The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: The Elliptical Grave

Like How Many Miles to Babylon?, The Elliptical Grave was published as a chapbook, a chapbook of a different dimension, but it is a chapbook whose circulation numbers hundreds not thousands. It is there in the Archipelago checklist, though it is there named ‘The Elliptic’, but I first knew of its existence in the mid-Nineties, in a Comics Journal Summer Reading List where Neil Gaiman was reading this and Dotty. Because it was the Nineties, I could get this (and Dotty) for less than the cost of a medium-sized asteroid. At least I could actually get this, which seems impossible now, as it doesn’t look like any of us who have a copy are letting it out of our hands this side of our grave.
The Elliptical Grave was the third of Lafferty’s novels to be published in 1989. I do not know when it appeared but have chosen to treat it as later than Sindbad – The Thirteenth Voyage, though I read it much sooner than either.
The book appeared through United Mythologies Press, publishers of many late chapbooks by Lafferty, most of which were compilations of short stories. It was 100 pages long, square bound but otherwise in the general format UMP established for such books. It was published in 375 copies, seventy five either private or signed and with an extra short story: mine is no 274.
It is a physically difficult book to read because, although the printing is immaculate, the typesetting is done on an electric typewriter, in unjustified lines, by copying typescript pages. The effect is narrow and grey and hard on the eye, and even though the book is only 100 pages long in this format, these are long, dense and grey pages, and far more physically draining than the ordinary run of book.
The Elliptical Grave is a strange book, even by Lafferty’s standards. Coming late in his career, it pays even less regard to the audience, framing itself around an unusual archaeological expedition, to the White Goat Valley in Calabria, the southernmost toe of Italy, digging in the ground and the air for things never defined but which are regarded as dangerous to discover, the search for which ultimately ends in the imprisonment, and implied death of all members of the expedition, eccentric of name, aspect and aptitude in the grand Lafferty manner.
And there is another suspended ending, represented only by a large font exclamation mark, in which two courses are stated to be possible but not which of them will come about.
The Expedition is in the name of its leader, Pioneer J Reventlo, who believes that in the earliest beginning, language was at its most detailed, widespread, gracious and complex, and that history has been a process of ultimate simplification, as opposed to the opposite that we all assume.
Reventlo gathers round him a crew of minds, who agree, disagree, reject and support his ideas, to one extent or another. He regards himself as being Cro-Magnon, and at least one other member of the expedition as Neanderthal. He seeks his University’s support, and bursary, to carry out his expedition to a valley that at least half of his Expedition believes to be an illusion and which, in reality, it very well may be.
Structurally, the story has three roughly equal phases. There is the initial set-up, complete with its arguments about the validity of Reventlo’s proposed expedition, its funding in the face of disagreement and the efforts of a small and secretive group whose members use code names employing different arrangements of the numbers 1 and 2 (the chief opponent is designated 1-212-1212). Cartwheeling in and out of this are two acrobats, Vivian Oldshoe and Curtis Blow, acrobatic of mind and body (when I said cartwheeling, I meant it literally), who know deep secrets for which they are constantly pursued by killers seeking to prevent these being communicated.
The second phase takes place at White Goat Valley, remote and isolated, but with a Pavilion that attracts tourists and which is used to house that part of the expedition that is not staying with the Count of San Angelo, a ghost who is nevertheless the ruler of the Valley. The Count is one of many ghosts, one of which, Cecilia Calca, becomes a member of the expedition. There is also the excavator, Il Trol, who is, as you may gather, a troll. The expedition digs and excavates in both the ground and the air above it, and it excavates from these places that are both past and future a wealth of invaluable material for their studies, whilst the members settle down to watch the latest biopic adventures of Vivian and Curtis, starring in their ongoing ‘Death Chase’ pursuit film.
But the expedition is warned not to allow all of its members inside the Pavilion at once but to always keep at least one person outside so as to help them escape. And in their excitement over their findings, the expedition forgets this and as soon as all the members, including those who are ghosts, are within, the Pavilion is locked and they are trapped, inescapably.
This is the third phase. The Pavilion has been removed from the world for 375 days. Outside there is nothing. The secrets 1-212-1212 was so determined to prevent being revealed will not be revealed because they cannot. When the Pavilion opens again, those who survive will discover…
But that’s the thing. Reventlo has a theory that life moves towards simplicity not complexity, with the oldest languages the most ornate, but that’s about as close as Lafferty comes to defining the things the expedition is looking for, and he certainly doesn’t define what they find. What it is is a matter for the readers’ imagination, and in this late stage of his career, it is correspondingly harder to divine his thoughts from a virtual paucity of matters.
In that sense, The Elliptical Grave has to be considered a failure in conventional terms, and a relatively minor work in Laffertarian terms. It is full of the usual improbable people, with strong opinions and behaviours, and sometimes with Lafferty, whose people are as unbelievable as their highly unlikely but symbolic names, that’s worth the price of entrance alone.

6 thoughts on “The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: The Elliptical Grave

  1. Thanks to the generosity of a friend, I finally have admission. I was sent a copy as a Christmas present. Man, what a present!! However, I haven’t had time to read past the first four pages yet!! Ok, long flight coming up for work on Friday. I’ll dive in enjoy how Lafferty’s characters are simultaneously more bizarre and somehow more real than my fellow travelers.

  2. Doubly timely! I have, this evening, had delivered a copy of ‘The Back Door of History’, the most expensive book I’ve ever bought. That only leaves me Cranky Old Man from Tulsa and Anamnesis…

  3. There’s an awful lot going on in this book and unfortunately I don’t have time to go into any of it just now, suffice to say now that he wrote this book in 1978, the last in a series of books starting with Not to Mention Camels where he really attempted to grapple head on with media theory and the wider effects of media on the human imagination. He was also really struggling to get any of his novels published—quite a few of them are among the ones that remain unpublished—so I think there’s on occasion his mid-to-late 1970s work is tinged with bleakness and a bit of desperation, in ways that his early 1980s novels (Klepsis, Sindbad, East of Laughter, Serpent’s Egg) aren’t.

    I’ll get into why that might be more fully later on, since it’s a big arc in the narrative I’ll tell in the biography, but suffice to say for now that he’s really clawing here after things that he didn’t have a vocabulary to describe, so he’s kind of having to invent it all from the ground up, like prophets (the visionary poet types, not the two-bit huckster ones) always have.

    1. I am almost as enthused to read your biography as I am as much unpublished Lafferty as possible. Is there any kind of vague timescale as to when this might be available?

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