Such Abnormal Activity: On “The Best of R. A. Lafferty”

By Matt KeeleyAugust 3, 2019

Such Abnormal Activity: On “The Best of R. A. Lafferty”

The Best of R. A. Lafferty by R. A. Lafferty

THE FUTURE OF THE PAST is not good business, or so might a science fiction fan conclude when they survey a typical American bookstore. You’ll find few titles more than 40 years old on the shelves, and those present are usually by Ursula K. Le Guin, Frank Herbert, Philip K. Dick, Isaac Asimov, or Arthur C. Clarke. Once-essential writers like Theodore Sturgeon, Avram Davidson, William Tenn, Kate Wilhelm, James Blish, Algis Budrys, and Jack Vance are largely absent; their books have either departed for the pulping machines or been deposited in print-on-demand limbo. If someone as influential as Sturgeon — today better remembered for “Sturgeon’s Law” and for inspiring Kurt Vonnegut’s Kilgore Trout than for his own work — can disappear, then what hope remains for the revival of a writer as strange, as challenging, as marginal, and as maddening as Raphael Aloysius Lafferty? But somehow, nearly two decades after his death and 35 years after he stopped writing, R. A. Lafferty has returned to the public eye.

Hidden powers that hold and wield esoteric knowledge recur throughout the hundreds of stories and 20 or so novels published during his lifetime, and for the last 30-odd years, the Lafferty readership has resembled nothing so much as one of the secret societies he described. His story “Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne” features eight humans and one machine who together possess the “finest minds and judgments in the world.” Lafferty’s admirers were nearly as few as that select band. His first books appeared with Ace, Berkley, DAW, and Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York publishers that still exist today. They met critical acclaim and popular indifference. Lafferty’s later books, if they appeared at all, arrived as Xeroxed chapbooks or were published with micropresses like Corroboree and United Mythologies Press. My Heart Leaps Up, the first installment of a four-part autobiographical series called In a Green Tree, only appeared in five booklets from fan Chris Drumm. The five parts of My Heart Leaps Up were never published together, and the remaining three books of In a Green Tree never left manuscript.

Last year, UK science fiction publisher Gollancz, which has recently brought out most of Lafferty in digital editions, released a print omnibus of three novels, the utopian parody Past Master, the transcendentally paranoid Fourth Mansions, and the Homeric tall tale Space Chantey. But Lafferty’s novels are notoriously difficult — Fourth Mansions in particular drives the uninitiated to despair — and his stories have drawn more readers and inspired greater praise. This April, Gollancz issued The Best of R. A. Lafferty, a collection of 22 stories that span nearly the whole of the author’s career. Neil Gaiman contributes an appreciative introduction to Lafferty; each story receives at least one introduction, all but one original to this volume, and several include afterwords to boot. Lafferty’s readership may have a reputation for being small, but it’s also illustrious. Introducers include Samuel R. Delany, Michael Dirda, Patton Oswalt, Robert Silverberg, Jeff VanderMeer, Michael Swanwick, Nancy Kress, Connie Willis, and the late Harlan Ellison.

Flaubert suggested that writers should be “regular and orderly” in their day-to-day business that they might be “violent and original” on the page. Lafferty was an electrical engineer by trade, and I know of no irregularities in his work life: as far as I know, every circuit he laid was closed, every wire he ran was properly insulated. But though Lafferty adhered to safety regulations in his job, in his vocation of literature — and Catholics (Lafferty was devoted to his faith) carefully distinguish between “job” and “vocation” — he aimed to electrify. No writer as prolific as Lafferty, who left behind more than a dozen unpublished books, writes a great story every time, but at his frequent best, the direct current of his tales leaves your imagination singed, your preconceptions fried, and your hair standing on end. The narrator of “Continued on Next Rock” remarks of an unusual person “she was electric; she was special.” So too was Lafferty.

