The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Dotty

Physically, Dotty is a companion to The Elliptical Grave, as was East of Laughter to Serpent’s Egg. It is a United Mythologies Press chapbook novel, slightly shorter, printed on white rather than sepia paper, and similarly limited in number, this time 330. My copy should be numbered somewhere between 1 – 250, but is sadly unnumbered. Like all the few remaining books in this series, Dotty appears in the Archipelago checklist and, although it is not part of The Devil is Dead trilogy, it is a part of Lafferty’s Argo Mythos.
But only as a sidebar. Dotty is Dotty O’Toole Peisson, friend to Finnegan (who is mentioned two, maybe three times in her book), World’s Greatest Galveston-Style Piano Player, and this is her story, up to the age of twenty-one or thereabouts, and for once with Lafferty, we are given an almost clear time-frame, beginning with her birth on 15 October 1933, in dust-bowl Oklahoma, though Dotty’s natural home is indeed Galveston.
This is as clear and open a book as Lafferty ever wrote, and whilst he never descends to any crudity, it is also as carnal a story as he ever told. Dotty, the youngest child and daughter of Sheriff Slywood O’Toole and Mary Theresa O’Toole is pretty blatantly indicated to be the product of marital rape, during the War. Slywood pretty blatantly pimps his wife out to his superior officer, Colonel Kean, and Dotty herself, under the influence of Pan, throws away her virginity, and with it for a long time her Faith, becoming next to a prostitute before she is partially saved.
Dotty is about faith, or rather Faith, since what is under consideration is Roman Catholic belief, and an old-fashioned version of it that Lafferty himself considered essential to the health of the world. Dotty herself is a preternaturally intelligent and determined child, for whom precocious is a word that doesn’t go half far enough, but she lives in a real world of Lafferty’s experience and the country’s experience. This is not a fantastic book in the way that we have become used to in Laff’s body of writing, and the closest to it in its rootedness is Archipelago. Indeed, from comments Andrew Ferguson has made elsewhere on this blog, I believe it to be Lafferty’s second novel, chronologically.
Dotty begins as an adherent to the true Faith. She is rigid and doctrinal, though those are words that ill-fit her turn of mind and belief. Rather, she is Absolutist, rejecting the world of the body, of matter and dirt, characterising those who lapse into that form as pig people, in favour of the world of spirit. She’s incredibly advanced for her age, in knowledge, perception and adventuring, but in a world that is relentlessly solid.
And she is full or argument and debate, as is the book. Lafferty rejects liberalism and humanism as tools of the Devil, rejects everything that he sees as compromise from the old, original Faith. He is more direct in his philosophy than at any time since, yes, Archipelago again. But this is a section of the Argo Mythos: one day, some enterprising publisher will, we hope, create an omnibus containing all the elements of this Mythos, to be stored under one roof.
But Dotty is about both Faith and Doubt. Dotty herself Falls, under the influence of Pan, Pan who is both nature and rutting, and her surrender to physicality, outside the licit state of marriage, breaks her for a time. Absolute Faith admits no equivocation, no least failing. What rescues her, in a remainder of the story that see-saws between her attempts and failings to recover Grace, is the sailor, Charles Piesson, with whom she finds love, and marriage, and a wholeness within that is only temporary, for he must return to sea, and there he is lost and so too is Dotty again.
Here, Lafferty hints at things beyond the solidity of life. Charles has foreseen his death, has written fifty-two letters to Dotty, to be sent to her weekly so that for a year further he can speak to her. Dotty will not open them, because to do so is to acknowledge that Charles is dead, but she knows their contents. Others read them, Soft-Talk Suzie Kutz – a barmaid and, it is faintly hinted, perhaps an Angel – takes and keeps them, to give to Dotty in their proper order, weekly, once she has admitted her loss, and Soft-Talk Suzie says that some of the contents of these letters were written after Charles died.
There is the typical Lafferty non-ending. We are only seeing part of the story, just as all his novels are part of the unfinished ‘A Ghost Story’ of his entire work. We have seen Dotty to a certain point and what else lies ahead is not to be told us. Just because there is no climax does not mean we cannot have an ending. Every story goes on for longer than we are allowed to participate by its writer.
This is a book that requires an open mind, even as you will no doubt decide that R.A. Lafferty’s was closed. It is an argument and a doctrine, and I am not equipped to judge it in theological terms, only to learn how a certain viewpoint differs from my own.

As Father, As Son: Christopher Tolkien, R.I.P.

Thiugh his father’s name will always precede him, so long as people read The Lord of the Rings, Christopher (C.J.R.) Tolkien, who has been announced today as having died aged 95, will enjoy reknown for playing a vital and heroic role in expanding the universe of Myth and Philology that grew from an exercise book and a pencil, in the trenches of the Somme over a hundred years ago.

