Friday, June 21, 2013

You Can't Go Back and a Narrow Valley

When I was in the 7th grade, my middle school went on a camping trip to Havasu Canyon. Havasu Canyon is one of the improbable places on this globe. It is a finger canyon of the Grand Canyon. You drive off the freeway in Seligman, AZ, drive a long time on old Hwy 66, turn off and drive an hour on a narrow road to a parking lot carved into an esplanade half way up the wall of a 3000-foot canyon. From there you put on your backpack and hike through 8 miles of desert canyon followed by 4 miles of increasingly fertile canyon and arrive at a tropical paradise beneath a 100-foot waterfall with huge pools carved out by the clear water, perfect for swimming and swinging way out on ropes dangling from tall, ancient cottonwoods to let go, flail joyously through the air to splash down into the deep pool. The campground is about 2 miles below Supai Village, which is the home of the Havasupai Indians and has been in the bottom of that canyon for a good 800 or 1000 years. The village has an excellent cafe. The whole place took on an air of magic for all 60 of us on the camping trip. Just the name Havasu Canyon brings back a flood of euphoric memories and associations for most of my former classmates and me. I can still smell the red dust in my shoes and I still have a strange rock--possibly a meteorite--that I found in the canyon.

Yes, this is still a blog about R. A. Lafferty, and I will get back to the Laffertisms in a moment.

A few years ago, Pam and the kids and I went to Havasu Canyon over spring break. It is still one of the most spectacularly beautiful places on earth. But the trail, the village, and the campground were dingy. There had been floods in the intervening years, and one of the waterfalls, Navajo Falls, no longer existed. The village population had dropped by about 20%, and the campground stank from the poorly maintained outhouses.

I just read Lafferty's "You Can't Go Back" (published in Asimov's and one of Terry Carr's Best Science Fiction of the Year anthologies and later collected in Iron Tears). It is the story of how a bunch of kids found a magic place--a secret moon that hovered (and hid) over the Osage country in Oklahoma. The kids got to the moon by calling it down and climbing up from the roof of their grandma's truck. The moon itself had a village on top and trolls in a cave in its middle (and the village had outhouses teetering on the brink--in danger of falling off the moon into the sky). The place became magical for the kids and they would go back from time to time in their childhood.

Much later in life, when the kids are old men, they doubt the place ever existed (I mean it does sound sort of improbable). So one of the characters flies them there in his helicopter, and they visit it one last time. They react this time not with wonder but with repugnance--the place is dingy, the goats give sour milk, the village has shrunk to just four houses, and all but one of the outhouses has fallen off the moon. The whole place stinks from the family of Stinking Yeti that have taken up residence in the trolls cave in the middle of the moon.

The whole story, even the title, is one of wistful disappointment with memory--a theme of realizing how rose-colored the glasses of memory are. It is an old man's reminiscence over better times. The story opens with a verse on the evocation of memory.
A note, a musty smell, a tune,
Some bones and pebbles from the moon!
Today they set a-flow a spring,
Remembering, remembering.
- The Helen Horn-Book
What seemed magical and magnificent to the kids now seems dingy and insignificant when encountered in adulthood. One of the old men comments on how much smaller the moon looks as they fly to it in the helicopter:
"But it is as big as it used to be. It's still about a hundred yards in diameter,"
"Yes, but the yards aren't as long as they used to be," Whelk complained.
This quote is key--the yards in the kids measurement seemed much larger than the yards of an old man's evaluation. The grandeur has diminished as they face it with adult eyes.

Of course, they are still standing on a moon made of stone and earth that can zoom about in the sky and obey the commands of a properly played moon flute. So their disappointment and repugnance upon their return seems a little forced. It's almost as if Lafferty wanted to write a story about loss and disappointment but couldn't come up with a situation that wasn't magical. So he just forced his characters to mouth words and assume attitudes of disgust.

Now nonchalant responses to the magical and impossible are standard features of a number of Lafferty stories. It was part of his stock in trade. I like to compare "You Can't Go Back" to "Narrow Valley." Both deal with an impossible situation presented in a matter-of-fact manner. In both the kids respond to the wonder, while the adults deal with it. However, "Narrow Valley" ends hopefully, with the magic being renewed. "You Can't Go Back" ends with the magic being gone.
"Not only has the magic gone out of it, but nothing else has taken its place," Barry Shibbeen mourned. "What's the word for this place? Oh yes, 'dingy'. I could cry."
I don't know when Lafferty wrote the two stories. "You Can't Go Back" seems like it was written much later, because the tone in the latter half is bitterly wistful, while the tone in "Narrow Valley" preserves the sense of wonder.

