The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Not to Mention Camels

There seems to be a gap in the history here. I had read all the Dobson publications, had gathered the small handful of UK paperbacks, and without the access to US editions we have now, the only new Lafferties I could find were those short stories that still cropped up in SF anthologies. Then came a new novel.
Not to Mention Camels was first published in 1976. I have a recollection of reading a library copy on a Friday night coach from Nottingham to Manchester, returning home for the weekend, but this is probably spurious because it didn’t appear over here until 1980, leaving only a very narrow window in which I could have done that.
I still have great difficulties with this book, in particular with how to describe it. In part, this is because, phantasmagorical as it is, I don’t find it funny in the way I was, then and now, used to from Laff, and in part it’s because of the sheer bloodthirstiness of the story, the relish in blood and guts, dismemberment and rapine. I am not sufficiently robust for the esprit de Grand Guignol required.
The dust-jacket blurb is unhelpful in suggesting things that are not there. It promises a story about three anti-heroes, each inhabiting alternate worlds, and describes them in vivid terms: Pilger Tisman is ‘a protean figure of phantasmagoric qualities’, Pilgrim Dusmano’s ‘fragmented existence lies in thousands of minds beside his own’ and Polder Dossman is ‘eidolon-man and cult-figure, hypnotic, electric, magnetic, transcendent’.The blurb is self-evidently written by someone who has not read the book or, if they have, has completely misunderstood it.
But Pilger Tisman appears only in Chapter One, and as a man convicted of undetailed terrible and bloody crimes, sentenced to execution in a manner intended to be cruel and painful. His extinction is to be final. It is known that there are many worlds, and that certain persons, who are large and powerful, are world-jumpers. All of Tisman must die here, nothing must be allowed to escape and jump. Three Doctors (one of whom is an alternate to Dr Velikof Vonk, of Lafferty’s Three Eminent Scientists) and a Brigadier of Police are there to ensure this. But Tisman jumps. We see no more of Tisman.
What he has done to deserve such fate we intuit from the behaviour of Pilgrim Dusmano. Fifteen years after the end of Pilger, Pilgrim has been in his world for fifteen years, and is preparing for his next jump (though an alternate version of him will arrive to be Pilgrim Dusmano). Pilgrim is many things, a lecturer, a supplier, a cult-figure leading what one may see as a substitute for religion with himself as its unstated but acknowledged God. He has one powerful friend, one powerful enemy, and devoted cultists, the closest of whom appear to be his students, Mary Morey, a fair, freckled unlarge girl, permanently in the sun and her brother James, a silent, dog-like creature in the shadows.
Pilgrim is cast in charismatic terms – the fair and flowing hair, the hands that drip beneficence, the vulgarity of his fat jaw and the unbroken-horse look to the face.
Yes, Pilgrim is planning to jump on, and all would be well, but for one thing he does, casually, as casually as Lafferty describes it, in passing. He kills a man.
Not just any man, for this is Hut, or at least that is his codename, his cognomen, Hut, or the Hat, or shelter (Pilgrim’s one powerful friend, Noah Zontik, is also known as the Umbrella, for the same reason). Hut is an associate, one of eight (no, it was eight, it’s now seven) associates of Pilgrim’s one powerful enemy, Cyrus Evenhand. Pilgrim goes about his business in his usual manner, sending the weekly message to Supply, which involves – grim jest – killing the messenger, and his wife and two children, to enable their world-jump. The younger child is wise beyond his years.
Pilgrim’s murder sparks a retaliation, by Mut, who takes Pilgrim in his home, knifes his throat, drains him of five pints of blood (which he will later quaff in a single draught), also causing his eyes to fracture and become jewel-like. But Mut is careless enough to allow Pilgrim to lift his wallet, and supremely careless enough to carry in it some precipitate and unwise information.
This is a post-anarchic world that has rejected authority, rejected leaders. It allows a leader in the form of a Consul, masked, unknown, unpaid, certified pure, but only so long as he is unknown. Let his name be revealed, the whole world will erupt in a self-righteous frenzy, to tear him down, both figuratively and literally, to shatter him, to render his body, to sacrifice, cook and eat the bloody portions of him with a relish all the more intense for the Consul being the most undeserving of such a fate, an innocent. What fun is there in harrowing the guilty?
And Evenhand (you knew this) is Consul.
It really is bloody, raveningly bloody, markedly, unashamedly so. It’s also unreal in any respect, or at least it is to me, but not so much as to eradicate or even diminish the effect, because this is R.A. Lafferty, who will tell you that humanity originated on a planet whose cycle is 28 hours long and have you starting to believe him…
Pilgrim plans the despoilment of all nine fortunes, especially the gold, for which he employs the services of the world’s greatest Knacker. This Knacker is skilled at rendering down not merely animal corpses for their by-products but fortunes to their undeserving claimants. But thieves fall out, and the Knacker ends up knackered, his body broken and opened and made a cavity into which liquid gold is poured.
Things now do not go well. Pilgrim’s departure is raw and ill-planned, his death weak and beyond his control. And at the Narrow Corner, a Stygean, Boschean scene where souls in transit can be attacked from above by those who lie in wait for them, Pilgrim and his two cultist followers become locked in frenzied and devastating combat with three others, a Holy Knacker, a small child, and Wut-who-is-Rage.
We have already been warned. There are worlds abounding, and all jumps lead upwards, to bigger, brighter, more bombastic things. Save only from one world, which is Prime World. Though Pilgrim passes the Narrow Corner, he has not passed undiverted.
First though there is the gift, the proto-immortality, the Nine Worlds to Le Spezia, nine worlds of opulence and indulgence to towering degree, where nine versions of yourself are always leading the life your power, elegance and richness entitles you. Though we only meet two in this transit, Pelion Tuscamondo and Palgrave Tacoman, we have all their names and none of them are Polder Dossman. Polder is a Dutch word for land reclaimed from the sea, and Polder Dossman is reclaimed from the ocean, the ocean of the unconscious (I hear also the echo of Polter, of Polter-Geist, Polder-Ghost: Lafferty is a fluent multi-linguist).
Polder is Pilgrim as he emerges, but he is not wholly of human flesh. He is to be to this world the Cult-Figure that was Pilgrim, with the same fair and flowing hair, the hands that drip beneficence, the vulgarity of his fat jaw and the unbroken-horse look to the face. But this world is sceptical and disbelieving, its children hating and derisory, even though Polder comes with the latest model Hand from Heaven, hung above his head, pointing to him for all to see.
And there is no patience for his assertions, despite the efforts of the cultists and the one powerful friend who gather around him. For if Polder is Pilgrim is Pilger, he is a broken version, in the world from which he cannot leap upwards, accorded no respect or power, and ultimately ending as Pilger ended.
There are again three Doctors, one of whom is a Doctor Vonk, of the heavy pre-orbital lobes and the protruding near-muzzle. Are the Three Eminent Scientists here? Pilgrim attends a museum that has a perfect cigar store wooden Indian carved by Finnegan, delivered from Melchisedech Duffy’s Walk-In Bijou in New Orleans, as well as a tryptich titled Dotty. We are a part of Lafferty’s great unfinished work, ‘A Ghost Story’, consisting of everything he ever wrote.
This part of that work stays, for me, outside the range of easy comprehension. There is philosophy, raw and bloody (that damned word again), there are three men who are one man and more than three men, and symbolism so tightly knotted that I have never been able to unravel it. But Lafferty offers us that which we cannot receive elsewhere, and if we can just fracture our own eyes, like jewels, to see brighter and in more dimensions, we may achieve clarity.

