The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: East of Laughter


East of Laughter was the second and final Lafferty novel published by Bath’s Morrigan Publications. Like Serpent’s Egg, I found and bought it in the same Altrincham shop, the standard edition first, the slipcased Special Edition several years later. The number of copies printed isn’t disclosed this time, though I doubt it exceeded the 1,010 of the earlier book, only that the Special Edition consisted of 260 issues (ten specially bound and lettered copies were for private distribution) of which mine is no. 137, signed not only by Lafferty, but also Gene Wolfe, who contributed the essay ‘Scribbling Giant’, about Laff, to this edition.
East of Laughter was also the last R.A. Lafferty book published in hardback in his lifetime.
At different times, different readings of this book produce in me different effects. Last time, I came out of the end thinking this a poor book, a confused book, a book without any real story, just a collection of what might as well be described as vignettes. There is, just as in Serpent’s Egg, a group of outstanding persons, a Group of Twelve, named as such from before the outset and consisting of fifteen persons, of whom several die during the course of (non-)events.
There is a difference of substance in that all the Twelve are adults, and all are human (except for Prince Leopold the Great, who is werehuman and spends most of his time as a Black Panther whose body is covered by golden fur except for a band across his forehead that leads people to think of him as a Golden Panther with a black bar across his forehead). Although this is to count both John Barkley Towntower and Solomon Izzerstead, mathematicians both, as separate people when the latter is a growth on the belly of the former, a talking bellybutton that actually talks more than its ‘host’.
But that reading was of a book that just went from person to person in the Group, and from place to place, home to home, without interest. That is not the book I have just re-read, again.
Don’t ask me how this book can have changed so much between then and now: this is R.A. Lafferty. Such things may be expected to happen.
It is true that this book doesn’t explain itself, but leaps headlong into whatever it is that is going on, setting neither context nor time nor place (though we may later guess that we are somewhen towards the end of the Twentieth Century, so almost contemporaneous, except that Lafferty had written no more since a devastatingly debilitating stroke in 1984). What we take to be the story is offered to us by someone signing themselves Der Alpenreise (which translates on Babelfish as AlpineTour(?))
This is about the Pillars Who Sustain The World, and the effect on the World if those Pillars have to change. Now there are Twenty-One Pillars, divided into three sets of seven. There are Seven Saints, who are always pretty easy to replace as competent saints are somewhat commonplace, and Seven Technicians, who are only slightly more difficult because of the overabundance to choose from. It is replacing the Seven Scribbling Giants, who write all that was and is and will come, where the problem arises, and not least in replacing their chief, Atrox Fabulinus, the Roman Rabelais. Lose one Pillar, and the world rocks. Lose two, and it faces catastrophe.
And if one is murdered and the other six all want to lay down their nine-foot long goose-quills and die…
It is, or by now should be easy to anticipate that this book is about the replacement of the Seven Scribbling Giants, and that all these replacements will come from within the Group of Twelve, all fifteen of them, including Jane Chantal Ardri, who is killed early on but who is written back to life at the age of nine, growing a year a day. If you’ve read every word I’ve said about Lafferty by now, you should have expected that.
This is indeed the book I read this time, jauntily swinging from place to place across a nine day week (if you were not anticipating that, you are definitely not amongst the about a million people in the world who know about and enjoy the Eighth Day of the Week, and even such a clod as yourself will understand that you are not amongst the about a thousand people in the world who know about and enjoy the Ninth Day of the Week).
(It is probable, but we cannot say for certain, that these about a thousand people have come to this knowledge by reading a copy of East of Laughter and that if only you had petitioned the publishers of this book to increase its circulation by enough to permit you also to have purchased the same, your embarrassment might have been spared).
Each day is spent at one of the far flung homes of a member of the Twelve, and which has its own incidental music, specially composed and named for the day and the place, but scored for different sets and numbers of instruments.
There is, naturally enough, the same symbolism as in Serpent’s Egg as to the Group of Twelve, irrespective of its irregular number, which is supplemented by one of that Twelve playing Judas. There is a balancing between the wonderful forgery, better than the original, a forgery for which there was no original, the statue of the Laughing Christ, and the last replacement Scribbling Giant, who is the Riant, or Laughing Giant, who can only come into his Giantship because of the actions of the Judas.
And, for once, we are not left to forge an outcome for ourselves, for the Change is completed and the World is once more full and the quills of the new Giants begin to scratch away.
Instead of a dull and meaningless rote, as last time, we have a buoyant, irrepressible redemption of the World and Men. The difference is astounding. Maybe I am now reading the Earth-2 version? How would I tell?

6 thoughts on “The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: East of Laughter

  1. It pains me to admit that I have yet to finish this novel. The one tie in to much of Lafferty’s oeuvre is the idea he spelled out in “The Day After the World Ended,” that we must write to create a new world, the old one having ended quite recently.

    1. I must say I am surprised to heat that, Kevin, given your use of the title! With the exception of ‘The Fall of Rome’, for reasons I gave in my blog on that, I was always ‘See Lafferrty book, Buy Lafferty book, Read Lafferty book’. And re-read Lafferty book not long after to try to get a better grip on it…

  2. East of Laughter was the rare Lafferty I didn’t immediately reread after reading it through the first time, largely because my reaction was the first you mention. I’ve reread it once since and it impressed me a little more, but not much. Who knows? Perhaps I’ll read it again at some point. (I did think it was one of his great titles.)

    1. I’ve probably read it at least four times overall, and my first reaction was the flat one. I just don’t understand how the book can change the way it does between readings (probably it’s down to Atrox Fabulinus doing it).

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