The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Annals of Klepsis


Annals of Klepsis was the last R.A. Lafferty novel published by a mass-market house. It would appear to be a contemporary book, not having appeared in the list of Unpublished Novels in Archipelago. Having said that, in large part, it reads like a throwback to the earlier, free-wheeling novels, a grand unserious affair, albeit with its philosophical elements, but these do not dominate in the way that they do in Aurelia.
And the novel is unusual in Lafferty’s works in being one of the very few to be told in the first person, the first person being historian Long John Tong Tyrone, en route to Kelpsis, the planet without a history, and the planet without a law and a government. Klepsis is a Covenanted Piracy, a Pirate’s planet, and offering of a free home and passage to all one-legged Irishmen, even if the Irish name is adopted and the leg amputated in favour of a pegleg on the spaceship to Klepsis itself.
Well, wouldn’t you cut off one of your own legs for a free spaceship ride and the chance to become a Pirate?
Klepsis is another of those implausible creations. It was founded two hundred years ago by Christopher Begorra Brannagan, and has been ruled throughout that two hundred years of non-history by Brannagan’s heirs and Interlopers, until the present Prince Henry, who is one of twins with Prince Franco, who is exiled and condemned to death, but who can move around freely because he’s a forgotten twin, and has the ability to go ‘vague’, that is, invisible, inaudible and intangible.
Simply by arriving in the company of Prince Franco, Long John Tong and his ship-mates, Andrew Gold Coast O’Malley, Terpsichore Callagy and Conchita O’Brien are condemned to torture and death by Prince Henry, though they are released to experience Klepsis by his wife, Princess Angela Gilmartin-Revel. And Long John soon finds himself taken up by an orange-red-yellow- haired (and -souled) slave Girl, Tharrala Thorn, who is herself a Princess of the Brannagan line, although one exiled for an unspeakable sin (what sin? Can’t tell you, it’s unspeakable).
This is all at the behest of Christopher Begorra Brannagan himself, or rather his Ghost, who has been a Ghost for two hundred years and who has been holding off history, which will start when he dies, really dies.
The first half of the book is pretty much a word picture. Lafferty, via Long John Tong Tyrone, is illustrating the world of Klepsis, its improbable form and enthusiasms, its covenanted piracy and the rivalry between the current ruler, Prince Henry, and his twin, Prince Franco. It recounts something of the history of the planet without a history, set in a Universe of seventeen inhabited planets in a kinetic three-dimensional ellipse, all of which have the history Klepsis doesn’t have at the same time it’s been having no history, this no history having included six generations of rulers.
We have all gotten used to this by now, and it is great fun bending our brains around situations like this. I would remind you of my earlier comment that Lafferty’s tales most conform to the great American Tall Tales tradition.
But as the book progresses, as Long John Tong Tyrone marries (under a false apprehension) Princess Thorn Tharrala, she of the unspeakable sin, he is introduced to her great-great-great-great-great grandfather, Christopher O’Brannagan, or rather the ghost of him, who may or may not be dreaming the entirety of known existence into being these past almost exactly two hundred years.
And once the Ghost of Christopher O’Brannagan dies, will everything and everybody else wink out too?
But as the Doomsday Equation increases in prominence, attention shifts to Quasimodo, the Sleeper, he whose code name is the Horseshoe Nail – as in, for want of a nail, the shoe was lost, and its inevitable escalation to the loss of the Kingdom, or here the Universe. As soon as Quaisimodo dies, the Equation is fulfilled, and the Universe goes down.
All things come together. Princess Angela Ravel-Gilmartin deposes her husband, Prince Henry, in a rebellion, and establishes herself as ruler. She declares that history is to start now, from her coronation, proposes a formal system of Government that has certain flaws in it, at least from the point of view of an absolute monarch, and has Prince Henry executed in a suitably grisly manner. This is witnessed by Prince Franco in an unexpectedly gleeful manner, because he’s really Prince Henry and it’s the innocent, the good twin, who’s done in.
In typical Lafferty fashion, there is a harum-scarum ending and a suspended resolution. Malabu Worldwinger arrives on Klepsis, intent on disrupting the Doomsday Equation by physically moving the planet’s dark shadow, it’s Lost Twin, Tarshish, from its position in space, although it’s not until he’s started that Queen/Empress Angela Gilmartin-Revel admits that Klepsis is also Tarshish. Meanwhile, doubt is cast upon the Equation itself as a maybe phoney invention of the Asteroid Pythagorus, a bird-like scientist, by a bunch of scientists from all over the Known Worlds, including Aloysius Shiplap of the Institute of Impure Science.
And it’s Aloysius who, at the last, disproves the equation. Klepsis and the Universe will be saved if he can only speak the disproof aloud, but lightning bolts are being flung at him and they are getting closer and closer to the range as the final seconds run out…
Just as in Fourth Mansions, and again in Where Have You Been, Sandaliotis?, we are left to imagine our own answers into being, dividing ourselves into optimists and pessimists, and whilst this may not be Lafferty’s intention himself, I am once and for always on the side of the optimists. Because R.A. Lafferty, by his enormous and unquenchable gusto is for Life, always and forever.
There are nine remaining novels. All were published by small houses, fans and independent publishers determined to see as much of Laff’s work in print as they could contrive, in editions in very low numbers. That I have each of these nine novels is little short of miraculous, and the outcome of luck and perseverance at a time before scarcity inflated prices beyond all recognition.
And as Lafferty’s existing popularity shrank and diminished, as his work grew even more inner-directed and dense in private symbolism. Annals of Klepsis is perhaps the last ‘simple’ book. But not the last good one.

