Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Heresy of Plot

I had a startling revelation the other day: The Devil is Dead (R. A. Lafferty, 1971) has a plot.

I first read The Devil is Dead when I found a copy in the Livermore Public Library around 1991. I was in my early twenties and had only just discovered Lafferty a few years earlier. I remember loving the book, and I can still recall some passages verbatim. However, if anyone asked me what actually happened in the book I would have been hard pressed to give a good synopsis. The experience of reading the book struck me as very much like dreaming. The narrative seemed to bypass the conscious mind and go straight to some sort of dream-like state of awareness.

About a year ago, I (very luckily) found a copy of the book online for a reasonable price. Re-reading it after twenty-some-odd years, I had the odd experience of having no idea where the book was taking me--odd because I had read it before. I could not remember the resolution of any of the situations, even which characters died and when. Again, I was smitten by some of the passages, but the overall arc of the book remained a mystery as I read it in fits and starts, five-minutes here, ten minutes there. It’s not that it’s a challenging read--the prose style is very readable and straightforward, and it has jubilant moments where Lafferty appears drunk on words. However, what he says in that prose seems to defy casual understanding. Lafferty even hints at this in the Promantia at the beginning of the book:

We will not lie to you. This is a do-it-yourself thriller or nightmare. Its present order is only the way it comes in the box. Arrange it as you will. Set off the devils and the monsters, the wonderful beauties and the foul murderers, the ships and the oceans of middle space, the corpses and the revenants, set them off in whatever apposition you wish. Glance quickly to discover whether you have not the mark on your own left wrist, barely under the skin. Build with these colored blocks your own dramas of love and death and degradation. Learn the true topography: the monstrous and wonderful archetypes are not inside you, not in your own unconsciousness; you are inside them, trapped, and howling to get out. Build things with this as with an old structo set. Here is the Devil Himself with his several faces. Here is an ogress, and a mermaid, both of them passing as ordinary women to the sightless. Here is a body which you yourself may bury in the sand. Here is the mark of the false octopus that has either seven or nine tentacles. Here is the shock when the very dead man that you helped bury continues on his way as a very live man, and looks at you as though he knows something that you do not. Here is a suitcase with 36,000 pieces of very special paper in it. Here is Mr. X, and a left-footed killer who follows and follows. Here are those of a different flesh; and may you yourself not be of that different flesh? Put the nightmare together. If you do not wake up screaming, you have not put it together well.

This last week, I picked up The Devil is Dead again and started re-re-reading it. Knowing in advance the events that happen in the story, I could start to put the pieces together as I read. Setting off the devils and monsters etc. against each other, and remembering how each of their parts played out, I came to a startling revelation. The Devil is Dead has a plot:

(Warning: this plot summary contains spoilers that may or may not affect your reading of the book)

The hero of the book, Finnegan, awakes from a drunk amnesia to find he is sitting on the sidewalk in the middle of a conversation with a millionaire. The millionaire, Saxon X. Seaworthy, takes Finnegan on a trip around the world on Seaworthy’s boat, the Brunhilde. For Finnegan, it is truly a journey of discovery--he remembers more and more of who he is as the voyage progresses. The boat is populated with a number of mysterious characters, including Papadiabolous, the Devil--affectionately known as Papa D. As the Brunhilde leaves each of its ports of call, violence, revolution, and chaos erupt in the cities they have just visited. Finnegan (and through him, the reader) discovers that there is another, ancient race that is mingled genetically with Humanity--perhaps Neanderthal, perhaps demonic, or perhaps those two are the same thing. The devils of human mythology may be a racial memory of the race we supplanted. Every few generations, by some design or by accident, some of this race breed true. While appearing human, they are wholly of the “other flesh,” this other, older race. They have some form of racial memory of being supplanted by Humanity, and are out for revenge. The goal of this other race is to stir Humanity up to wipe itself out, so the older race can reclaim the Earth.

