Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Not Getting To Easterwine

Arrive at Easterwine (1971) is one of my favorite Lafferty books. However, I suspect part of what I like so much about it is the sheer challenge of reading it. Here we have a stream-of-consciousness first-person narrative by an unreliable narrator who is not human and has a penchant for speaking in metaphor. Ultimately the entire book is built around a nested 3- and 4-part narrative structure that has the ultimate goal of looking for divine aspects of humanity. It’s a challenge.

I recently lent my copy to a coworker who I view as a very intelligent person. He is a software engineer who occasionally holds forth intelligently on various SF books over lunch, and he has never read Lafferty. Admittedly, it was a bit of a test case--I’ve been reading Lafferty for so long, I’m not fazed by a lot of what puts other readers off. I wanted to see how an intelligent reader would respond to this, one of his more challenging works. I had a few questions in mind:
  1. Near the beginning of the book, Epikt tells us what the structure of the book will be. I didn’t catch that until my third reading of it. Would a reader with a great attention to detail catch that the first time through?
  2. How would the idea of a computer as an unreliable narrator fly with a software engineer whose job is to see computers as logical and uncreative tools? 
  3. How would an intelligent reader respond to the unrelenting layers of metaphor in the narrative?
My co-worker just gave the book back the other day. He didn’t get through it, but said he “gave it the old college try.” Really he did much more than that; knowing how enthusiastic I am about it, he went back and restarted several times, even reading sections of it out loud to his wife. He said the individual sentences were easy, but understanding what had just been said at the end of each passage was baffling. His wife commented that there is obviously deep sense and meaning there, but what it was eluded her. He did not get past the long night of goats and tigers hunting through the buildings housing his memory banks.

He did stumble on the amount of metaphor in the narrative. Just the simple introduction of each person by describing the impression caused by the introduction of their person precis into Epikt’s matrix led to some confusion, and he had trouble keeping the cast of characters straight.

He also stumbled on the idea of an irrational computer. In popular culture, especially in SF, computers are ultimately logical, and their information often infallible. With the notable exception of Hal, computers do not express curiosity or emotion, unless used to comedic effect. Compare the Enterprises computer in Star Trek to Epikt. You have the monotone recitation of detailed data contrasted with conversation with some internal metaphorical Snake that is never fully explained. Epikt’s willingness to dive into metaphor to describe the characters, and his obvious emotional response to their personalities left my coworker a bit baffled, if not shaken.

He did not get far enough into the book to look at its structure.

The book is divided into three sections of four chapters. Each section addresses the theme of one of the three tasks--to find a leader, a love, and a liaison. Even the tasks are metaphorical:
  • Leader = an examination of what leadership means and a question of what state humanity is in and what kind of person could lead it to a better state--perhaps the next step in human evolution. 
  • Love = an exploration of just what the heck love is and an attempt to create universal love among humanity.
  • Liaison = an understanding of the true shape of the universe and by extension, our place within it. 
Each chapter contains episodes centered around the theme of one of the tasks, but they do not form a cohesive single storyline.

So, who is the audience for Arrive at Easterwine? Is it really a book for the hardcore Lafferty fan or for English majors who breakfast on Joyce and lunch on Woolfe? Is it for people who have read Joyce’s Ulysses enough times to understand where the story is metaphor for the human condition, where it is straight narration, and where the interpretation is optional? Yes, all of these, but not only. The one thing this book requires, in my incomplete opinion, is a reader willing to let it wash over them and to enjoy the wordplay without understanding at first. Let the ideas contained within fester in your mind; let them combine and give birth to new little idealets, and then return to it days or even years later. In that manner it can be an immensely rewarding read.


  1. As you mention, Arrive at Easterwine clearly isn't for the faint of heart; it's for those who are willing to put aside their notions about what a novel is "supposed" to be and embrace this one on its own terms. Still, I find myself mystified by the number of intelligent readers who can't accept the structure that is provided to them within the very first chapter—they deal with in medias res beginnings just fine, but something in them rebels at just being given so much, so soon; they don't know how to cope with it. (The difficulty is further compounded in works like "Serpent's Egg" and "Not to Mention Camels.")

