Saturday, September 29, 2018

How I Discovered Fourth Mansions

Some decades ago, I believe it was the summer I was 18--so 1984-ish, I would head on Fridays after work at my summer construction job  to a local independent Santa Fe bookstore. Someone would always bring a six-pack of Tecate, and the owner would have limes to cut for the beer bottles. A group of us would sit around drinking beer and talking about Science Fiction. There was a young lady among the Friday afternoon regulars who was married to an exiled Czechoslovakian poet and political activist. Her husband lived in hiding in Los Alamos, NM unable to leave the confines of their compound out of fear of extradition. She would often read us her translations of her husband's poetry. One day, we were talking about Science Fiction's ability to explore the inner workings of government while being too outré to attract censorship. She thrust a copy of Fourth Mansions into my hands and told me it would help me understand what is really going on.

I read Fourth Mansions that summer, and it rapidly became my favorite book, by any author in any genre. A number of things in the book resonated with me immediately. I loved the idea of the brain weave because I had a close group of friends I had gone to high school with. We played Dungeons and Dragons together pretty much every weekend from the ages of 14, camped together, ran track together, and sat and blew off and read science fiction together. We had a close group dynamic that felt almost telepathic. It was a very little stretch to imagine that the group the Harvesters could literally move the world with a more intense science-fictional version of that same group dynamic.

In high school, we had a very strong art history curriculum, and over Christmas break a year and a half earlier, my group of friends and I had traveled to California and seen the Holbein exhibit at the Getty museum in Malibu (this was long before the new Getty Museum had been built in downtown LA). When Lafferty introduced each of the Harvesters by comparing them to paintings, I could see the paintings in my mind’s eye and have a sense of the personality he was describing.

I really loved the idea that many events in the story could have been happening only on a metaphorical level,  from the confusion that Miguel Fuentes might have been a part of Michael Fountain’s under-mind rather than a distinct person, to Biddy lounging on subterranean beaches with wild dogs tearing her apart, to the final battle of Jim Bauer and Arouet Manion as giant snakes or bulls on a crumbling cliff edge.

And especially I resonated with the idea that there is more going on in the world than met the eye. I was going into my sophomore year of college, and I had a sense of evolving possibly into something great, and that there innumerable stumbling blocks in my way that could prevent me from reaching that greatness. More than anything, I responded to the sense of hope in the book that each of us can achieve evolution.

I do not believe that the Badgers, the Pythons, the Toads, and the Unfledged Falcons in any way reflects real conspiracies against the Human world. I believe they stand as a metaphor for the millions or billions of individual plots hatched by every person who wants a piece of the world pie. Plots that are no more than daydreams and minor greed, but that show the conflicted nature of each individual human. At least that's my interpretation.

Since that summer, I have read Fourth Mansions at least 7 times, and I get more out of it every time. To this day it remains my favorite book by any author in any genre. However, I still don't know how the wife of the Czechoslovakian poet interpreted it (and I still haven’t returned her book).