Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Dan-Ktistec

Searching around the web last night for references to "Pan-Ktistec" to perhaps get a gleam of where Lafferty came up with Epiktistes' name, I found quotes from Arrive at Easterwine and quotes from an August 2003 interview with Steely Dan for Sound on Sound magazine: http://www.soundonsound.com/sos/aug03/articles/steelydan.htm

And I quote:

"I can do a pretty nice defibrillation with the Ktistec machine," adds Becker, helpfully...

and

Given that Fagen and Becker live in New York and Hawaii respectively, one might expect them to have taken advantage of digital and Web-based technologies in their songwriting collaboration. Have they? If so, they don't seem keen to talk about it...
"We don't usually write music over the phone, like sending files and stuff," says Becker. "When we work over the phone we do it to write lyrics, and that works very well. Writing on the phone is a little like being in analysis, because you're not reacting to the facial expressions of the other person."
"But we can surmount that with the Ktistec machine," insists Fagen.
"We choose not to use the Ktistec machine sometimes. Having a great piece of technology doesn't necessarily mean you use it all the time. Some things are better done..."
"...in secret."
[...]
"We like to write music in the same room. It's hard enough to get anything done when you're eyeball to eyeball, let alone when you're at a distance. But that may change now that we have the Ktistec machine. Make sure you get the spelling correctly."

It's a wonderful interview--almost entirely nonsensical and laced with references to the Ktistec machine.

Who'd a thought Steely Dan were Lafferty fans? But listening to their sardonic, erudite lyrics, I guess it shouldn't be surprising.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

In the Beginning

Western literature has a long tradition of riffing on the Bible, and Science Fiction with its constant exploration into the meaning of life and the future of our species has developed a strong tradition of riffing on the book of Genesis. Take for example the cycles of life in the Samuel R. Delany story, "The Star Pit." Take for example the opening of the Philip K. Dick novel Humpty Dumpty in Oakland: A mechanic walks in to open his shop in the morning:
Here it began. He squinted and spat out the first stale breath that
hung inside the garage. Bending, he clicked on the main power. The dead
things creaked back to life. He fixed the side door open, and a little
sunlight came in. He advanced on the night-light and destroyed it with
a jerk of his hand. He grabbed a pole and dragged back the skylight.
The radio, high up, began to hum and then to blare. He threw the fan
into wheezing excitement. He snapped on all lights, equipment, display
signs. He illuminated the luxurious Goodrich tire poster. He brought
color, shape, awareness to the void. Darkness flew; and after the first
moment of activity he subsided and rested, and took his seventh day--a
cup of coffee.
You can't help but smile and at the same time think "Man, I wish I could write that well"

All of this is by way of introducing one of Lafferty's riffs on Genesis. The opening of the first chapter of Archipelago:

All this begins in a southern city and at nine o'clock in the morning, the same hour at which the world was made. It was a Thursday, when originally man was not.

Indeed, in these latter days there were few people in the streets and not many in the pubs. But beer was available (barley and hops had been made on the third day), and the morning had a freshness as in the earliest weeks of the world, as the older people remember them. A fast wind was driving the clearing clouds, and the pavements were wet. (When the world was first made it was as though it had just rained. )

The first man in the world was drinking the first beer. He was Finnegan (not in name, but in self), and he looked at himself in the bar mirror. He saw for the first time that first face, and this was his appearance: he had a banana nose, long jumpy muscles along cheek and tempora, and a mouth in motion. He was dark and lean, like a yearling bull. His eyes had a redness that suggested a series of stormy days and nights, were not previous days and nights impossible. He was a little more than half Italian and a little more than half Irish, as was Adam his counterpart in a variant account. 

After which, all you can do is just sit and laugh and admire.


An Act of Great Kindness

About a year and a half ago, I noticed brand new copies of East of Laughter and Serpent's Egg for sale on the site of an English books store, Cold Tonnage Books (www.coldtonnage.com), for £5.00 GBP, so I ordered them.

I'm working in California now, and commuting home to Albuquerque on the weekends. The other day I brought Serpent's Egg with me to read on the flight. However, I left it in the airport or on the airplane! Arrrghh! I had only made it about 3 pages into the book.