8 thoughts on “The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Annals of Klepsis

  1. Quick reactions:
    1. I love your wonderfully jumbled listing of the wonderfully jumbled elements of the story! This is perhaps Lafferty’s most sensory novel, a feast of descriptions for sight, taste, smell, and touch–all perhaps enhanced (or misled) by the mildly hallucinogenic My God What Grapes!
    2. It’s always intrigued me that the mathematical description of the universe would determine how the universe actually behaves. In retrospect, this might be some of the world-building Lafferty was talking about in his speech, “The Day After the World Ended.”
    3. I know Annals of Klepsis is one of Daniel Otto Jack Petersen’s favorite novels, and I’d love he hear him weigh in on the comments here.

    Thank you for posting these! I’m really enjoying them!

  2. You’re welcome, Kevin. Some of these essays were easier to write than others: this one just flowed out. #I too would love to hear Daniel’s response.

  3. Having been summoned here like a genie, I shall comment 😉

    For having so often claimed this is my favourite Lafferty novel, I’m realising now that I’ve only read it twice and that was over a decade ago! Well and truly overdue for a re-read. I’d largely forgotten about the incredibly intricate political machinations of the novel, which your review summarises so well. I was so bowled over by the sensuous quality Kevin mentions and the wonderful grotesqueries (e.g. the oral storytelling inside the barbecued whale carcass whilst people are shooting said carcass from outside!) and mind-bending episodes (e.g. travelling by boat through someone’s brain canals!) that I didn’t much take in the somewhat baffling intrigue of the tale. I remember being highly stimulated by all the philosophy but hardly catching a glimpse of its meaning. (I’m sure Kevin’s on the right track as to it being another iteration of Lafferty’s cultural/ontological world-building theme.) In that regard, though, I’d say it’s not an ‘unserious’ novel at all (though hugely playful and fun and funny). In fact, it strikes me as being an unlikely but successful combination of the swashbuckling qualities of some of the early novels with the seemingly arcane (but quite carefully worked out) theorisings of the later novels. In some ways, it’s kind of what I wish Past Master was: a bizarre and immersive blending of philosophy and adventure rather than an at times clunky alternation or juxtaposition of the two. (I’m selling Past Master short in saying that – it’s a great novel that blends these elements incredibly well at times, but perhaps not as well and as consistently as Klepsis. Though PM’s themes are also much clearer than AoK!)

    I agree that Lafferty was on the side of Life. He was a pessimistic optimist, emphasis on the latter. Cranky but ultimately joyful. He was rooting for Aloysius to dodge the lightning and speak the disproof before the clock runs out.

  4. Nice to hear from you Daniel, having spent so many years reading your site. More than any other author I’ve ever read, Lafferty leaves the ultimate judgement on the ends of books to we the reader. I’d love to hear from someone who reads endings like this negatively, to see how they justify that.

    1. I’ve heard quite a few readers take Lafferty as a pessimist, though I can’t at this moment point to any particular reading of particular tales. Except one that I recall – I was part of an email discussion group some years before I started the blog and most people in the group were of the opinion that Lafferty’s short story ‘And Name My Name’ proved he was a pessimist about humanity. It’s an understandable reading (in the story humans are demoted to ‘secondary ape’ and told to fade off the scene), but doesn’t hold up in light of Lafferty’s whole corpus. I think mainly it’s that some people read Lafferty’s many and recurring dark scenarios (of people doing other people badly, often bloodily) as a view that humanity is fundamentally evil. But that is to ignore so many characters who display quite the opposite. I think it’s that Lafferty seemed to feel the necessity of presenting the ‘darkness’ of the world as forcefully as the ‘light’ and that the latter doesn’t overcome the former on any easy or straightforward terms – in fact, we mostly see it all hanging in the balance in this life. Hence, his cliffhanger endings. (It’s also worth noting that his fellow Catholic authors Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy are often read similarly, as pessimists, and for the same reasons – they portray the dark so forcefully that people miss the redemptive comedy that’s subtly but firmly woven through it all.)

  5. That’s certainly an arguable case about ‘And Name My Name’, and i agree that I have always seen this as being about humanity’s failure and its necessary relegation. But I’ve always read it as an expulsion of hubris, ‘our’ assumption of masterhood laid bare for our failure to be what we could have been. Yet our ‘replacement’ is our other selves, our forerunners, commencing a cycle that leads back to ourselves,when we have learned from a more demotic rescension, and to be it is thus optimistic.

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