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.

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