I looked on Cold Tonnage's site and they still have copies for £5.00, so I ordered another. It arrived yesterday. The first thing I noticed when I opened the package was a note on top of the book:

In what I can only describe as an act of great kindness to a complete stranger (me), they had given me the signed limited edition!

The only way I know to respond to this (beyond sending them a very nice thank you note, which I am doing) is to pass on some form of Lafferty-related kindness.

I have an extra copy each of Past Master and Strange Doings. If any of you need a copy of either, I will be very happy to give it to you. Leave a comment, drop me a note on the East of Laughter Facebook group, or e-mail me. I'll get your address and send it to you. 


And check out Cold Tonnage's web site. They several more Lafferty books--some at very good prices. As they ship from England, shipping to those of you in the UK and EU ought to cost less than shipping from America.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Man Who Made Models 4: Square and Above Board

"Square and Above Board" is a fun story. It is a story about betrayal, greed, double crossing, and the question of weather the good guy can win in the end, or if he is doomed to lose to those more conniving--all of this mixed with Irish folk magic and some down-home, mid-western millionaires.

It is the story of two men, Midas Muldoon and Christopher Kearny who are vying over the affections of one woman, Bridie Caislean. One signature element of Lafferty style is in the introductions of the two main characters. He introduces them by describing their names, their inner and outer characters, and the games of strategy they excel at. Watch closely while reading these introductions. Every (carefully chosen) word foreshadows the final double-cross and denouement of the story.

The story has some typical Lafferty fun with names:
"Midas Muldoon had been given his curious name by his father Croesus Muldoon, a confidence man who always swore that he would finally live and die in a great stone castle. And he did die in a great stone castle of sorts, one on the outskirts of McAlester, Oklahoma."
However, in this case he is a little more explanatory than I am used to. I imagine this was an earlier story of his, because he qualifies and explains his statements, while in the stories contained in collections like Nine Hundred Grandmothers, Strange Doings, and Ringing Changes, he lists off his wildly appropriate names without preamble or postscript.

In fact, "Square and Above Board" didn't really grab me on first reading. Typical of Lafferty, it was better the second time through, but it still felt to me that after the careful set up in the first four pages, the rush to the conclusion was forced and hurried. The events all fall into place as they must from the foreshadowing in the beginning, but they seem too convenient, and not really enough of a struggle. Lafferty concludes the story in a fairly standard plot-arc--itself unusual for his oeuvre, but provides almost an outline of the plot only. I found myself wishing for more outrageousness and less explanation--less plot, even.

McAlester State Penitentiary
The castle on the outskirts of McAlester, OK - known as The Oklahoma State Prison

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Man Who Made Models 3: The Hole on the Corner

"Homer Hoose came home that evening to the golden cliche: the unnoble dog who was a personal friend of his; the perfect house where just to live was a happy riot; the loving and unpredictable wife; and the five children; the perfect number (four more would have been too many, four less would have been too few). " 
This may be a long, rambling response to a tight, compact story. The story has so many elements within it,  it is hard to keep any discussion of it as short as the story itself.

"The Hole on the Corner" is unarguably one of Lafferty's great works. It is one of my three favorite stories, along with "Narow Valley" and "Days of Grass, Days of Straw." This is a Lafferty in high form--a linguistic and situational tour-de-force comprised of equal parts deep philosophy, quantum physics, surreal elements, high humor of the laugh and fall out of your chair variety, and several other parts that I lack the vocabulary to describe or perhaps even the wisdom to recognize. It also introduces some of his stylistic tricks that became part of his stock in trade over the next decades.

Among the signature Lafferty elements in this story are:

  • Compressed story telling - he fits a tremendous amount of story and sub-story into sixteen fast-turning pages.
  • Using archetypes to save time on setting and character development. 
  • Lafferty children - a whole topic in and of themselves--unflappable and always right, reacting to the outrageous as if humdrum.
  • Unrealistic dialog. 
  • Side characters who know everything - two of them in this case: Dr. Corte knows more than the reader, and good old double-domed Diogenes Pontifex (who was refused membership in the Institute of Impure Science because of the "minimal decency rule"), who does indeed know everything relevant to the story. 
  • The question of perception and identity - we might really not be who we think we are, and are we really qualified to know if we aren't?
  • A touch of horror hidden under the humor.
And many, many more. 


