Monday, April 28, 2014

The Man Who Made Models 3: The Hole on the Corner

"Homer Hoose came home that evening to the golden cliche: the unnoble dog who was a personal friend of his; the perfect house where just to live was a happy riot; the loving and unpredictable wife; and the five children; the perfect number (four more would have been too many, four less would have been too few). " 
This may be a long, rambling response to a tight, compact story. The story has so many elements within it,  it is hard to keep any discussion of it as short as the story itself.

"The Hole on the Corner" is unarguably one of Lafferty's great works. It is one of my three favorite stories, along with "Narow Valley" and "Days of Grass, Days of Straw." This is a Lafferty in high form--a linguistic and situational tour-de-force comprised of equal parts deep philosophy, quantum physics, surreal elements, high humor of the laugh and fall out of your chair variety, and several other parts that I lack the vocabulary to describe or perhaps even the wisdom to recognize. It also introduces some of his stylistic tricks that became part of his stock in trade over the next decades.

Among the signature Lafferty elements in this story are:

  • Compressed story telling - he fits a tremendous amount of story and sub-story into sixteen fast-turning pages.
  • Using archetypes to save time on setting and character development. 
  • Lafferty children - a whole topic in and of themselves--unflappable and always right, reacting to the outrageous as if humdrum.
  • Unrealistic dialog. 
  • Side characters who know everything - two of them in this case: Dr. Corte knows more than the reader, and good old double-domed Diogenes Pontifex (who was refused membership in the Institute of Impure Science because of the "minimal decency rule"), who does indeed know everything relevant to the story. 
  • The question of perception and identity - we might really not be who we think we are, and are we really qualified to know if we aren't?
  • A touch of horror hidden under the humor.
And many, many more. 

First, consider the opening paragraph. Lafferty invokes a powerful sense of normality and even a whiff of nostalgia, along the lines of a Bradbury Green Town, Illinois story. I often accuse Lafferty of substituting archetypes in place of his characters to save time on character development. By telling us this was the golden cliche, he is telling us we already know this scene, just pull the particulars out of our own memories (or out of our collective unconscious--a concept he riffs on a little later in the story)

And of course, by adding the aside about why five children is the perfect number, he tells us that he will be narrating this story with a wink and a grin--watch for the rug being pulled out from under our feet.

Quick aside here, are the reactions of the dog upon Homer's returns home a deliberate play on The Odyssey and the old dog that recognizes Odysseus when he returns disguised by Athena as an old beggar? It is a powerfully evocative though overused cliche in literature now, but do all current iterations look back all the way to Homer? (The existence of Space Chantey would imply so in Lafferty's case).

Nat! of the Lafferty Devotional Page holds up "The Hole on the Corner" as an example of the surreal, and in some ways it is. However, by first having us identify so strongly with homer in the first paragraph by calling on all our memories an associations to populate and paint the story, Lafferty may be pointing to our daily lives as a bit surreal.
"Homer had a little trouble with the doorknob. They don't have them in all the recensions, you know; and he had that off-the-track feeling tonight. But he figured it out (you don't pull it, you turn it), and opened the door. " 
Admittedly he puts us on warning here that the story is about to take a turn into alternate realities, but who hasn't had that "off-the-track" feeling from time to time? Who hasn't experienced those odd moments--almost the reverse of deja-vu when the world seems suddenly strange and slightly unfamiliar?

The idea at the heart of the story seems to be that we as people don't really pay much attention to things--that we rely on familiar associations to fill in the details (as he relies on us to do in fleshing out his stories) and, as Diogenes informs us, "nobody goes by the visual index except momentarily." That is why no-one can tell the difference between the two Homers--they look exactly alike except for how they look--even though on has hooves, green skin (which is OK "as long as it's kept neat and oiled") and tentacles instead of hands ("Oh boy, I'll say!" according to Regina). Lafferty's implying we fail to notice details. If our loved ones were replaced by monsters, we might not notice if they somehow seemed the same.

It is also a resoundingly funny story. From son Robert's dialog with Regina:
"'Where'd you get the monster, Mama?' son Robert asked as he came in. 'What's he got your whole head in his mouth for? Can I have one of the apples in the kitchen? What's he going to do, kill you, Mama?'  
   'Shriek, shriek,' said Mama Regina. 'Just one apple, Robert, there's just enough to go around. Yes, I think he's going to kill me. Shriek!'  
   Son Robert got an apple and went outdoors." 
To Dr. Corte's description of the analyst who analyzes the analysts who analyze the analysts as "tops in his field." And just about everything about Diogenes Pontifex is both exaggerated and uproarious.

