Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Quick Thoughts on Fourth Mansions

Lafferty's Fourth Mansions is my favorite book. It is the book I re-read most often, the book I enjoy the most, the book I draw the most encouragement from. There may be better books in the world, for instance I argue that Okla Hannali is both better written and more important. However, since I first encountered it, sometime around my 19th year, I have not found a book I enjoy reading more than Fourth Mansions.

On the other hand, there are many readers who do not resonate as strongly with the book. For some it takes two or three readings to catch on to what it is doing, and for some it will never click. I understand that every reader is different, and different aspects of Lafferty's writing resonate differently with each of us. However, I still ponder the mechanisms--the reason this book instantly hit all my resonant frequencies while leaving others cold.

One cause may be the way Lafferty plays with levels of metaphor so freely that it is not always apparent what is in the "reality" of the narrative and what is metaphorical. For example, in one scene Freddy Foley is trying to reach Biddy Bencher over a long distance:
     Freddy called her up, not by phone. Other forms of communication had come onto him lately almost without his noticing them. He got her but could not get her attention. She was lounging on subterranean beaches and wild dogs were tearing her apart. “You’re missing pieces, you’re missing the best pieces,” she kept calling at the tearing dogs. “All you’re tearing off is the legs. Don’t any of you like the white meat?”
     Freddy couldn’t get her attention that way. Finally he called her on the telephone and she answered on the fourth ring… 
I had no trouble with this passage. It's actually very funny. Freddy has been touched by the brain weave of the Harvesters and is in constant mental contact with everyone who is part of the weave or has also been touched by the weave. However the parts of consciousness connected by the weave are often a part of the person's subconscious, so the events that occur in the weave are more like the events in a dream. They are metaphorical and sometimes nonsensical in the same way that dreams are, but they do contribute to the tenor and the interpretation of the events happening in the "real" world of the book.

In this passage, Freddy has realized that because of the weave, he has powers of communication and insight that he'd never had before. He tries to use these powers to communicate with Biddy, but because she is a distractible and impulsive young lady with a rather lurid subconscious imagination, these abilities are useless. Freddy then has to use more normal or mundane means to reach her.

In a way Lafferty is poking fun at his own invention. Most SF authors come up with a nifty gimmick, and it becomes the lynchpin for the narrative of the book. Consider Heinlein's Time for the Stars in which scientists discover telepathy between certain identical twins. That communication becomes the core of the narrative of interstellar exploration. Heinlein treats his invention with great reverence. Lafferty, on the other hand invents the brain weave, which has tremendous impact on the narrative and reveals the actions and motivations of the characters on several levels of consciousness, and then in this scene dismisses it as being superfluous and not very helpful--at least at that particular moment. In parallel, imagine if someone invented a way of connecting all the sources of knowledge and computing power over the world, and people mostly used it for posting pictures of their cats or what they ate for breakfast...

Once Freddy is touched by the weave, he slowly uses more and more of the capabilities it gives him. He sees in the dark, seeing with Harvester eyes, with Toad eyes, with Falcon eyes, with Patrick eyes. "One misses so much who uses one set of eyes." He gets updates from Miguel Fuentes and reports on his revolutionary movement--even drawing him accurately from memory without ever having seen him. He follows the battles and plots of the Harvesters. This allows the narrative to follow Freddy, but also to report in detail on all the other groups of characters who have become connected. However, many of the events come through the weave and are on a metaphorical level. The vision of Richard Bencher doing battle with the dragon or hydra that the weave has become is happening on a level that Bencher is not even consciously aware of. We never know if Biddy's demon boyfriend is a real demon of Hell or a metaphor for the energy of the weave--though I suspect it is intended as real. And then there's Bagley's dog-ape plappergeist, and the weave-inflected metaphor for the world in Michael Fountain's lectures.

I can imagine that some readers have trouble switching so quickly and so often between layers of metaphor and reality.

Everyone has their own particular mental and emotional structures, and everyone has their own patterns of Lafferty reading. I wonder if the way Lafferty's corpus resonates with a person is as individual as a fingerprint. For me, Fourth Mansions leaves the biggest mark.


  1. 'She was lounging on subterranean beaches and wild dogs were tearing her apart.' That's one of my fave lines in literature. This is a great post, inducing lots of further fruitful reflection. I've described this novel's prose as reading like an old animated cartoon and I think you've helped me see a bit more why this is so - the constant sudden shifting in and out of metaphor gives a very roiling cartoon type of feel to the reading experience, so stretchily pictorial and pedestrian at once. (That this same novel can contain a number of almost 'hardboiled' action passages as well as all this 'metaphorical realism' is a wonder!)

  2. I love that sometime after this passage, he refers to Biddy as a "cinnamon cookie for Cerberus," which instantly recalls both the Harvesters' invasion of Miguel Fuentes' mind, where he refers to her as a canelon, which is defined as either a gargoyle or a cinnamon cookie, and this passage--because what other dog than Cerberus inhabits a subterranean beach. I guess that means the beach is along the River Styx, which implies or further reinforces the idea that Biddy and the Harvesters were playing with death.

  3. Wow, layer on layer on layer. Can't wait for there to be an annotated edition!