The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Aurelia

When Aurelia was published in 1983, in an edition illustrated by Larry Todd, from Starblaze Books, six years had passed since the publication of a Lafferty novel in mass-market form. By then, it had become abundantly clear to publishers that there was no mass market for R.A. Lafferty. Aurelia was immediately recognisable as one of that tantalising plethora of unpublished novels from Archipelago‘s list, where it had appeared as To Aurelia With Horns.
I’ve got to say that whilst the book itself looks like a handsome presentation, with its bright, quasi-cartoon cover showing the titular character blowing a horn in a meadow, and Todd’s clean, rounded black and white illustrations within, it’s badly in need of a proofreader. There are dozens of mistakes, most often misinterpretations of the text, causing a constant disruption as the reader is momentarily dragged out of the story, to mentally search-and-replace the right word.
Aurelia builds itself off a one-line joke in an early and much respected Lafferty short story. This is ‘Primary Education among the Camiroi’, collected in Nine Hundred Grandmothers (a superb collection). The story is basically about a group of Educators from Earth visiting the Camiroi to examine their education system, which is insanely and impossibly comprehensive and turns out comprehensively competent people. It’s a great goof, with a classic sting at the end, but one of the items on the Camiroi curriculum is World Government. This sounds like a class the American children have. The joke is that the Camiroi mean it literally: their students go off to another world and govern it for one year!
Thus Aurelia. She is a skinny fourteen year old, and one of seven Camiroi children of similar age, who are about to set off to govern worlds. Being Camiroi they have all designed and built their own space ships, full of all the machines and devices that will ensure a safe flight to their chosen planet, avoidance of danger and good landing. Not so Aurelia. She is the most awkward of the bunch. The list of things she has forgotten to incorporate in her ship grows ever longer.
As a result, Aurelia takes off badly, has a rotten flight and crashes on her planet. It is not the planet of her choice (Aurelia has forgotten to build the necessary guidance). In fact, she doesn’t even know what planet it is she has landed upon: is it Skokumchuck? is it Thieving Bear Planet? is it Gaea or Hellpepper World (we sure hope it’s not Hellpepper World). Aurelia continually asks and the people of this planet always deflect her questions.
Though the course advice is to land in secret and study the world a bit before starting to govern it, Aurelia crash lands, all horns blowing (to try to get the planet to move out of the way first). The discordancy of her horns sees her immediately taken up by the young, who have rejected music and only worship discordant notes (do I detect a little prejudice here?).
But Aurelia is taken up by many people, not least the tycoon Rex Golightly, who provides for her and loves her as if she is one of his daughters, who provides her with the world’s best bodyguard, Marshall Straightstreet, or is he Julio Cordovan,the man of a thousand faces (or are there two of them and both the same man?)
She encounters the Press in the forms of Jimmy Candor and Susan Pishcala. She meets international criminals such as Blaise Genet, Julio Cordovan, Helen Staircase and Karl Talion. She becomes the object of a cult that adores her, and another that wants to kill her. At the same time, she is denying any kinship with her Dark Companion, Cousin Clootie, who is the Anti-Aurelia.
The book builds massive walls of confusion around itself. Aurelia is everything she should not be, and during the course of the story, which covers about a week from Aurelia’s startling arrival and her improbable but unanimously foretold death at the hands of the worm with the pistol, she doesn’t actually govern anything. She becomes surrounded with factions, in her favour and against her, and she grows in stature from her ultra-klutzy beginning to her three day wanderings, issuing sermons four times a day about what the world should be and what people should be.
I get the impressions that these pronouncements, coming from an odd but not unattractive philosophical basis, are the main purpose of the book for Lafferty, as if Aurelia and her misadventures are just a context for expressing these, but the book is still full of interest and improbability. Lafferty makes the odd satirical jab at what he dislikes about modern society (we know the book must have been written by 1979 at the latest, and remember, he was 65 that year), but these often come with quite hilarious humour.
There’s a scene where a man, on the basis of sexual freedom, tries to force himself on Aurelia, which causes her to tie the Impossible Knot in it, which to undo involves pulling the entire Universe through a loop, but there’s also a lovely scene in the latter half of the book when a boy her own age is touchingly enamoured of her and shyly asks if he could ever get to kiss her: Aurelia points him to the ‘Kiss a Girl of your Choice’ booth and tells him to buy a ticket. The lad buys one hundred, and by the end of the afternoon has used fifty of them!
Even this sweet little romance has its joke as the lad ventures to wonder if they might, ever, you know. Aurelia, a little put upon at this moment, points out that they’re from different planets (and which World is this one anyway?) and shoots questions at him about their physical differences. How many chromosomes does he have? Well, go and count them!
Like every Lafferty book, these are only a fraction of the things it contains. There is always more. Every corner contains things and there are more corners than any normal geometry allows. It’s not one of the major Lafferty novels, and like all of them it leaves you shaking your head and wondering, just what was that I just read? Think about it. You can spend a lifetime asking yourself, just what was that anyway?

7 thoughts on “The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Aurelia

  1. Lafferty explained (somewhat) Aurelia in a wonderful interview with Tom Jackson:

    Tom Jackson: Have some of your novels been inspired by books of theology or philosophy? Haven’t some of your novels been inspired by the works of writers such as Thomas Aquinas and St. Teresa of Avila?

    R.A. Lafferty: Several of my novels have counterparts to specific works of theology, yes. The book “Aurelia” (Donning-Starblaze Books, 1982) has parallels with the “Summa Theological” of Thomas Aquinas. The fourteen-year-old girl student Aurelia (in the bottom half of her classes) is completing her tenth form schooling, The last item of her tenth form is “World Government” in which the students must literally go out from their “Golden World cultus” to an inferior world and take control of it and govern it for a period. If a student should fail to master and govern a world, that student would die, of course, and would also fail the course. Aurelia comes down (more by accident than competent navigation) on the world Gaea (sometimes confused with Earth.) There she quickly becomes a cult figure, believed by some to be a girl messiah. She does give striking and reasoned homilies or orations or sermons that make her sound a little like a messiah. In fact, they form a mini-outline of the great (3011 double column pages in my edition) “Summa” of Aquinas. But is is only a coincidence that the balanced sanity of the “Golden World Cultus” of Aurelia’s home world should parallel the “Summa” of the Angelic Doctor. Aurelia was no messiah, but she was a very nice girl, and I regret that my story line required her failure and death.

    – Tom Jackson, “My Interview with R.A Lafferty,” Sandusky Register, 1/16/2015

    1. You could also read this fairly concise essay, “Eudaimonism in R.A. Lafferty’s Aurelia,” which unpacks all the philosophical and theological material used by Lafferty in the novel. It was published in the 3rd issue of the Lafferty journal Feast of Laughter (Fall 2015):

      1. Very true, and your essay is far more informative, especially in helping us understand the context of her speeches. But Gregorio, much as I love you, you are not as charming as Aurelia herself.

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