I know in my own narrow valley experience, Havasu Canyon is still one of the natural wonders of the world. It turns out that on our last visit, we were there too early in the season--they hadn't cleaned up the canyon and the campgrounds for the summer tourist season yet. On our last day, as we were preparing to hike out, they were airlifting the disgusting outhouses out by helicopter and lowering shiny new ones into place.

(just don't stand underneath the outhouses, in case they fall from the sky)

Havasu Falls at night, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday, June 18, 2013


Re-reading some of my favorite stories in Nine Hundred Grandmothers last night I revisited the thought that Lafferty's stories reward re-reading. This is not true of everything I read. I read a lot, and some books, while well written and fun to read, do not bear re-reading as much as Lafferty's and a few other authors' as well. Take for example Tolkien. How often do you re-read The Lord of the Rings? It is a rewarding experience, and I catch something else with each pass through the trilogy. Tolkien's text is so richly layered and dense with ideas, that each reading prepares me to understand themes and techniques that would not have leaped to mind without the prior reading. This happens to me at least once a year with Lafferty's Fourth Mansions. In my most recent re-reading, I was looking for instances of the "prose foot" described by Don Webb in his essay on "Effective Arcanum." Needless to say, Fourth Mansions is loaded with examples--every time he refers to Bedelia as a cinnamon cookie, he recalls the first chapter and his description of Bedelia's character when Harvesters invaded the mind of Miguel Fuentes.

It is much harder to write a short story that has the re-readability of a richly layered novel. Yet Lafferty achieved exactly that. Re-read "Hole on the Corner" or "Narrow Valley." Even though I know the jokes and the twists far in advance, I burst out in delighted laughter every time I come across them again. Like with his prose foot in his novels, re-reading his turns of phrase and cleverly developed situations recall to me the sheer delight I experienced the first time I read through them. Re-reading a Lafferty story is a full-body experience.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Turning the Book Over

Space Chantey was published as an Ace Double. One half the book being Space Chantey by R. A. Lafferty, the other half being Pity About Earth by Ernest Hill. Having read, re-read, and greatly enjoyed Space Chantey, I finally got around to flipping the book over and reading Pity About Earth.

I was actually surprised by the book. It is written in an over-the-top style of prose with the few human characters being amoral and unlikable. The best description of the writing style would be The Man Who Never Missed meets Caligula. However, the book is based on an intelligent idea, and there is reason for the portrayal in such broad, clichéd, yet unpleasant prose.  

The main character, Shale, fights, kills, debauches, and loafs his way through every situation with no thought for anyone but himself. There starts to be a sub-plot where he begins to care for a half-simian hybrid girl, but in the end his personal inertia is too great to overcome a lifetime of uncaring amorality. And that's the point. The book reveals itself to be about how humanity has allowed mechanization to take over every aspect of life, making human beings superfluous. The machines, as a means of self-preservation, have created a stagnant culture, where people have nothing really to do, yet believe they are still important. The amoral, devil-take-the-hindmost attitude of society keeps the humans busy so the system can trundle on unimpeded. The prose of the first half of the slim novel, far from being unnecessary hack-work, is actually necessary hack-work, illustrating the kind of society and characters that can exist in that mechanically maintained world. 

Space Chantey is the superior of the two novels in this Ace Double without question. I imagine they picked Pity About Earth to pair with Space Chantey because of the over-the-top silliness in the prose of both. However, while the overblown SF clichés of the Ernest Hill novel illustrate a point, it is also mildly unpleasant and forgettable. Lafferty, on the other hand (literally on the other hand, depending on how you're holding the book), uses his even sillier outrageous prose somehow to give the tale greater depth and universality. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Authors Have Opinions

Rereading Lafferty's The Fall of Rome the other day, I came across a paragraph that I think sums up his approach to history: Opinionated without apology.

This is a paragraph where he is discussing what remnants and artifacts survive to tell us about the culture of the Goths in the 5th century AD.

"The dance is something with no survival, lacking verbal or pictoral record. The Goths may have had it. If they painted, it was not in a medium or on a material that has survived. Their history was unwritten. Their scientific speculation may not have gone beyond mead-table discussions and arguments. There is no record of their early philosophy. Since they were Germans, they must have constructed philosophical systems; and also, since they were Germans, these would have been erroneous."
R. A. Lafferty 
The Fall of Rome