Monday, April 7, 2014

The Man Who Made Models: Introduction

First, an open note of thanks to Michael Swanwick for his dedication to Lafferty's writing over the years and for writing this introduction.

"Eight Words from the Most Wonderful Writer in the World" is an excellent introduction to this, the first Lafferty publication to see the light of day in 15 years (since Sindbad: The 13th Voyage - 1999), the first short story collection in 22 years (Iron Tears - 1992). Michael Swanwick introduces his reaction to Lafferty's writing and gives us some insight into the man's character. In fact, he discusses Lafferty as a character at the conventions--one so soft-spoken that people almost never heard what he had to say.
Has there ever been a less likely literary hero than Raphael Aloysius Lafferty? In my memory I see him coming down the hallway of a convention hotel--he has an energetic, rolling gait, as if her were walking into the wind on the deck of a ship which nobody but he could see--a cheerful old man, blue collar to the bone, who spoke so softly that in my half dozen face to face encounters with him, I only managed to make out what he was saying only once.
Lafferty's fiction was embraced by the "New Wave" (quotes there to avoid a debate on just what was and wasn't new wave--suffice it to say that writers like Harlan Ellison, Samuel Delany, Damon Knight, and Roger Zelazny all loved his writing), but his character could not have been more squarely against everything the new wave was associated with. He was a middle-aged, socially and religiously conservative, jubilantly Catholic man from the middle of nowhere as fare as the publishing world was concerned (Tulsa, Oklahoma). Yet for a while, he turned the entire genre of Science Fiction on its head.

Swanwick brings up a very good point I'd never considered before. Part of what killed his mass-market publishing career was financial analysis and the kind of software that lets publishers track exactly what books are earning the big bucks. That led the investor-driven industry to stick with what is profitable--the predictable, forgettable bestsellers, and jettison everything that didn't instantly turn an obscene profit--the bold, original, and unexpected writing that moves the literary world forward. If any words can describe Lafferty's writing, bold, original, and unexpected do a pretty good job of it.

He describes Lafferty's drinking--always with a drink in his hand at conventions, stumbling from one beer to the next--and speculates about the effect that might have had on his output. Nevertheless, the luminaries of the SF world adored and revered him. Lafferty was for a while a prolific producer of prodigies. His stories arrived via cheap Mexican off-brand typewriters in a veritable torrent.

And in the end Swanwick clues us in on the eight words of wisdom he was finally able to glean from the old master. What were they? Far be it from me to ruin your surprise and delight: Borrow a copy of The Man Who Made Models and read it for yourself!

Thank you, Michael Swanwick for your heartfelt, illuminating, and downright fine introduction to the great man's great work!

PS: You should also read Michael Swanwick's other his other great introduction to Lafferty, "Despair and the Duck Lady."


  1. From what I've found, Swanwick is mistaken about the extent of Ray's drinking, as far as any effects on his writing. Ray seems to have been a drinker in the military and then a heavier one in the years that followed that, but he really did cut back when he started writing. Ray always acknowledged that he drank too much at cons to settle his nerves, and unfortunately that gave him the reputation of being permanently soused, but multiple family members I've spoken to who knew him for decades don't recall ever seeing him so much as tipsy.

    Also, his most productive writing hours were in the early mornings before going to work, and even after his 1971 retirement—hardly the hours of the hardcore drunk. Anyway, I'll explore this in a bit more detail in the book, but I don't think that you can attribute the plotting or overall structure of Lafferty's novels to struggles with drink; Ray is wrestling with issues much bigger there than just the bottle.

    As usual, I'd definitely point the curious toward Sheryl Smith's article on Arrive at Easterwine as a very important demonstration of one of the many ways that he bound his books together as more than just a collection of separate stories or episodes.

  2. It's funny how a story can grow legs. Lafferty had admitted to drinking too much at one point in his life, though he said he took up writing to fill the gap when he cut down on his drinking. Then Bud Webster’s article, "Secret Crocodiles and Strange Doings (or Sometimes the Magic Really Works)" speculates a great length on Lafferty's drinking and the impact that had on his writing. And of course, Michael Swanwick based his opinion on observed phenomena.

    All that being said, Lafferty's corpus of writing is here, is mind blowing, and is an accomplishment hardly to be believed coming from any human mind in any condition (Did Epikt really ghost-write some of it?). Whatever the ingredients that led to this body of work, I am grateful for the result (and of course, unrealistically wish for more).