t know if this means Lafferty is a gateway drug, but he certain helped. There are rambles here, large figments of imagination floating like icebergs in a froth of Silver Age science fiction, and meanderings enough to annoy someone used to the clipped, brisk pace of contemporary scifi.

But there is kindness as well. When a friend recommended this book, he said he thought kindness was a theme of Smith’s work. I see what he means, though the turn is abrupt and inexplicable halfway through the novel. The main character has a crisis of faith– mitigated by a psychological hall of horrors akin to the trial that started the narrative– from which he emerges with a sense of humility, gratitude, and benevolence. He is filled with pity for the erstwhile enemy that instigated his banishment from Norstrilia (though the denouement with this character is quite weak). From what I’ve read, Smith’s high church Anglicanism shaped his writing here in some respects.

In all, this was a book I enjoyed reading for its comfort with the bizarre and its quirks, but I’m not sure how strongly I’d recommend it to readers at large. I could see it being a bit impenetrable. But if you’ve cut your teeth on someone like Lafferty or even the meandering far futures of Gene Wolfe’s New Sun, you might give Smith a try.

Feast of Laughter vol. 2

feast-frontFeast of Laughter 2 by Kevin Cheek

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Fanzines are a new thing for me. But when I was approached about one of the reviews I published here about Lafferty’s collection Strange Doings appearing in the Lafferty fanzine Feast of Laughter, I was happy to oblige. And then when the editor asked whether I had any Laffertesque pieces of fiction that might fit its remit as well, I was even happier. Which is how a contributor’s copy of volume 2 of Feast, “An Appreciation of R. A. Lafferty,” appeared in my mailbox.

And what a fanzine! Feast, which I read from cover to cover is indeed just that: a veritable feast for anyone interested in Lafferty or his works. The table is set equisitely: the magazine is well put together, with a gorgeous cover (which I’ve admired but only just realized the creepy details from the story it illustrates depicted), perfect-bound, nearly 300 pages. As lovely as the front cover is, the back is even cooler: an office cameo of everyone’s hero himself. The only way this magazine could physically be better would be if it came with a tiny duplicate of the legendary Lafferty office door itself.

feast-backAnd then there’s the occasion for the meal itself. What other obscure Catholic science fiction writer could generate three hundred pages of prose (and a bit of poetry) simply because people like him so much? One who inspires a great deal of interest and loyalty among erudite fans and even a bit of emulation. A writer whose work is hard to find, difficult yet rewarding to digest, and almost entirely untouched by the popular press. (But you probably know all that already if you’re someone considered a work like this.)

So what are the courses of the feast? First we have essays. Besides Daniel Otto Jack Peterson, I wasn’t familiar with any of the authors. Some of the essays were compelling, especially those that dove into the allegory and Catholic context of Lafferty’s work. A few were as obscure as some of Lafferty’s own difficult work. In particular, I found Persaud’s “Question: Why? Excuse: Because Monsters” montage a bit inscrutable.

The second course consists of articles regarding Lafferty fandom around the world, particularly in Japan and Russia. The Japanese article was especially useful, as it opened a door into a world of Japanese science fiction with a list of recommended works by Japanese readers who love Lafferty. With Lafferty as a common denominator, this could be a powerful window into exploring the speculative literature of another culture, something that’s always daunting to know how to begin.

Then we get an interview with an early and important Lafferty fan, followed by a section of reprinted essays by greats such as Michael Swanwick. I was a bit lost in the contributions by Knight and Sirignano, which attempted to explain the labyrinth that is Lafferty’s Melchizedek saga, but this will likely be an important resource for someone who has read that work and is interested in deciphering its puzzles.Then come the reviews, and I was by this time so immersed in the meal that I had the simultaneously pleasant and disconcerting experience of turning a page and being surprised to see my own name, having forgotten for a moment that the whole reason I had been invited to this feast was because I had prepared a small dish.