12 thoughts on “The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Not to Mention Camels

  1. Ooo-kay….That was a weird trip…I do love the wacky names, rather Dickensian. I liked the idea of world jumping….especially as I’m rather into alternative/parallel worlds (which quantum theory does apparently allow to exist in ‘reality’, if there is such a thing as reality in the quantum universe (or universes)… I think world jumping would be the basis for a great set of stories, or I have done that already? So, some interesting (minds-boggling) ideas there, but am I being pedestrian or missing the cosmic joke, when I ask what actually was the point of it all? And bearing in mind Lafferty was a uber-Catholic, is there a Catholic message in there? In books 1 and 2 of the “Silent Planet” trilogy C.S. Lewis’s version of Christianity, angels or God was pretty off the conventional scale at times, but of course it did come down to the Jewish/Christian idea of a cosmic war between ‘good’ and ‘evil’, with Lewis obvious rooting for ‘good’….except that, rather like his friend Tolkein, somehow (especially in “That Hideous Strength” – which got a bit bloody also toward the end) ‘evil’ seemed much more interesting and fascinating…. Lewis himself was not ambiguous about which side he was on, nor Tolkein. Poe and Lovecraft, whose stories were also often about good and evil, or the forces of darkness and light perhaps, were both rather more ambiguous whose side (if any) they were on. You implied some of the previous Lafferty books did contain hidden Catholicism, a philosophy perhaps rather then just a rather surreal story or stories…. Actually, as a surrealist since my teens, it seems that the Lafferty universes could be translated perhaps into paintings – maybe not Dali (although he did finish up doing Catholic religious artworks, and quite amazing ones) but perhaps Max Ernst or Yves Tanguy, or Giorgio de Chirico’s spooky townscapes. I think you’ve convinced me that Lafferty was a author I missed back into the 1970s/80s when I would really have appreciated his crazy stuff….but at the end of the day I prefer stories to have at least some sort of beginning, middle, and an end, even if an end that leaves you on the cliff-face, or loops back, or the ultimate twist….but still an end. But that’s just me. Just as if you never read “The Eagle” or Tarzan or William Morris’s medieval fantasy or those children’s ‘adventure’ stories when a kid or teen, then it’s too late to do so for the first time, and appreciate them, at 40 or 50 or 60, so I guess for me and Lafferty. One more fascinating author I missed. I often look at Wikipedia after I’ve read your essays – your essays are better.


