Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Having Fun

Reading Half a Sky, the second book of the Coscuin Chronicles, the other day, I stumbled upon this passage that struck me as Lafferty just having fun:

          Down coastal desert spine, through spumy white
          To green, below the mountains fired and iced,
          There came the quick encounter, where stood bright
          Bernardo’s ghost, and sharp the thorn of Christ.

Now to elucidate these lines (as John of the Cross always wrote of his own short stanzas when he expanded their elucidations into whole books), the spine and the thorn are counterpoint and pun, and they stand in apposition to the ghost. But the spine and the thorn are not quite the same thing. The spine and the thorn are both stiff, sharp-pointed processes, but the thorn has vascular tissue and the spine lacks it. The thorn of Christ (which does have vascular tissue) is both the difficulty and the hope of the world, and is of especial importance to the world with only half a sky over it. 

But the spine has other meanings; one is that of determination, of back-bone or spirit. This meaning impinges on another definition of spine, that of the notochord of primitive creatures and of the embryos of higher creatures which then becomes the true bony spinal column. 

In another sense the spine is the same as the spirit (the ghost). The bones of the spine (the cervical and thoracic and lumbar vertebrae, the sacrum, and the coccyx or tail) form the hollow sheath for the spinal cord of nerves and tissue; this cord, as well as the bones that sheathe it, is the spine. “The spinal marrow, which is but the braine prolonged,” old Sir Thomas Browne wrote, but he was wrong. The spinal cord is not a prolongation of the brain. The cord was first; it was the main thing in primitive creatures. Then the brain appeared, as a prolongation or appendage of the cord, as a button or nodule on top of it. The cord is the older, its memory is the longer. It was the original location of the spirit, the ghost. It survives as a ghost, and as the seat of the deep unconscious which is of the whole long body and not only of the button which is the head. 

R. A. Lafferty 
Half a Sky 
pages 128 - 129

I suspect that what we have here is Lafferty having fun. This is not a throw-away passage, it is important to the plot, and he returns to the metaphor of spine several times in the following chapter, but it is self-referential and written with a sense of fun. He is using the idea of a spine to introduce the nation of Chile--especially because it is long and narrow and has a line of mountains running down its length. The world with half a sky over it refers to South America.

I accuse him of having fun with these paragraphs because they contain so many of the elements he appeared to revel in in his writing, religion, historical references, the history of the meanings of words, and wild, loose play with metaphor:

First, there is religion. Lafferty's Catholic faith was deeply important to him and strongly influenced everything he wrote. However, for him, it was a joyous, exuberant faith. In Fourth Mansion  he described the population of one city disparagingly as "Those who did not have the faith, and would not have the fun." Here he indulges in wordplay with deliberately religious meaning. The thorn of Crist plant is a very thorny flowering vine that in legend is what Christ's crown of thorns was made from. I do not understand the reference to vascular tissue here. He does refer to it metaphorically as the "both the difficulty and the hope of the world," and "of especial importance to the world with only half a sky over it." Here he was writing about revolutionary movements in South America, which by the 1850s was strongly and almost universally Catholic.

Secondly, there is the glee in using historical reference. He introduces two writers who I should have known much more about, and mentions them both accurately and humorously. John of the Cross (1542 – 1591), according to Wikipedia, "was a major figure of the Counter-Reformation, a Spanish mystic, Catholic saint, Carmelite friar and priest.”Sir Thomas Browne (1605 – 1682) according to Wikipedia "was an English author of varied works which reveal his wide learning in diverse fields including medicine, religion, science and the esoteric” (thank you again Wikipedia). Wikipedia is my frequent companion when reading Lafferty. He will often throw out historical references that appear to be made up on the spot to lend a specious air of authority to the narrative. When I look them up, more often than not, they are real (though often obscure) historical figures whose lives throw greater light and perspective on the narrative. In this example, John of the Cross is a counter-reformationist, a point of view parallel to that of the Green Revolution that is at the heart of the Dana Coscuin novels.

Thirdly there is play with the meanings and histories of words. He examines the word spine: In the first line of the poem at the beginning, the desert spine refers to the spine of mountains running down the length of the nation Chile. Then he examines the difference between a spine and a thorn--referring to the thorn of Christ in contrast to the spine. Then he spends a paragraph exploring the history of the development of the spinal cord--calling it the seat of the unconscious and of the spirit. Whenever Lafferty refers to spirit, he is referring to it not only in terms of the human spirit but also in terms of the Holy Spirit or the Holy Ghost.

Lastly he ties all of this into a series of metaphors  for racial memory, the Holy Spirit, and both the nation of Chile and the dilemmas (thorny choices) it faced at the eve of the revolution in 1851.

These paragraphs, I believe, are an example of what Lafferty must have considered pure, unadulterated fun. The joy nearly leaps off the page and overwhelms the reader willing to meet it half way (heck even half a percent of the way). If humorous paragraphs about religion, history, etymology, and metaphors for human spirit are amusing to you, you may have what it takes to be a Lafferty fan.