The first half of the book ends with the end of the journey on the Brunhilde. Finnegan has understood the nature of the other race and that he is also a member of it. He has also finally remembered that the night before events at the beginning of the book, Seaworthy had killed Papadiabolous and together with Finnegan had buried him. Somehow Papa D. had either come back to life or been replaced by a nearly miraculous impostor the following morning. At the culmination of the first half of the book, many of the characters are killed, including the impostor who replaced Papa D.

The second half of the book covers Finnegan's wanderings around the world (mostly North America and the Caribbean) as he has vowed revenge on Seaworthy. He has decided that even though he is a member of the other race he will fight against them and try to protect Humanity. He learns from a mysterious Mr. X. that the man he knew as Papa D. was really an Irish cop named Noonan,who was member of the other race himself and dedicated to stopping the plans of Seaworthy and the Devil and their cadre. Noonan was a masterful mimic and half-brother of the original Papadiabolous. The original Papadiabolous was the grandson or great grandson of the Devil himself (and either the son or grandson of the diabolic Ifreann Chortovich from Lafferty’s historical novel, The Flame is Green). Finnegan, Mr. X, and a mysterious woman named Doll spend the second half of the novel staying half a step ahead of Seaworthy and his crew. It ends on the site of the grave of the original Papadiabolous (where he is buried on top of an earlier incarnation of the Devil). Doll, presumably as a representative of Humanity, takes the upper hand in the struggle with those of the other race. The next step and the outcome of the continuing struggle are left open.

Well, that’s my interpretation of the plot--a little rambling, and the result of 2 ⅔ readings of the book. Essentially, it is the story of the struggle between an unaware Humanity and another, much older race that seeks either to eliminate or control Humanity. In that, it is similar to Fourth Mansions. Now that I have assembled the pieces, I wonder what I will sound like when I wake up tomorrow. If I’m not screaming, I guess I’ll need to take the set apart and reassemble it again.

Note (7/10/2013): While looking for pictures of Neanderthal to see what Finnegan's nose might have looked like I stumbled across some articles on a recent discovery that Neanderthal DNA lives on in modern humans.


  1. OK, I typed a response to this a few days ago and I guess the commenting system ate it, so taking another swing.

    I think that you're absolutely right that the book has a plot, though Lafferty's notion of plotting (especially for novels) was obviously never traditional. Part of that of course is a determination bordering on mania never to give a "sense of an ending." Another complicating factor for Devil Is Dead is its existence alongside Archipelago; Lafferty even referred to it once as only seeming to be an SF action piece, when it is actually "a psychological fantasy, a split-off life" of Finnegan's.

    So the split in the novel between recensions parallels the split in Finnegan himself, and in Lafferty's telling—all of which is further complicated by later works in the Argo cycle (not to mention other parallels like the Coscuin Chronicles); even there, with the picture of multiple ends of history, there is by design never any sense of utter finality, for such would kill the whole project.

    All of which is to say, yes, there is a plot, but only if you aren't defining plot in the limited way it's often used today, of a story having a beginning, rising action, climax, denouement, so on. What I think you're hitting on here is that Lafferty forces us to rethink plot, or maybe in a broader sense narrative cohesion, so that it's not just about what happened and in what order; it's also about perception and resonance and schizoid gaps that cannot be accounted for by any of our more familiar narrative rhythms.

    Or, maybe another way to look at it: plotting is something human beings are constantly doing because it's impossible to make sense of the world, or of time, or any of the basic categories of life and our relations to them otherwise. Human existence is narrative, and we are constantly re-narrating it. But Lafferty messes with those uncertainties. He messes with the basic categories of existence too, but that is ultimately a by-product of his meddling with the narrative sense on which we are so reliant.

    When the likes of Gene Wolfe and Michael Swanwick talk of Lafferty's work as possibly the most original written, ever, I think it's this sort of thing they're getting at—it's the deep underlay beneath the puzzle of the work as a whole, the haunting of our stories by the infinite other stories that could have been, but which we foreclose on through the words "the end." Lafferty doesn't do that, and that's a huge and continual struggle for many people (myself included) to come to grips with.

  2. Lafferty is retelling actual historical fact.