All the introducers in this volume struggle to describe Lafferty, but two of them settle on “sui generis” as the best descriptor. They’re right to claim his uniqueness, but Lafferty’s writing does suggest the occasional comparison. So “Selenium Ghosts of the Eighteen Seventies,” with its catalog of impossible dramas from proto-televisions first flowering in the 19th century and its background story of sexual betrayal and cold-blooded murder, brings to mind an early Steven Millhauser tale, while “Ride a Tin Can” mixes the straightforward anger and ruthless concision of Kurt Vonnegut’s best stories, though it also, in the manner of Gene Wolfe, hides another story in the background. Lafferty’s character names (e.g., Ceran Swicegood, Aurelian Bentley, Clarinda Calliope, Dr. Velikof Vonk) might come from a more alliteration-attuned Thomas Pynchon; like Pynchon, he loves interpolated doggerel, and Lafferty’s hidden masters and revelations in abeyance and occultation bring to mind The Crying of Lot 49’s post-horn postmodernism. Yet the comparison to Pynchon fails when extended. Pynchon is crueler (Lafferty never attempted anything so brutal as the castration scene in Gravity’s Rainbow), he’s more scatological, and he’s less tempted by allegory. On the most fundamental level, Pynchon’s lapsed Situationism could never be mistaken for Lafferty’s exuberant Catholicism.

Science fiction is not known for its stylists. For every Gene Wolfe or J. G. Ballard or Jack Vance, there are dozens of authors of generically competent prose — and three or four utter hacks. Lafferty was a stylist, and an unusual one. Not for Lafferty is Wolfe’s ornate reflection, Ballard’s shellshocked precision, or Vance’s prickly eloquence. The closest analogue might be the overheated, colloquial, manic, and allusive voice of David R. Bunch’s Moderan stories, with the caveats that Lafferty is less angry, less grim, and more fun. British science fiction luminary Brian Aldiss imagined the Moderan tales as a posthumous collaboration between “Whitman and Nietzsche,” and no such comparison would serve Raphael Aloysius Lafferty. Though he was as American as Whitman, Lafferty was no Nietzsche: he never doubted that God remained alive.

The Lafferty style challenges the reader. Lafferty does not commit the classic science fiction sins of jargon or infodumping, nor does his prose grate with words plucked at random from a thesaurus. Rather, his writing is so colloquial, full of rhetorical questions, expository speech, and tall-tale superlatives, that it might be mistaken for mere patter. Here is the opening to “Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne,” which epitomizes Lafferty’s style:

“We've been on some tall ones,” said Gregory Smirnov of the Institute, “but we've never stood on the edge of a bigger one than this, nor viewed one with shakier expectations. Still, if the calculations of Epiktistes are correct, this will work.”

“People, it will work,” Epikt said.

This was Epiktistes the Ktistec machine? Who'd have believed it? The main bulk of Epikt was five floors below them, but he had run an extension of himself up to this little penthouse lounge. All it took was a cable, no more than a yard in diameter, and a functional head set on the end of it.        

And what a head he chose! It was a sea-serpent head, a dragon head, five feet long and copied from an old carnival float. Epikt had also given himself human speech of a sort, a blend of Irish and Jewish and Dutch comedian patter from ancient vaudeville. Epikt was a comic to his last para-DNA relay when he rested his huge, boggle-eyed, crested head on the table there and smoked the biggest stogies ever born.

Because he was a literary outsider who began writing in his 40s, because he was a tradesman from Tulsa, because he published in genre magazines, because he exaggerated, elaborated, and embellished, there’s a tendency, even from sympathetic readers, to interpret Lafferty’s style as naïve, to make of him some kind of outsider artist, a prose Henry Darger or a Midwestern Amos Tutuola. Lafferty’s writing habits could be less than genteel: a search of the book turns up 455 exclamation points, just over one per page, and it’s a rare MFA instructor who would allow such excess. As Michael Swanwick puts it, “Henry James he wasn’t.” But for all his unconventionality, Lafferty was deeply learned and aware of what he was doing. As you chase down his allusions, look up his references, and reflect on his turns of phrase, you realize that his eccentricities were willed. He could have opted for conventionality; he didn’t, and so his art thrived while his sales plummeted.

No one but a Catholic would name their child Raphael Aloysius, and Lafferty remained a believer all his long life. In his fine introduction to The Best of, Neil Gaiman provides few biographical details; that he was an electrical engineer is one, that he was Catholic is another, and that he was a self-declared alcoholic is a third. I’m not convinced that knowledge of Lafferty’s employment offers much insight, but the Catholicism and the alcoholism deserve further attention.