First, consider the opening paragraph. Lafferty invokes a powerful sense of normality and even a whiff of nostalgia, along the lines of a Bradbury Green Town, Illinois story. I often accuse Lafferty of substituting archetypes in place of his characters to save time on character development. By telling us this was the golden cliche, he is telling us we already know this scene, just pull the particulars out of our own memories (or out of our collective unconscious--a concept he riffs on a little later in the story)

And of course, by adding the aside about why five children is the perfect number, he tells us that he will be narrating this story with a wink and a grin--watch for the rug being pulled out from under our feet.

Quick aside here, are the reactions of the dog upon Homer's returns home a deliberate play on The Odyssey and the old dog that recognizes Odysseus when he returns disguised by Athena as an old beggar? It is a powerfully evocative though overused cliche in literature now, but do all current iterations look back all the way to Homer? (The existence of Space Chantey would imply so in Lafferty's case).

Nat! of the Lafferty Devotional Page holds up "The Hole on the Corner" as an example of the surreal, and in some ways it is. However, by first having us identify so strongly with homer in the first paragraph by calling on all our memories an associations to populate and paint the story, Lafferty may be pointing to our daily lives as a bit surreal.
"Homer had a little trouble with the doorknob. They don't have them in all the recensions, you know; and he had that off-the-track feeling tonight. But he figured it out (you don't pull it, you turn it), and opened the door. " 
Admittedly he puts us on warning here that the story is about to take a turn into alternate realities, but who hasn't had that "off-the-track" feeling from time to time? Who hasn't experienced those odd moments--almost the reverse of deja-vu when the world seems suddenly strange and slightly unfamiliar?

The idea at the heart of the story seems to be that we as people don't really pay much attention to things--that we rely on familiar associations to fill in the details (as he relies on us to do in fleshing out his stories) and, as Diogenes informs us, "nobody goes by the visual index except momentarily." That is why no-one can tell the difference between the two Homers--they look exactly alike except for how they look--even though on has hooves, green skin (which is OK "as long as it's kept neat and oiled") and tentacles instead of hands ("Oh boy, I'll say!" according to Regina). Lafferty's implying we fail to notice details. If our loved ones were replaced by monsters, we might not notice if they somehow seemed the same.

It is also a resoundingly funny story. From son Robert's dialog with Regina:
"'Where'd you get the monster, Mama?' son Robert asked as he came in. 'What's he got your whole head in his mouth for? Can I have one of the apples in the kitchen? What's he going to do, kill you, Mama?'  
   'Shriek, shriek,' said Mama Regina. 'Just one apple, Robert, there's just enough to go around. Yes, I think he's going to kill me. Shriek!'  
   Son Robert got an apple and went outdoors." 
To Dr. Corte's description of the analyst who analyzes the analysts who analyze the analysts as "tops in his field." And just about everything about Diogenes Pontifex is both exaggerated and uproarious.

There are elements of horror hidden under the humor. The story opens with a monster coming home and appearing to devour his wife, and ends with the protagonist being eaten by a giant spider. Admittedly these are classically horrifying events, but as a reader I was laughing too hard to notice. That's one thing I've often noticed in Lafferty's stories, he writes with such ebullience and good humor, that the violent, gruesome, and grotesque elements slide by without my really noticing them. It took me several readings to cotton on to just how scary the ending really is, even though it is in plain sight.

In that way, this is a story that rewards repeated re-reading. No matter how often I look into "The Hole on the Corner" there's always more depth to be seen.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Man Who Made Models 2: The Six Fingers of Time

"He began by breaking things that morning." 
Bill Hader, in his much appreciated NYT article mentioned the first line of "The Six Fingers of Time" as an example of how engaging Lafferty Lunacy is. But in a way, what we have here is Lafferty in classic SF mode. This appears to be a simple story with a simple--almost Twilight-Zone-like twist at the end. Except that it isn't.

On one level, it is a very easy story, told in a prose style that is much more straightforward than some of Lafferty's more ebulliently effervescent efforts. The story proceeds and we keep guessing about 1/2 step ahead of the main character, but Lafferty still manages to surprise and delight us at the end. If that were all there is to this story, it would be a very good story.