There are elements of horror hidden under the humor. The story opens with a monster coming home and appearing to devour his wife, and ends with the protagonist being eaten by a giant spider. Admittedly these are classically horrifying events, but as a reader I was laughing too hard to notice. That's one thing I've often noticed in Lafferty's stories, he writes with such ebullience and good humor, that the violent, gruesome, and grotesque elements slide by without my really noticing them. It took me several readings to cotton on to just how scary the ending really is, even though it is in plain sight.

In that way, this is a story that rewards repeated re-reading. No matter how often I look into "The Hole on the Corner" there's always more depth to be seen.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Man Who Made Models 2: The Six Fingers of Time

"He began by breaking things that morning." 
Bill Hader, in his much appreciated NYT article mentioned the first line of "The Six Fingers of Time" as an example of how engaging Lafferty Lunacy is. But in a way, what we have here is Lafferty in classic SF mode. This appears to be a simple story with a simple--almost Twilight-Zone-like twist at the end. Except that it isn't.

On one level, it is a very easy story, told in a prose style that is much more straightforward than some of Lafferty's more ebulliently effervescent efforts. The story proceeds and we keep guessing about 1/2 step ahead of the main character, but Lafferty still manages to surprise and delight us at the end. If that were all there is to this story, it would be a very good story.

But there is much more to the story. On another level, it is a story about ultimate temptation and choices. It asks if a man, Charles Vincent, the protagonist, is moral enough to choose faith and humanity when offered a chance to be a lord of time--to live a life as long as his mortal soul's and to therefore have power over time and fate--if only he'll chose to ally with certain powers that "smell of the pit". Ultimately Vincent chooses to reject the shadowy and perhaps demonic forces and to wrest that power from them for humanity. It is a valiant if doomed effort. On this level, it still uses the SF trope of the one clever man pitted against an organized army that holds all the cards in its hand. In the standard version of that story line, the one clever man succeeds, but in Lafferty's story, they continue to hold all the cards--beginning, middle, and end.

And on yet another level, it is the story of the forces that beset humanity. He hints at a conspiracy, far older than Humanity and far older than Humanity's current bargain with God in the Garden. This conspiracy lives on in vestigial form in modern Humanity--in this story taking the form of a mutation for six fingers on the hand. The members of this conspiracy claim that by right of prior occupation, they are exempt from such concepts as good and evil, salvation and damnation. The idea of a prehistoric, genetic conspiracy of an older race against mankind is the nexus of The Devil is Dead and Fourth Mansions. It seems to underlie a large portion of Lafferty's work, with the message that as humans we are beset, but we may just have the creativity, energy, and faith to overcome and eliminate these conspiracies.

"The Six Fingers of Time" was an early work of Lafferty's, finished in 1959, and first published in 1960. Consider the state of Science Fiction in 1960. Standard "Golden Age" storytelling was still dominant. Shows like The Twilight Zone were just getting started with admittedly very good writing and perhaps a sting in the tail. And here Lafferty gives us a story that is one on level a fun, easy story about a man learning a trick and being tricked in the end. On another level it is a battle within a human soul between temptation and ethics, and on another level, it is the introduction to an ongoing examination of the forces that metaphorically beset us , Mankind, in our journey toward spiritual evolution.

So the opening line of the story, I think applies very well to Lafferty's writing in general: "He began by breaking things."

By a combination of circumstances that Andrew Ferguson covers on Continued on Next Rock, "The Six Fingers of Time" is one of two Lafferty stories in the public domain. It is available on Gutenberg here: 

Friday, April 11, 2014

The Man Who Made Models 1: The Man Who Made Models

"The Man Who Made Models" is a very good story, but for some reason has never fallen into my personal grouping of Lafferty's great stories.