    1. The thing about Lafferty is that he is genuinely one of a kind. His style is seemingly slapdash but authors of the highest quality who have attempted pastiche Lafferty all agree how incredibly difficult it is and not one of them so far has produced something that would fool me for more than a page. That he is Catholic are pretty old-style is sometimes very clar and sometimes buried deep, and none of his books are without philosophical debate. In the end he Is or he Isn’t for you, and we who say Is are very limited in numbers but forever faithful. Oh yes, you do get ends with Lafferty, but you haave to decide on them for yourself, by which time what physically might happen is the last thing that matters.

      Thanks for the compliment yet again, but Wikipedia are in the business of fact and I’m in the business of opinion: thus we are chalk and cheese

  2. This, for me, is a very difficult book. I breezed through _Fourth Mansions_ on the first try. I stumbled through _Arrive at Easterwine_ confused but still enthralled until it clicked and all came together. But _Not to Mention Camels_ took me three times just to complete, and it still leaves me confused and unsure.

    One theme I have gleaned from my 1 and two halves readings is a viciously pointed satire of media culture and its ability to lionize and elevate people to a false but effective godhood. In this it is of a piece with “About a Secret Crocodile” and counterbalanced by _Aurelia_.

    I need to reread _Not to Mention Camels_, but I get so put off by the gruesome cruelty (I was going to say gratuitous, but it isn’t. The horror is necessary to the plot and its messages), that it will be some time before I pick it up and attempt again.

    1. Pretty much the same reaction I had, especially to the cruelty. I don’t like it, and there is a feeling of wallowing in it. But Lafferty never shies away from violence that skirts upon the bloodthirsty or the cartoon without ever attaching itself to one eeasy definition. I read it expecting the same kind of improbable hilarity I was used to and only got the improbability. and that blurb’s a bugger, creating expectations the book doesn’t even try to fulfil.

  3. Not to Mention Camels, maybe more than any other Lafferty novel, demands to be considered in the context of surrounding pop culture, because it is basically a novel about the many worlds of pop culture that spawn off the pathologies of a central society.

    This has to be considered in light of the hyper-violent (by contemporary standards) movies of the early 1970s: Dirty Harry, the first two Godfathers, the inspiration of The Wild Bunch, etc. (And not just movies: also the amoral exercises of the New Wave, etc.)

    While the Grand Guignol is never far from Lafferty’s mind, and it’s worth remembering his use of gore as means of redemption in multiple stories (viz. my own work on “dismemberment”), what we’re dealing with here is Lafferty grappling with pop culture violence that is *not* redemptive—that is the opposite, really.

    The result is maybe the single most potent critique not only of 1970s celebrity culture and filmmaking (just the picture of Cannes alone shows he’s a decade ahead of Ballard, which no one else ever was) but also of the starmaking power of media generally and the hyperviolence it builds on. And he runs into the problem many great satirists do: to make the content more pleasant or amenable would blunt the satire. But failing to make it more pleasant opens him up to criticisms of perpetuating the problem. If he erred, it’s on that latter side, and thus what is a major novel (as he considered it, until knocked down by Virginia Kidd’s disapproval and poor sales numbers) becomes a minor curiosity. But it has gotten if anything even more relevant in the decades since, and it’s worth a look in its own terms.

    1. An interesting angle and not one I’d considered. But we in Britain didn’t get NTMC until 1980, by when that scene had moved onwards. Eastwood was leaning into comedy by then, and anyway I had seen none of these films at the time (nor The Wild Bunch even now), as I was not into the violence. Certainly, my attention now focuses on how much Pilgrim Dusmano foreshadows your Trump and our Johnson (save in intelligence, which Pilgrim has, albeit in a limited form).