The penultimate course is the Lafferty-inspired pieces, which consist primarily of poetry, though I have a story sandwiched pleasantly between a cozily-gruesome little piece by Daniel Peterson and a haunting story by Howard Waldrop and Steven Utley (yes, that Howard Waldrop, the one who wrote “The Ugly Chickens”). My piece is “What I Wrote for Andronicus,” which was originally published in Ideomancer in 2010. The meal ends with dessert: a reprinted interview with Lafferty himself and a reprint of one of his best known stories, “Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas,” which is illustrated by the fantastic artwork on the volume’s cover.

Then the plates are cleared away. The feast is over. But we’ll gather here again soon. Roll on, volume three.

The Man Who Made Models

The Man Who Made Models: The Collected Short FictionThe Man Who Made Models: The Collected Short Fiction by R.A. Lafferty

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.

The Violent Bear it Away

The Violent Bear It AwayThe Violent Bear It Away by Flannery O’Connor

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Why are Catholics so good at making monsters? Our friend Daniel Otto Jack Petersen might eventually have some good answers for us, but at this point– having concluded my audit of the twentieth-century Catholic novels course taught by my good friend Dave (okay, not quite concluded as I skipped Brideshead Revisited and fell off the boat before our final novel, Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins)– I can venture something along the lines of G. K. Chesterton’s “all is grist.” For the Catholic novelist, it’s all real and it’s all fair game for creation. There aren’t “bad things” off limits. All is useful for building stories, because all– even the dark and twisted– can be redeemed.

But the real, unlike for perhaps an agnostic or atheistic writer, extends far beyond the sanctity of matter to include the reality of the spiritual. Throw all that in the mix, and you get monsters out the other end. For a writer with the bizarre, piercing humor and science fiction tendencies of Lafferty, these monsters become the fleshy, jovial horrors of “The Hole in the Corner.” For the steady eye of Flannery O’Conner in the stagnant heat of southern woods, the monsters take on a stranger and more human aspect.

Because it seems to me that at the core The Violent Bear it Away is a story about monsters.

There are four monsters (five if you count the agent of the sudden, lurching violence of the penultimate scene). The first is the boy protagonist’s great uncle, who considers himself a prophet called by the Lord and who raises the boy to know the Lord’s work in a splendidly wild and woody isolation. His death at the beginning of the novel initiates the book’s plot. The second monster is the boy’s uncle, who considers himself the rational antithesis to the old prophet’s madness and who, when the boy finds his way to his doorstep upon the prophet’s death, sees the possibility of freeing the boy from the prophet’s mad shadow.

The third monster is the boy himself, who drinks himself to a stupor upon his great uncle’s death, refuses to bury his body, and instead burns down the home in which they lived before wandering into the city to find his uncle. It is this monster’s stubborn battle to resist both the compulsion to carry on the Lord’s work placed upon him by his great uncle and his “rational” uncle’s frenzied effort to reform him that forms the primary tension of the novel. The boy is taciturn, isolated, arrogant, and desperate to live out his denial of his great uncle’s holy legacy.

All these characters are monstrous, twisted, and unpleasant to observe. And yet O’Conner pulls us along with them. We are captivated by their misery, by their mutual hostilities, by their failure to accept any sort of redemption from each other.

And then there is Bishop, the fourth monster, the son of the boy’s uncle. Bishop is a child, an idiot “waste,” who can do nothing but follow along innocently– uncomprehending and unconcerned– as the boy fights against his great uncle’s imperative to baptize Bishop and his uncle’s determination to break him of this compulsion. Bishop is the pathetic eye of the storm and the focus of the only genuine moments of pathos and tenderness in the novel.

This is an Old Testament story, and the god looming on the horizon of the boy’s mind is a god of blood and fire and fury, despite metaphors of the bread of life– that tired, stale bread the boy refuses to eat. As with Graham Greene’s Heart of the Matter, the conflict here is primarily in the mind of the boy, but this makes it in no way less real. It makes it instead more tight and tortured. And it makes it all the more terrifying for where it leads.

This is not a book to read for pleasure, unless of course for the simple pleasure of reading good writing. For the story itself, the only pleasure might come in assuring yourself how far your god is from the dark and stormy god of the warm, stagnant forest and how far you are from the pathways of the boy’s own mind– until, of course, you actually read the Old Testament and are forced to ask yourself how thin the line between madness and holiness might really be.

Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add?

Does Anyone Else Have Something Further to Add?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.