"The Man Who Made Models" is the story of Jon Skaber, a big Swede known for his big hands and the amazingly life-like models he makes. He is constantly criticized by the Harps, a couple who claim that whenever you miniaturize something fidelity is lost--that his models, no matter how amazing and lifelike everyone else says they are, are grotesque distortions of the originals. The Harps are somehow involved in University finance and are about to pull a major con on the university, while setting up Skaber's friends, the directors of the university, to take the fall for the con. Detective Wrackwolf is another big Swede, a detective who has been busted down from homicide to the bunko squad--largely because his murder suspects seem to disappear before trial--and they usually disappear after walking into Skaber's workshop. Wrackwolf is officially tracking the Harps, but cannot do anything about them until they actually commit the crime. However, he is really on the trail of Jon Skaber--and is willing to bring out ancient Swedish family magic to defeat him. The quote on the back of the book comes from Wrackwolf during his final confrontation with Skaber:
You stretch your jaws when you yawn, but mine will outstretch yours. Ah, which snake will swallow which, I or you?
A lot goes into the set up of this not-very-long story, and the parts hang together to make a nifty little horror tale, or perhaps twilight-zone-like fable. But in three readings, it still feels a bit disjointed to me. The parts never quite mesh smoothly, and none of the characters are really likable. We are supposed to dislike the Harps and we do. Wrackwolf is presented as unlikable--successfully. And Skaber starts out as a sympathetic character, but as we learn about his manipulation and greed, he becomes less and less sympathetic. So the ending of the story leaves us no-one to root for. While it has that small hint of horror (without any hint of the gruesome), the conclusion doesn't quite satisfy.

I enjoyed "The Man Who Made Models" for its many very clever turns of phrase, and the plot device itself is really very creative. But it somehow feels diminished--almost a scale model of a successful story.

"The Man Who Made Models" has been published twice, in a Chris Drumm chapbook for which it was was the title story, and in this beautiful new volume from the Centipede Press for which it is also the title story.

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Man Who Made Models: Introduction

First, an open note of thanks to Michael Swanwick for his dedication to Lafferty's writing over the years and for writing this introduction.

"Eight Words from the Most Wonderful Writer in the World" is an excellent introduction to this, the first Lafferty publication to see the light of day in 15 years (since Sindbad: The 13th Voyage - 1999), the first short story collection in 22 years (Iron Tears - 1992). Michael Swanwick introduces his reaction to Lafferty's writing and gives us some insight into the man's character. In fact, he discusses Lafferty as a character at the conventions--one so soft-spoken that people almost never heard what he had to say.
Has there ever been a less likely literary hero than Raphael Aloysius Lafferty? In my memory I see him coming down the hallway of a convention hotel--he has an energetic, rolling gait, as if her were walking into the wind on the deck of a ship which nobody but he could see--a cheerful old man, blue collar to the bone, who spoke so softly that in my half dozen face to face encounters with him, I only managed to make out what he was saying only once.
Lafferty's fiction was embraced by the "New Wave" (quotes there to avoid a debate on just what was and wasn't new wave--suffice it to say that writers like Harlan Ellison, Samuel Delany, Damon Knight, and Roger Zelazny all loved his writing), but his character could not have been more squarely against everything the new wave was associated with. He was a middle-aged, socially and religiously conservative, jubilantly Catholic man from the middle of nowhere as fare as the publishing world was concerned (Tulsa, Oklahoma). Yet for a while, he turned the entire genre of Science Fiction on its head.

Swanwick brings up a very good point I'd never considered before. Part of what killed his mass-market publishing career was financial analysis and the kind of software that lets publishers track exactly what books are earning the big bucks. That led the investor-driven industry to stick with what is profitable--the predictable, forgettable bestsellers, and jettison everything that didn't instantly turn an obscene profit--the bold, original, and unexpected writing that moves the literary world forward. If any words can describe Lafferty's writing, bold, original, and unexpected do a pretty good job of it.

He describes Lafferty's drinking--always with a drink in his hand at conventions, stumbling from one beer to the next--and speculates about the effect that might have had on his output. Nevertheless, the luminaries of the SF world adored and revered him. Lafferty was for a while a prolific producer of prodigies. His stories arrived via cheap Mexican off-brand typewriters in a veritable torrent.

And in the end Swanwick clues us in on the eight words of wisdom he was finally able to glean from the old master. What were they? Far be it from me to ruin your surprise and delight: Borrow a copy of The Man Who Made Models and read it for yourself!

Thank you, Michael Swanwick for your heartfelt, illuminating, and downright fine introduction to the great man's great work!

PS: You should also read Michael Swanwick's other his other great introduction to Lafferty, "Despair and the Duck Lady."