R. A. Lafferty: Effective Arcanum

April 24, 2002, by Don Webb

Take the wordies
from hind brain
tell of weirdies
in a great word-rain
       Grimorie of Aloys

Blurbers (those who blurb) say two contradictory things about the work of R. A. Lafferty. Often both poles will appear in the same blurb; blurbers do not aim for consistency, but instead for creating a mood that will induce the sensory-overloaded reader to purchase the book.
The first remark is how familiar Lafferty's work is: he is either compared to Twain (or some likewise wholesomely American figure) or to the folktale, ghost tale, or talltale.
The opposite pole stresses the uniqueness of his work: unique, quirky, one-of-a-kind.
It would seem that either the blurbers have indeed read the work, and are hard put to find words to explain the effect of Lafferty's prose on their psyches, or they are merely quoting other blurbers.

I wish to argue that Lafferty deliberately creates the mythic effect through a technique I call effective arcanum, and that rather than examining his work with the conventional tools of science fiction criticism, we need to examine his system; firstly for our pleasure, and secondly so that we may re-create it (because the sign of an authentic religo-magical system is the power of the followers to reproduce the results).

It may seem strange to think of Lafferty's writing in terms of religious phenomena, but if you consider the devotion that the small press world has shown, you'll begin to see what I mean.
Behold, now I speak prophetically: with Lafferty gone there will be (unfortunately) a lot of bad Lafferty pastiche,not because of the commercial viability of such writing (Lafferty being one of the least commercial writers we have) but because of the desire of the writer to re-create the effects of Lafferty's writing on his or her psyche.
In this (and a few other ways as well) Lafferty is very similar to H. P. Lovecraft.

Let us examine six ways (there are nine, but three must remain hidden for I use them myself and don't want to give away any of my tricks just yet) in which Lafferty's fiction creates the Unknown rather then the Known, and then let us give some consideration to the strengths and weaknesses of the method (and its reception and lack thereof in the world of Science Fiction and fantasy).

Hopefully some later, more qualified writer than I will begin the task of putting Lafferty into the bookshelf of literature, where he belongs.
By the way, each of these points can be expanded into a dissertation,and no doubt will be in the fullness of time.

  1. Lafferty uses textual devices to estrange the reader in a hypothetical time before the beginning of the narrative. He comments on the method himself in one of his created texts:

    Atrox Fabulinus, the Roman Rabelais, once broke off the account of his hero Raphaelus in the act of opening a giant goose egg to fry it in an iron skillet of six yards' span. Fabulinus interrupted the action with these words: "Here it becomes necessary to recount to you the history of the world up to this point."

    After Fabulinus had given the history of the world up to that point, he took up the action of Raphaelus once more. It happened that the giant goose egg contained a nubile young girl. This revelation would have been startling to a reader who had not just read the history of the world up to that point: which history, being Fabulinian in its treatment, prepared him for the event.
       THE FALL OF ROME, Auctore.
    (From East of Laughter.)

    By creating a text of seeming antiquity, the defamiliarization of the world is seen as something that already happened before the narrative.
    The story doesn't have to explain the strange state of affairs it begins with or ends with.
    This runs counter to the paradigms of Science Fiction, in which texts which are cited are real (or presumed to deal with the hard factual world), and provide a springboard for the Man With A Plan to demonstrate his cleverness based on the facts of the matter. Likewise it violates the paradigms of horror (our everyday world with one intrusion or anomaly which can be isolated or at least explained), and of fantasy (another world with its own consistent laws).

    Lafferty uses created texts, either created out of whole cloth,such as the frequently-cited The Back-Door of History by Arpud Arutinov or The Fall of Rome, an actually published Lafferty book ("auctore" simply being Latin for "by the author"),or partial cloth, wherein Laffertyisms are attributed to the Psalms, or reference made to Aristotle's Beard in Essential and Beard in Existential. These are legitimated by the actual quotations from actual people mixed into the stream.
    Therefore reality is carefully displaced, sometime somewhere before either writer or reader has anything to do about it.
    This is an extremely effective modification of the fairy tale formula of in illo tempore. But instead of the "Once upon a time," where we know what the different laws are,Lafferty just convinces us that the laws are different.

  2. Lafferty makes use of dead language words to play upon our collective unconscious. Mainly Hellenisms work their unconscious magic upon us; although like Joyce he combines his Greek with Irish,note the Puca in The Reefs of Earth.

    Consider the following examples. In My Heart Leaps Up, Lafferty's "autobiography" from Chris Drumm, the lead character is named Helen Anastasis. We may sense the rightness of the name, but unless we know Greek, we don't realize Anastasis = against inertness. Likewise, in "Continued on the Next Rock" the hero's name of Anteros = "One who loves in return" sadly sums the hero's love and the girl's obstinacy (which are seen as a mechanism of their reincarnations,reminding one of the strangely Greek-named heroes of the Mummy films,Kharis, whose name means "gift," and Anake, whose name means "necessity").