I am reminded of a story from my teenage years. When my friends and I were around 16 years old, a kid had moved to Santa Fe from Chicago for the summer with his parents, and we invited him to come hang out with us. On one typical evening we met at one of my friends houses, ostensibly to play Dungeons and Dragons, but we got too caught up in conversation and music and pizza and one friend had just picked up a new set of SF books (I think the complete Amber series by Zelazny--we weren’t hip enough for Lafferty yet), and the D&D never got around to happening. After several hours of that we started to head for home, and the kid from Chicago turned to me and asked, “But what do you do for fun?”

This is what Lafferty did for fun. Fortunately for the rest of us, it is a fun that can be easily shared. To say his writing is good is like saying water is wet. The real joy is finding out just how wet the water is.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Ships Logs and (Admittedly Good) Flatfooted Prose

I am currently reading The Martian Race by Gregory Benford. It is a very good straight-ahead SF book. Well paced, and even though it jumps back and forth between two timelines in alternating chapters, I would say it uses straightforward storytelling. The first of the two timelines introduced takes place on Mars, as the team is finishing up the year-long mission and getting ready to leave for Earth. The other timeline takes place on Earth in the year of training before the launch. It is obviously a product of the late '90s in its pacing and vignettes designed to establish the characters before introducing moments of crisis.

Gregory Benford is a very good author; his science is sound, his plot is meticulously structured, and the book is gripping. But where is the sheer exuberance? Nowhere in his prose do I get a sense of being drunk on words, the sense of an old conman telling me a tale late at night in a ramshackle bar, and telling it so well that I willing go along--a sheep to be sheared happily, just for the joy of being a part of the tale. Where are the words sung by a bard gone blind from viewing the suns that were suns.

Benford's writing is a shining example of what the mainstream can provide. Admittedly, it is very good. But reading Lafferty has ruined me for even the best flatfooted prose. Benford writes with his feet planted firmly on the ground. Lafferty stands apart, and I'm not quite sure his feet reached all the way to the ground.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Deeply Silly

"There are two kinds of silliness. Something can be frivolously silly or deeply silly. This is very deeply silly."

My Father's comments after I urged a copy of Space Chantey into his hands. He considers this every bit as good (and underrated for serious consideration) as the George Clooney movie made from the same source.

I think he is very much right. In the opening paragraphs, Lafferty asks if there will be a mythology in the future, when computers record every action. Yes, is his reply: In one of the most frequently quoted passages from this book:

WILL THERE BE a mythology in the future, they
used to ask, after all has become science? Will high
deeds be told in epic, or only in computer code?

And after the questing spirit had gone into overdrive
during the early Space Decades, after the great
Captains had appeared, there did grow up a mythos
through which to view the deeds. This myth filter was
necessary. The ship logs could not tell it rightly nor
could any flatfooted prose. And the deeds were too
bright to be viewed direct. They could only be sung by
a bard gone blind from viewing suns that were suns.

He then goes on to recount outrageous exaggerations of Captain Roadstrum's travels and travails--all accompanied with a low-doggerel poetic Odyssey. This leads me to wonder how much a bit of silliness and exaggeration are necessary for something to stick in the mind of the public. The events of the Iliad and the Odyssey were always written as high mythologizing of the events and people. Because the actions were outrageous, they were remembered, and as a result, so were the moral, cultural, and historical lessons contained therein.

One look at today's media tells us this mechanism for cultural memory is still at work. Listen to co-workers discussing who won American Idol or The Bachelor or what-have-you, and you realize that silliness is very much present. All that is missing is depth.

Thursday, May 16, 2013


I just read "Funnyfingers." What a haunting, beautiful, sad story. Oread Funnyfingers, a child Dactyli--one of the demigods who live under the mountains and create things in Iron for God or for anyone who asks in the right way (just might be God in disguise, after all)--appears to be a young, precocious child; and indeed she is. For the Dactyli apparently live a very long time, and age very, very slowly. She and a young Syrian, Selim Elia, fall in love. Really there's not much more to the story than that. I won't talk about the ending for anyone who hasn't read it yet. It's not really a twist or surprise ending, it's just something that should be read in Lafferty's prose, not gleaned from a blogger's post about the story.

As I said, the story is haunting, sad, and beautiful. I haven't seen much romance in Lafferty's stories, but this one fits the bill beautifully. In keeping the prose and the events simple, he is able to create a story of tremendous emotional power. In these qualities, off the top of my head, I can only bring to mind "Ride a Tin Can" for similar power.

It is not unlike Lafferty to make up a mythology on the spot for a story, but it is also very like him to use well researched historical mythology as a backbone for a tale. I had never heard of the Dactyli before, but a quick web search for Kelmis, Acmon, and Damnameneus yielded a number of sources about them, including a very thorough recounting of their history in Bell's New Pantheon Or Historical Dictionary of the Gods, Demi Gods, Heroes and Fabulous Personages of Antiquity by John Bell, (c) 1790.

Among the main characters is Selim Elia, who at one point becomes the night watchman at the City Museum. We see him again at the same job as a friend of Freddy Foley in Fourth Mansions. I wonder if the events in Fourth Mansions happened during the time of the narrative in "Funnyfingers"--Freddy really could have used a little help form Kelmis, Acmon and Damnae.