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.