    Lafferty's use of Greek, Latin, Irish, and Hebrew tags is not merely demonstration of his vast erudition. It is a technique used by magicians for centuries to give their spells potency. Whereas he directs most of his narrative at our conscious,using simple daytime language,he also directs the same tale at our unconscious achieving a form of meta-communication. This is one of the most subtle forms of displacement. We feel early on in the Lafferty story that more is going on then we know, and at the end of the story that more has gone on than we can know. The use of foreign tags and the use of rhythm discussed below are good tools in displacing the narrative.

  3. Lafferty plays upon our subconscious in another way,the use of rhythm.
    Yevgeny Zamyatin developed the concept of a "prose foot" as a way of internal pacing of fiction. He saw it as a kind of rhythmic device that by causing the reader to remember an earlier part of the narrative became a force for a choral (as in pertaining to choruses) cohesion that bound the story together in a different way than plot mechanics.
    This method, which I can't detect in Zamyatin's works (since Russian is Greek to me), is the core of Lafferty's work. He has invented the postmodern equivalent of the Homeric epithet.

    Now that I've told you what the magician's about to do, see if you can catch the trick the next time.

    Oops, went past you!

    A couple of examples will suffice. In the short story "The Transcendent Tigers," the device of a rhyming couplet to destroy a city of the world is used throughout the story. We become so in rhythm with the words that Lafferty doesn't have to provide the name of the city when the last half of a couplet ends the story,"Knife and Fork,and the reader provides "New York" thus having his own imagination and language complete the terrifying little tale. Likewise, rhyming nonsense is the way a character may enter the world of the Shelni in "Ride a Tin Can",perhaps more significantly, the understanding of the nonsense can turn you into a Shelni.

  4. Lafferty uses the image of the wonder child to evoke a past that never was. This is the emotional equivalent to the intellectual process mentioned in #1. Unlike Bradbury, who invokes some kind of Norman Rockwell past by visual detail, Lafferty invokes the very rapid sense of childhood as we remember it.

    His heroes in "Lord Torpedo, Lord Gyroscope," Karl Riproar and Emily Vortex, are typical Lafferty wonder kids who do everything very very fast. His children as well as his hard-drinking young men move in a world that has been condensed by memory, and so we match with our own perceived fast and fleeting moments of childhood. Otherwise his children possess special powers, which, unlike the typical mutant of SF or demon-possessed horror kiddo, are never explained. These powers can be anything from the ability to make things disappear, in "Seven Day Terror," to,perhaps the greatest Lafferty trick of all,remaining perpetually four years old.

    This is a wonderful assertion of the fictive impulse,instead of appealing to our memories, he appeals to the type of story we told each other at that age and combines that appeal with the nostalgia we have for our youths. A careful blend, there; we read and feel nostalgic for realities that never were. And if we feel nostalgic for realities that weren't,we are displaced before the narrative happens.

  5. Lafferty denies the uniqueness of the spectacular events, and by so doing once again displaces reality. The most outrageous situations are either ignored (as "In our Block," wherein the presence of a group of beings who can make anything instantly and in any quantity,a favorite Lafferty motif,is simply explained away as there are lots of odd people in the world), or a figure shows up claiming to have previously done the deed, but in a different way. The latter role is usually filled by Willy McGilly.

    In "Seven Day Terror," he marvels that current kids use a beer can to make a disappearer, when he had used an oatmeal tube. In "Thus we Frustrate Charlemagne," he points out that all he needed to kill historical figures was a dart, rather than huge computer. And so forth. By denying the uniqueness of a spectacular event, Lafferty simultaneously accomplishes three things.

    One, he postulates that the world (at least this fictional world) is actually much, much stranger than our own. It is not only broad enough for the strange event,it is broad enough to hold the laws which permit the strange event.

    Two, he postulates that, in general, people's memory of wonder is so poor that they generally have forgotten the true marvels of the age. The truly successful people in Lafferty's works,the true geniuses and √úbermenschen, are Those Who Remember the wonder of the world, such as Willy McGilly.

    Three, he once again dislocates reality before the narrative starts. The reader is not presented with a world that he or she knows with one anomaly to puzzle out; the reader is presented with a world that he or she has never known. Or, to create a more dreamy distancing effect,a world that he or she has forgotten. Which leads us to:

  6. Lafferty uses the feeling of estrangement, of "I think I've forgotten something," as a mood to displace the narrative.

    We've all had those haunted days when we felt that we should've known something more than we knew. Lafferty often invokes that mood as the voice of a tale. Although not the only writer to do this,Robert Pinget comes to mind,Lafferty is certainly the only popular English writer who pulls off this particular trick. Two examples come quickly to mind.