Christopher, like his siblings, grew up on the stories created by his father, not least of which the one that became The Hobbit. He became cloaest to his father in mind about these stories, drawing several of the earliest Maps, being the recipient of Book 4 in chapters sent out to him on National Service in South Africa in the Second World War, his Literary Executor, and not merely Guardian of the Flame but responsible for the expanson of Middle Earth and its vastest histories into the best possible representation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s final thoughts.

All his work, from 1974 onwards, when he began work on producing an acceptable The Silmarillion and then the long decades of The History of Middle Earth, a massive illustration of the evelopment of a writer’s mind, C.J.R. abnegated himself to his father’s creativity, with love, fidelity and a profound respect.

Though not a writer in his own stead, to me he deserves just as much remebrance and thanks for what he did. May he live in Middle-Earth forever.

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.

The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Sindbad – The Thirteenth Voyage

Sindbad – The Thirteenth Voyage was the last Lafferty novel to be published as an orthodox paperback, albeit a small press paperback. It was published in 1989, though whether before or after How Many Miles to Babylon? I know not.
This is an oddity for me, even amongst all of Lafferty’s works. It’s almost certainly a limited edition, though there’s no confirmation of that, or of any possible print run, and it’s not the last of Lafferty to be published, but though I have no recollection of hearing about it in advance, nor of how or when I found it, nor have I ever heard of another copy, my impression of it is of it being the last, and a removed last at that.
Last novel, that is. I have managed to collect nearly all the chapbooks of short stories, without bankrupting myself over them, though there’s still a couple to be watchful for. But Sindbad is the last of them until a deal is struck to publish the unpublished novels.
As such, it has always had a forlorn atmosphere to it for me, as if it is an outlier that’s not wholly lodged in Lafferty’s oeuvre.
Just as Space Chantey was an SF reinterpretation of ‘The Odyssey’, the title gives away that this is Laff being playful with the Voyages of Sindbad, the Master Mariner of the Arabian Nights, Sindbad of the Twelve Voyages and the fabulous adventures that Scheherezade related. This is an invented Thirteenth Voyage, a voyage into space, to discover the reborn Caliph Harun Al-Rashid and bring him home. Harun, the Boy-Caliph of Baghdad, trickster, cruellest of practical jokers.
And Lafferty incorporates those Voyages of legend and myth into his game, suggesting these are coded versions of other space voyages, some of which were to Gaea-Earth, for this Sindbad is Essindibad Copperbottom of Kintauran Mikran. Oh yes, we are once more playing fast and loose with oh so many things.
Not to mention that there are more than one Story-Teller involved in telling this Master Narrative. As well as Essindibad, and his wife the Grand-Dame Of-the-Seven-Musics Goodlife Tumblehome, there is Scheherezade Carillo y Krinski, and there is another Sindbad, a seventeen year old boy from Gaea-Earth, John Scarlatti Thunderson of North Chicago, whose words interleave with those of Essindibad, and who is intent on becoming the real Sindbad even if he has to usurp the real Sindbad from the whole of his own life.
It doesn’t take long for Essindibad and Grand-Dame Tumblehome to find the boy Harun, landing as they do in the land between the Two Rivers, Mesopotamia of old, though at first he is in disguise. Nor does it take long to discover that they are not the only spies here to find the boy-Caliph, one of whom is Thunderson.
But Harun is uncontrollable. He is a trickster, a player of practical jokes of astounding cruelty and destruction, without remorse or conscience. He can do any fabulous thing.
The story, in so much as there is a sequence that binds this tale together, is that Harun, who may be a fictional character, has two sons (supposedly fathered when he was six and seven respectively). Harun has withdrawn from the day to day rule of his Kingdom, leaving this to his two sons as co-Caliphs, although the two rule different parts of the kingdom, with different preoccupations.
Harun abdicates in favour of his elder son, Al-Amin, who shapes up to be a wise and benign ruler, with progressive policies that will transform the land between the two rivers into a terrestrial paradise of justice, equality and wealth for all.
But everyone knows that Al-Amin will only rule for one day, that his younger brother Mamun will depose and kill him the second day, and that Mamun will be a more traditional kind of Caliph.
Meanwhile, Thunderson’s interpolations into the master Narrative have him falling in love with the beautiful Azraq-Qamar, or Blue Moon, who is a wonderful conversationalist (she has only one line, ‘That is just what I think, you wonderful man’). But Blue Moon is actually a mechanical woman, kept alive by winding a key in her back, not that Thunderson-Sindbad cares, even after he learns this.
Once she has a new voicebox installed, enabling her to say anything she wishes, she starts scheming with her husband to replace the true Sindbad, including the removal of the green ferns Sindbad has growing at the fork of his body that are his identification, and the preventing of their ever re-growing.
The book has an awkward and anomalous ending. Al-Amin dies. Mamun succeeds him and marries Scheherezade, although she tricks him into a bottle, like a genie or Ifrit. The true Sindbad is deposed as Sindbad, and presumably Thunderson takes over the role, but this does not come about by any action taken by Thunderson and Blue Moon, but the unforeshadowed action of Grand-Dame Tumblehome who, inspired by Scheherezade, captures Sindbad in his own bottle.
Apparently she’s just lost interest in him, and besides, it was all a joke and he’s lost her respect for falling into the trap. Either way, Sindbad ends a prisoner in a bottle and the book ends with this, leaving at least one reader both puzzled and somewhat disappointed.
Perhaps it is this sense of a non-conclusion, and not a non-conclusion leaving we readers to consider what alternate future we might meant or expect to see, that contributes to the air of finality about this book as part of Lafferty’s oeuvre. It wasn’t final. We still have four novels to look at, all of which, incidentally, appear in the Archipelago check-list, where there is no mention of Sindbad.
But it feels like an ending. An unexpected, unwanted, incomplete ending, like the uncompleted A Ghost Story that Lafferty believed all his works belonged to. After this, there is nothing. You know that feeling.