But there is much more to the story. On another level, it is a story about ultimate temptation and choices. It asks if a man, Charles Vincent, the protagonist, is moral enough to choose faith and humanity when offered a chance to be a lord of time--to live a life as long as his mortal soul's and to therefore have power over time and fate--if only he'll chose to ally with certain powers that "smell of the pit". Ultimately Vincent chooses to reject the shadowy and perhaps demonic forces and to wrest that power from them for humanity. It is a valiant if doomed effort. On this level, it still uses the SF trope of the one clever man pitted against an organized army that holds all the cards in its hand. In the standard version of that story line, the one clever man succeeds, but in Lafferty's story, they continue to hold all the cards--beginning, middle, and end.

And on yet another level, it is the story of the forces that beset humanity. He hints at a conspiracy, far older than Humanity and far older than Humanity's current bargain with God in the Garden. This conspiracy lives on in vestigial form in modern Humanity--in this story taking the form of a mutation for six fingers on the hand. The members of this conspiracy claim that by right of prior occupation, they are exempt from such concepts as good and evil, salvation and damnation. The idea of a prehistoric, genetic conspiracy of an older race against mankind is the nexus of The Devil is Dead and Fourth Mansions. It seems to underlie a large portion of Lafferty's work, with the message that as humans we are beset, but we may just have the creativity, energy, and faith to overcome and eliminate these conspiracies.

"The Six Fingers of Time" was an early work of Lafferty's, finished in 1959, and first published in 1960. Consider the state of Science Fiction in 1960. Standard "Golden Age" storytelling was still dominant. Shows like The Twilight Zone were just getting started with admittedly very good writing and perhaps a sting in the tail. And here Lafferty gives us a story that is one on level a fun, easy story about a man learning a trick and being tricked in the end. On another level it is a battle within a human soul between temptation and ethics, and on another level, it is the introduction to an ongoing examination of the forces that metaphorically beset us , Mankind, in our journey toward spiritual evolution.

So the opening line of the story, I think applies very well to Lafferty's writing in general: "He began by breaking things."

By a combination of circumstances that Andrew Ferguson covers on Continued on Next Rock, "The Six Fingers of Time" is one of two Lafferty stories in the public domain. It is available on Gutenberg here: http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/31663 

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Man Who Made Models 1: The Man Who Made Models

"The Man Who Made Models" is a very good story, but for some reason has never fallen into my personal grouping of Lafferty's great stories.

"The Man Who Made Models" is the story of Jon Skaber, a big Swede known for his big hands and the amazingly life-like models he makes. He is constantly criticized by the Harps, a couple who claim that whenever you miniaturize something fidelity is lost--that his models, no matter how amazing and lifelike everyone else says they are, are grotesque distortions of the originals. The Harps are somehow involved in University finance and are about to pull a major con on the university, while setting up Skaber's friends, the directors of the university, to take the fall for the con. Detective Wrackwolf is another big Swede, a detective who has been busted down from homicide to the bunko squad--largely because his murder suspects seem to disappear before trial--and they usually disappear after walking into Skaber's workshop. Wrackwolf is officially tracking the Harps, but cannot do anything about them until they actually commit the crime. However, he is really on the trail of Jon Skaber--and is willing to bring out ancient Swedish family magic to defeat him. The quote on the back of the book comes from Wrackwolf during his final confrontation with Skaber:
You stretch your jaws when you yawn, but mine will outstretch yours. Ah, which snake will swallow which, I or you?
A lot goes into the set up of this not-very-long story, and the parts hang together to make a nifty little horror tale, or perhaps twilight-zone-like fable. But in three readings, it still feels a bit disjointed to me. The parts never quite mesh smoothly, and none of the characters are really likable. We are supposed to dislike the Harps and we do. Wrackwolf is presented as unlikable--successfully. And Skaber starts out as a sympathetic character, but as we learn about his manipulation and greed, he becomes less and less sympathetic. So the ending of the story leaves us no-one to root for. While it has that small hint of horror (without any hint of the gruesome), the conclusion doesn't quite satisfy.

I enjoyed "The Man Who Made Models" for its many very clever turns of phrase, and the plot device itself is really very creative. But it somehow feels diminished--almost a scale model of a successful story.

"The Man Who Made Models" has been published twice, in a Chris Drumm chapbook for which it was was the title story, and in this beautiful new volume from the Centipede Press for which it is also the title story.