    In "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne," the history changers at the Institute for Impure Science decide to change history, but they will have an objective reference to the world before the change, so they can see if their attempt worked. Of course,following a long established tradition in Science Fiction,the change changes their memories and their external object. Now this is more than commonly interesting, because the Institute for Impure Science is here doing to itself what Lafferty does for his readers,changing the rules at some time before the action begins (this is one of the many uses of self-reference which haunt Lafferty's work).

    A second example would be "What's the Name of that Town?", in which Epikt (note the wonderful Hellenism: Epiktistes means "The Equitable One," a great name for a calculating device that takes all elements (Stoichae) equally) sorts his facts to discover that something must be missing. The missing thing is Chicago, and when Epikt pronounces the hidden name, no memory results. Here's a primary Lafferty formula. Even when all the facts point to the mysterious nature of the matter, people simply can't remember the mysterious (except the Epiktistes,who as his name implies takes all facts equally, from padding in Hungarian dictionaries to Little Willy jokes about blood and chewing gum,and the most inspired genius of the day, Gregory Smirnov, who has tingles of memory).

    There is a Platonic theme in much of Lafferty's work: the world would no longer seem so dreary if we could only remember it. He even points out the two methods suitable to induce memory: the precision of Epiktistes, which he himself shows in researching and coining such names; and the inspiration of Smirnov, which Lafferty shows doubly strongly.

There are two benefits and two drawbacks to Lafferty's use of techniques of estrangement. The first drawback is that since his work doesn't fit the paradigms of Science Fiction, Fantasy, or Horror writing, the publishing world approaches it with great reluctance. I have never seen a second edition of any of his works, very few have made it into hardback, and, with the decline of the short story as a commercial medium, his work more and more has become the province of the small press. The radical openness of his texts, which, although they may offer a solution to the particular situation, leave that world more open by suggesting that such have happened before and will happen again, have clearly prompted editors to request new endings of several stories.

Pick up any collection of Lafferty's shorter works and look at the ends of the stories. Note how many of them have the four or five paragraph ending (in another voice) that in a humorous and off hand fashion undercut the narrative. The lack of satisfactory endings reflects the need to comply with genre restrictions.

The second drawback is that since Lafferty's use of structure and displacement techniques place him outside of the paradigms of science fiction, and his venues place him outside the scope of academic criticism, very little is said about his work. Although we live in an epoch where the bold academic adventurer is like to go into the Venusian swamplands of SF, such academic probes are looking for SF in its pure state and will regard sports (particularly those infused with humor) as anathema.

Those individuals looking from within the SF world may lack, or simply disdain, the linguistic and critical skills needed to begin to reveal that in Lafferty's work there is much more going on than meets the eye. The brave individuals who have attempted to do so have either merely produced fulsome praise or attempted to classify Lafferty's writings on the basis of superficialities (i.e., calling him a surrealist). Lafferty's use of displacement is not unique, but so few writers have consciously attempted the process, and their works are so varied, that there are no unifying articles, no language for the critic with a day job to draw on. Some bright lad or lass (with the appropriate dignifying letters following their names) may read this and look for the method of displacement in H.P. Lovecraft, James Joyce, Robert Pinget, Gilbert Sorrentino, Flann O'Brien, R. A. Lafferty, Howard Waldrop, and R.A. Wilson. Now there's a book worth reading. The astute observer will note that all the names on the list are Irish, saving those which are not.

The first benefit is the sheer memorability of R. A. Lafferty stories. The techniques of displacement, which work well on the shorter work, tend to over-weary the reader trying to hold it all in the longer pieces. However, any of the shorter pieces, once read, can be recalled because the effect that his work has on the psyche is ongoing. We may think of some classic SF tale such as Asimov's robot stories and use it to illustrate a point, but people recalling Lafferty tales do so with wonder. As an experiment, try to start telling any Lafferty story you know to anyone who has read any SF at all. Notice how early on they say, "I read that. It was neat." This is markedly different from the purely nostalgic reaction we have to E. R. Burroughs or Bradbury. I deem Lafferty's stories effective arcanum, since they clearly continue to work the soul once read.

The second benefit that Lafferty's stories have is that they give the rest of us something to shoot for. Over my writing desk I keep a copy of the Russian critic Victor Shlovsky's remark, "The technique of art is to make objects 'unfamiliar,' to make forms difficult. To increase the difficulty and length of perception is an aesthetic end in itself and must be prolonged. Art is a way of experiencing the artfulness of an object, the object itself is not important." Shlovsky wasn't writing about Lafferty, but I doubt if few writers could so clearly be an example of art as Shlovsky defines it.

Don Webb, freelancer writer, speaker and teacher, has over 250 published stories, four hardback novels, and damn near 2000 Google hits that are really about him. He usually says very funny things for his bios, so why ain't you laughing now?