  4. Ok, ok, this is getting interesting. This novel is proving to be one that just needs to be discussed a lot to start to get to its marrow. I’ve always been ambivalent toward the violence and cruelty of NTMC myself as well, though I also admire it. I, as it happens, can actually get into some aesthetic gore – be it horror, action, or gritty crime drama. I actually love that era of film in the 70s and my brain is exploding at the thought that Lafferty was engaging it in Camels. Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is one of my all time favourite novels and I love Lafferty’s bloody grotesquery in the likes of ‘Snuffles’ or Space Chantey or Reefs of Earth, etc. So why don’t I like it in Camels? I think it’s because of that gleeful cruelty aspect. It has always been clear to me that he’s satirising and critiquing it *as* cruel, as something he condemned. But he satirises it in a way that seems to dehumanise its perpetrators – and that gives me pause. It’s something I don’t want to see my hero do, to see Lafferty portray another human, no matter how depraved and self-seeking, with less than genuine moral complexity. In fact, I find more sympathy and humanity in, for example, Scorsese’s early shockers than I do in NTMC. And I wouldn’t be surprised if that was something Lafferty missed. I don’t blame him at all for critiquing pop violence, pop culture, etc. And I resonate with his critique. But I also think he didn’t always understand or sympathise with it enough to make his critique even more robust. (That said, the likes of Aurelia is an admirable correction to this tendency. Also, see his short stories like ‘Sky’ and ‘Bequest of Wings’. I get the feeling Lafferty actually loved all these hippy and punk kids he obliquely admonished. Indeed, maybe it’s those in power that he felt led them astray that he had little love for.)

    All that said, I still think Camels is absolutely brilliant as vicious satire and it is, for me, not without humour (the hand of God bit is one of the funniest things in all of Lafferty to me – albeit in deeply sardonic mode). The gruesome qualities, the fantastical elements, the baroque media lampooning, the different worlds (that are hardly ‘worlds’ at all, so little description of them is given – yet they’re full of descriptive action and event in their very limited scope), the constant onto-socio-political chatter of the characters – it all adds up to a density hard to parse yet extremely impactful and ultimately seductive to me. It’s a novel I think I’ll revisit for a long time. I agree with Andrew that it is more relevant now than ever. Indeed, is the world being run by the Pilgrim Dusmanos and Cyrus Evenhands and their entourages?

    1. I’m really glad to hear you too are uncomfortable with the cruelty and inhumanity of the violence in NTMC. I know you have always admired the book, and that has led me to try very hard to look past the discomfort it gives me.

      I think the dehumanizing of Pilger/Pilgrim/Polder, etc. is part of the plot device. He is a non-dimensional character – built up by manipulated pop apparatus and consisting of not even molecule-thick depth. However, that forces Lafferty to tell us how charming he is while showing us nothing likable or relatable in the character.

      By that same measure, I have equal trouble with the murder of the last priest with the entrails of the last philosopher (or is it the other way around) in How Many Miles to Babylon.

      I do find NTMC to be a brilliant satire on the power of pop-media culture to falsely elevate and as quickly crush individuals of no apparent worth. And we do have a LOT of that in our culture. Look at the examples today of R Kelly, the rapper who is now accused of serial rape, etc.

      I also find the whole idea and mechanism of world jumpers intriguing. It is a great science-fictional device to hang the narrative on and harkens back to “Hole on the Corner.” One thing I didn’t understand fully: There was the belief that there was a prime world from which one couldn’t jump. That is kind of the parallel to the Gestalt 0 or “everyday world” in “Hole on the Corner.” Polder does eventually come to fear he has landed on that world, and therefore unable to jump away. Is it really Prime World or is it only his belief that it is such that matters?

      Still struggling with this book. Eventually I need re-read it to understand it more fully. However, I found the graphic cruelty off-putting enough it may be a while.

      1. We seem to have a consensus here on the violence. The world jumping, indeed the very concept of alternate worlds, has fasciinated me ever since i first discovered it, aged 10, in Justice League of America 37. A pity Lafferty did not more clearly distinguish between Piliger/Pillgrim/Polder’s worllds.

  5. Short answer to your last question: yes in the UK but without an Evenhand. Our Election a week today is the most vital of my life. I can’t speak as simply for America: if there’s an Evenhand there, he needs to get his finger out bloody quickly.

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