Lafferty’s religion is essential to understanding his fictional project as a whole, but incidental to enjoying the stories collected here. Story introductions by Michael Dirda and Samuel R. Delany concisely describe the pessimistic bent of his Catholic belief, but Mother Church hovers over these stories, rather than descending like a dove. In several Lafferty novels, and in many stories not collected here, the real presence of the Church in the author’s life is undeniable; here, it’s implicit. If you’ll forgive a facile comparison to a much more famous writer, the stories here are implicitly Catholic in the manner of Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find.” In other tales, particularly the novels, the religious content is closer to the surface. To extend the O’Connor analogy, we enter Wise Blood territory. So in “And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire…” we have an allegory of Christian life as narrated by a scornfully incredulous disbeliever, Fourth Mansions derives its title and its epigraphs from St. Teresa of Ávila’s Interior Castle, and the Past Master of Lafferty’s debut novel is St. Thomas More. The sacramental connotations of Arrive at Easterwine need no explanation.

Gaiman quotes Lafferty on drink: “More of my writing has been ruined by my drinking than improved by it. Yet there’s always a goose there, it’s part of the ‘to seek and not to find’ motif.” Some Lafferty stories might be the best drinking tales you never heard: his authorial voice, with its garrulity and its exaggeration, its rhetorical questions and its proverbial declarations, reminds me, in the best way, of the liquored fluency of the stage Irishman. Lafferty’s stories weave, cavort, and celebrate as if tipsy. Some leap from scene to scene so quickly it’s as if the narrator has blacked out and come to far away; other stories seem frothy and frivolous until their bitter punch line arrives like a hangover.

While the various introducers all provide either solid critical insight or interesting reminiscence, the author himself provides the most affecting glimpse into Lafferty as a person. In the afterword he wrote for “Continued on Next Rock,” he avers that:

No normal or reasonable or balanced or well-adjusted person is going to attempt the making of a story or a tune or a statue or a poem; he'll have no need for such abnormal activity. A person has to be somehow deficient or lacking in person or personality or he will not attempt these things. He must be very deficient or lacking if he will succeed at all in them.

He steps away from the edge — “I am both facetious and serious in every written word here” — but the tragic vision remains. I’d long known that Lafferty could make me smile and gasp; it wasn’t until I read this that I learned he could bring tears to my eyes. If I felt that way, I might drink too. Neil Gaiman says that Lafferty believed himself, for a time, the best short story writer in the world. If Lafferty thought he was the best in this field, how enormous must he have believed his lacks to be?

Is The Best of R. A. Lafferty true to that title? Almost no one has read the whole of Lafferty, and some partisans might quibble that the “best,” or at least fullest, expression of Lafferty’s particular genius can be found in the novels, but I for one believe Jonathan Strahan has done excellent editorial work. The collection runs a generous 450 pages and includes stories both familiar (though “familiar” is a relative term with writers as neglected as this one) and obscure. So “Eurema’s Dam,” his sole Hugo Award winner, and “Sky” and “Continued on Next Rock,” Hugo nominees both, appear alongside “Funnyfingers,” which debuted in a 1976 chapbook, before popping up in small-press collections in 1992 and 2017. “Days of Grass, Days of Straw,” “Interurban Queen,” and “Selenium Ghosts of the Eighteen Seventies” were similarly scarce and are equally deserving of revival. Some of my favorite stories are missing — I would have liked to see “The Transcendent Tigers” and “Rainbird” from Strange Doings, but what I most wish were present is a foreword from editor Jonathan Strahan. This is a problem of success: it’s not that the book as printed lacks context or insight; it’s just that the editor’s selections are accomplished enough that I’m eager to read his insights.

As a churchgoer, R. A. Lafferty knew that prophets are without honor in their own countries. At first glance, Lafferty seems a neglected seer. After all, Gollancz’s ebooks cannot be purchased in the United States and The Best of R. A. Lafferty has not found a US publisher. But a closer examination shows that the Lafferty cult is alive and growing. American fans hold a small annual conference celebrating his work, and they publish a zine, Feast of Laughter, that features criticism, reminiscence, and previously unpublished stories. My friend Andrew Ferguson has established himself as the academy’s first Lafferty scholar, and he’s done fine work standardizing texts, producing criticism, and establishing Lafferty in the science fiction canon. And this fall, Lafferty’s Past Master, in which Thomas More confronts the horrors of Utopia, achieves beatification: the Library of America will publish it in American Science Fiction: Eight Classic Novels of the 1960s. Might the gospel of Lafferty find new adherents? I hope so. Gollancz, Jonathan Strahan, and his contributors deserve our appreciation, and this book deserves a wider audience than it’s found so far.


Matt Keeley lives in New York, where he reads a lot of books and buys more. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.

LARB Contributor

Matt Keeley lives in New York, where he reads a lot of books and buys more. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!