Friday, January 3, 2014
The Back Door of History
There are times when I feel I should sing the praises of Amazon.com. This is one of those times. A couple of months ago, I stumbled on a very, very inexpensive copy of The Back Door of History, a small, folded-paper and stapled collection of Lafferty stories published by the United Mythologies Press in 1988 (boastful, bragging blog post about the purchase here: Merry Christmas and an Apocryphal Last Chapter). The collection contains six stories I had never had a chance to read before. Here are some brief, off-the-top-of-my-head reactions:
Phoenic - The ancient Phoenician returns to his birthplace to renew his life and returns as a young man with a box full of ashes. According to the narrative, this is not the surprising part of the story. This is a short, and oddly powerful story. His asides in the beginning about the ancient Phoenician being a tailor and the state of the clothing industry become pivotal to the ending of hte story. The resurrection through fire is presented rather matter-of-factly, and he tells us to save our sense of wonder for other related renewals only hinted at.
Much has been made of the connection between “Phoenic” and Neil Gaiman’s wonderful attempt to write a Lafferty story, “Sunbird.” While both stories riff on the legend of the phoenix, I think Gaiman was drawing on a much wider range of Laffertian influences. He uses Lafferty’s technique of presenting a list of character names that are joyously unique and somehow utterly Laffertian. He plays with introducing the characters through name, aspects of personality, impact upon the group, and little vignettes. And he has a character who knows much more about what is really going on than he tells the reader--the protagonist in Gaiman’s story, usually a side character in a Lafferty story. “Phoenic” was too short and too focused a story to include any of those particular elements.
Six Leagues From Lop - This is a delightful travelogue of sorts. It purports to fill in the missing parts from one of three adventures of Marco Polo that he (the narrator) claims was truncated and obviously missing parts. It tells the story of Marco Polo’s adventure to a spaceport just six leagues from Lop (modern day Ruoqiang Town in China), and his trade and travels with three-eyed extraterrestrials. Lafferty uses the old technique of telling the story from the point of view of a narrator who seems insane at first, then tells a fantastical story so compellingly that the reader starts to suspend disbelief, and then concludes by mentioning things even more insane, as if to remind the reader not to trust the narrator. Lots of tales of adventures to fantastic lands have been told in this format over the centuries, and Lafferty follows directly along in that tradition. Therefore, this is one of very few first-person narratives in Lafferty’s oeuvre.
Rainy Day in Halicarnassus - Apparently Socrates never got around to dying. His reported death from Hemlock poisoning was just a story Plato told to throw people off. In comparatively recent times (early twentieth century), Socrates had settled himself down in the ancient Greek city of Halicarnassus (modern-day Bodrum in Turkey). Two American travelers get stranded there by weather on a particularly rainy day. A rainy day in Halicarnassus being the absolute epitome of boredom, Socrates (“Socky”, or even “Rocky) takes some pity on the two stranded Americans and shows them the few paltry entertainments of the town. They catch on quickly that he is Socrates himself who has avoided death for thousands of years, but are not overly curious about it.
This story is more about the setting and situation than it is a narration of events. There is not really a plot, but more a series circumstances. Not that much happens. Two American sailors come into Halicarnassus for a safe harbor in a storm. It is raining and there’s almost nothing to do, so Socrates takes them to three nearly identical breakfasts in the town’s three cafes, takes them to nearly identical western matinees in the town’s three movie theaters, takes them to drink in the town’s three nearly identical nightclubs (which are open in mid afternoon only), and then out of desperation for something to do takes them to the museum of living relics where he is the greatest exhibit. There they encounter a group of time travelers from the far future who have identified him as Socrates and want to know the secret of how he avoided death for so many millennia, which he tells them (but not us, the reader). OK, I guess a lot does happen, but it is narrated in such a tone of abject boredom that the events seem dull. In a way, that is an accomplishment--I suspect no other writer could present such a set of circumstances with anything but breathless enthusiasm and wonder. Part of the power of the story is disconnect between the fantastic situations and the dullness with which we are asked to view them.
Assault on Fat Mountain - This is another story that is more about setting than events. The state of Franklin was not reclaimed by North Carolina in 1789, but won the battle with the North Carolina militia and declared itself an independent nation. The Free Republic of Franklin became the nation of Appalachia, which became the wealthiest and most fertile nation in the Americas. The United States grew to become the impoverished ring around the rich center of the continent, encircling Appalachia, but possessing none of its agricultural and resource wealth. The Appalachians have pity on the poor United Statesers and continually send charity trains of food, trade goods, technology, and money to the States. The Statesers are bitter about this and wish to share in owning the wealth and thus plot ineffectual invasions of the nation of Appalachia.
For me, the real joy in this story is reading the fun Lafferty had with lists. It is also another story where the reading up on history in Wikipedia enriches the experience (for example: the Wikipedia article on The State of Franklin). Something about this story has a bit the feel that Daniel Peterson has referred to as Lafferty’s “Buffalopunk”--his stories where Native Americans (or people like) rule the continent. He has posted a wonderful representative paragraph from this story on his blog, The Ants of God Are Queer Fish.
Calamities of Last Pauper - The Bible tells us in many places that we will always have the poor with us, and we must forever look after and care for the poor. Society has progressed both technologically and economically to the point where poverty has been completely eliminated--almost completely. One man has stubbornly refused riches and has clung to his poverty. This last pauper is brought on television and killed--thus eliminating poverty in the world. No longer having the poor with us to look after and care for, God removes our protections and a new era of really extreme weather, flooding, global glaciation, and volcanism occurs immediately, reducing the world’s population to only a couple of hundred. This story contains some great advice on becoming a serious writer--however, that advice might not apply until the next major ice age.
Rogue Raft - Lafferty give us an equally compelling and absurd geological argument that the level of the seas was at its highest during the ice ages and lowest during the warmest periods. He says that if the land bridges linking Alaska to Siberia and Canada to Greenland appeared during warmer times, that would make it easier to explain the migrations from continent to continent of plants and animals that are not so resistant to cold. He compares the continents to rafts floating in a sea of magma--if you pile miles of ice on top of such a raft, it sinks down, not rises up, and the sea floors, being lighter because of the lack of water, float higher on the magma, raising the sea level. I don’t buy it, but he presents it so compellingly that I really want to see a paleogeologist refute it directly and restore my sense geologic history.