    I've probably mentioned at some point that I'm a big fan of Sheryl Smith's writings on Lafferty, and one of her two articles is on just this novel: "Arrive at Easterwine: Some Errant Roadmapping." (It's near impossible to find but I hope to remedy that in the coming year or two.) She does a great job of exploring the 3+1 structure of the book, pointing out how Epiktistes as machine intelligence forms the fourth to all the book's trinities.

    I'll put forward another understanding of the book, one which I think applicable to much of Lafferty's work, though difficult to grasp for those new to him or even those returning for however many times: though he is fully capable of building suspense toward a climax, Lafferty often does entirely without these usual structures of plot: these triangles or mountain peaks or whatever angular metaphor you choose. Rather, he prefers to take the moment of creation itself and start with it as the moment of greatest tension, and then sustain it till the end of the work, which often finishes in anticlimax. That is to say, he prefers the plot structure of plateaus, of sustained intensity from beginning to end, with no one part given preference over the others. (Those familiar with French philosopher Gilles Deleuze will recognize parallels to his book with Félix Guattari, "A Thousand Plateaus." Others will recognize this as the plot shape of the first chapter of Genesis.)

    In this way his project is not near the Joyce of "Ulysses," or Woolf. (Though as a reader of both I would hope that people could find much to love in these author's own highly individual approaches.) It's closer to the Joyce of "Finnegans Wake," at least in letting the words wash over you, but it aims more at inspiring readers to collaborate with him in creating the new worlds that humanity desperately needs. Thus his parallels—if only in this way—are to the Balzac of the massive Human Comedy, or the short stories of de Maupassant, or of the fantastic works of Chesterton—and beyond them to the mystics and the village liars of centuries gone by.

    Great post! I hope the lack of success in this instance doesn't prove too discouraging.

  2. One of the passages that has stuck in my mind over the years is on P38 (Ballantine edition):
    ..."We will understand that Aristotle and Augustine were later and riper in knowledge and experience than were Darwin and Freud and Marx and Einstein, those early childhood types. We will understand that Aquinas came after Descartes and Kant, that he shaped what they hewed."

    Before this passage Epiktistes has a profound meditation on the nature of time and simultaneity. Perhaps some of this may be related to what Lafferty is attempting to show in Arrive at Easterwine. As a writer and thinker he has a scepticism about the taken-for-granted solidity of historical time. He sees that there is a deadening and falling away of understanding and emotion in modern patterns of thought. He poses the paradox of why people should see Freud and Marx as further along the road of progress than Augustine and Aristotle. Lafferty belongs to the school of philosophical Realism while the modernity he critiques belongs to the school of philosophical Nominalism. One way to illustrate what this means is to say that he believes that Love and Beauty and Friendship are Real things. They have a complex reality that out-runs the simple verbal and descriptive labels given to them. So some of the quite visionary sections of the novel are a means to describe what Shape, Stuff and Substance are in reality. I agree that Chesterton is relevant to this novel. He too was a Philosophical Realist and a poet. He too never gave up on language and how it can be used to conjure up and reflect back reality to the reader in ever-new modes of presentation.

  3. Also, I recall two other crucial aspects to this novel: one is that 'failure' is repeatedly referred to as a crucial category and result of their three experiments, as if failing at them is essential to finding their fulfilment somewhere else: viz. in Easter, Easterwine, healing, Holy Spirit Fire, the logos at the beginning, the bloody tree, etc.

    Which brings up the second aspect: all of those things I just listed are spun out in beautiful linguistic play repeatedly by Lafferty himself in the novel. They are all his terms and they are presented to us, as I recall, as layers of heraldry on a coat of arms that are accessed through continually scratching into deeper layers of the crest. As

    Andrew writes elsewhere, I believe, Lafferty is instructing us in how to read his own works. We must, as you say, Kev, allow the words to flow over us in their surface joy and pleasure. Then we must scratch deeper and deeper on subsequent reads. And it's really not that hard I've found. I've only read it twice, but on the second go the first layer flaked away with very little effort on my part (the first reading had primed that top layer to give way in fairly easy accessibility to the second layer). It was only on the second reading that I caught the blatantly telegraphed structure, but it leapt out at me the second time and my mouth literally hung open at how clear it was and how fully it explicated the structure.

    Anyway, I look forward to a third read and encountering the next deepest layer. John's comments here on Lafferty's notion of Augustine and Aquinas being 'later' than Marx and Freud hint at the treasures I'll encounter.