Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Not Getting To Easterwine

Arrive at Easterwine (1971) is one of my favorite Lafferty books. However, I suspect part of what I like so much about it is the sheer challenge of reading it. Here we have a stream-of-consciousness first-person narrative by an unreliable narrator who is not human and has a penchant for speaking in metaphor. Ultimately the entire book is built around a nested 3- and 4-part narrative structure that has the ultimate goal of looking for divine aspects of humanity. It’s a challenge.

I recently lent my copy to a coworker who I view as a very intelligent person. He is a software engineer who occasionally holds forth intelligently on various SF books over lunch, and he has never read Lafferty. Admittedly, it was a bit of a test case--I’ve been reading Lafferty for so long, I’m not fazed by a lot of what puts other readers off. I wanted to see how an intelligent reader would respond to this, one of his more challenging works. I had a few questions in mind:
  1. Near the beginning of the book, Epikt tells us what the structure of the book will be. I didn’t catch that until my third reading of it. Would a reader with a great attention to detail catch that the first time through?
  2. How would the idea of a computer as an unreliable narrator fly with a software engineer whose job is to see computers as logical and uncreative tools? 
  3. How would an intelligent reader respond to the unrelenting layers of metaphor in the narrative?
My co-worker just gave the book back the other day. He didn’t get through it, but said he “gave it the old college try.” Really he did much more than that; knowing how enthusiastic I am about it, he went back and restarted several times, even reading sections of it out loud to his wife. He said the individual sentences were easy, but understanding what had just been said at the end of each passage was baffling. His wife commented that there is obviously deep sense and meaning there, but what it was eluded her. He did not get past the long night of goats and tigers hunting through the buildings housing his memory banks.

He did stumble on the amount of metaphor in the narrative. Just the simple introduction of each person by describing the impression caused by the introduction of their person precis into Epikt’s matrix led to some confusion, and he had trouble keeping the cast of characters straight.

He also stumbled on the idea of an irrational computer. In popular culture, especially in SF, computers are ultimately logical, and their information often infallible. With the notable exception of Hal, computers do not express curiosity or emotion, unless used to comedic effect. Compare the Enterprises computer in Star Trek to Epikt. You have the monotone recitation of detailed data contrasted with conversation with some internal metaphorical Snake that is never fully explained. Epikt’s willingness to dive into metaphor to describe the characters, and his obvious emotional response to their personalities left my coworker a bit baffled, if not shaken.

He did not get far enough into the book to look at its structure.

The book is divided into three sections of four chapters. Each section addresses the theme of one of the three tasks--to find a leader, a love, and a liaison. Even the tasks are metaphorical:
  • Leader = an examination of what leadership means and a question of what state humanity is in and what kind of person could lead it to a better state--perhaps the next step in human evolution. 
  • Love = an exploration of just what the heck love is and an attempt to create universal love among humanity.
  • Liaison = an understanding of the true shape of the universe and by extension, our place within it. 
Each chapter contains episodes centered around the theme of one of the tasks, but they do not form a cohesive single storyline.

So, who is the audience for Arrive at Easterwine? Is it really a book for the hardcore Lafferty fan or for English majors who breakfast on Joyce and lunch on Woolfe? Is it for people who have read Joyce’s Ulysses enough times to understand where the story is metaphor for the human condition, where it is straight narration, and where the interpretation is optional? Yes, all of these, but not only. The one thing this book requires, in my incomplete opinion, is a reader willing to let it wash over them and to enjoy the wordplay without understanding at first. Let the ideas contained within fester in your mind; let them combine and give birth to new little idealets, and then return to it days or even years later. In that manner it can be an immensely rewarding read.