The Man who Wrote Lafferties: How Many Miles to Babylon?

Half a dozen Lafferty novels remain to be considered in this series. All exist only in very limited editions, most of them chapbooks. Three stand in one relationship or another to the ‘Argo’ mythos that stands behind The Devil is Dead trilogy. The first of these is How Many Miles to Babylon?
I have concerns about including this story in this series. It is named in the Archipelago checklist as a novel, it is listed as such in Wikipedia, but in chapbook form it consists of thirty-six pages. That’s not a novel. It’s possible that the Babylon we lucky few know (my copy is numbered 10, though I have no idea out of how many) is but a portion of a longer work – Archipelago was itself much reduced from its original form – though I have never heard any suggestion of this.
But the checklist page could only have been compiled with the direct assistance of Lafferty himself, and upon his authority I take this to be warranted. Yet the publishers call it a novelette.
Enough! If we argue like this, we shall never have the time to read this story, let alone admit it to the Argo cycle, and the Finnegan cycle, assuming these not to be the same thing.
How Many Miles to Babylon? comes in two parts, the first little more than a page and a half, described both as a ‘letter’ and as Notes on the Finnegan Cycle, written by Absolom Stein. In either state, it first appeared independently as ‘Interglossia to The Devil is Dead‘. It is a short account of Finnegan’s many deaths, the evidence for them and the unreliability of evidence for that ending, coupled with the unreliability of Finnegan’s own evidence as to his not dying. Nevertheless, the last of these, in chronological time, as attested to in the Cycle, is the shootings of Archipelago.
The major part of the story begins in Melchisedech Duffey’s Walk-In Art Bijou in New Orleans, with which we are not yet, in this series, familiar, with the arrival of the painting ‘The Resurrection of Count Finnegan’. It’s clearly a John Solli, Solli being one of the real names of Finnegan, but Finnegan has been dead five years by now and the painting is of his resurrection, and that of Cardinal Joseph Hedayat of Antioch. Finnegan and Hedayat do not resemble one another now, but the painting is of them thirty years hence, in the style of Finnegan after thirty years more, and then they are identical. How this can be, though it is a fact, is much debated by those we have already met in Archipelago, including Stein.
Lafferty elides to that resurrection, and to the multiple assassins lying in wait to wreak it ruin. For in thirty years a thing is being driven out of the world, a thing unwanted and unneeded and thus needed all the more. X is involved again, Monsignor now rather than Mr, playing the triple Agent. Thirteen men are to be killed, thirteen men who have doubles, including Hedayat and his double, Count Finnegan.
The thing that is to be killed is the Church and the thirteen are the remaining Cardinals, but their doubles survive, to meet under the North Shore of San Simeon, the San Simeon ruled by the Balbo family, Gaetan Balbo of Arrive at Easterwine (remember: it is all ‘A Ghost Story’…)
But is it principal or double that has been killed and is it principal or double that meet in Conclave, to do as Conclave’s have always done, and elect from the Cardinals present a Pope? Pope Finnegan the First.
Consider this episode a part of the Argo Cycle, and as such to be studied and considered of equal worth to those remaining episodes we are yet to read.

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?

Crap Journalism

I don’t really care what other people think of the books (or films or television or art) I like. Make an interesting, intelligent, thoughful criticism and I’ll read it, though you’re unlikely to change my mind. Just slag it off, and I’ll shrug and ignore you.

Occasionally, those who slag off need answering, briefly. Take this feature in the Guardian about writer Adam Kay in the Books That Made Me column. Note his comment about Lord of the Rings, which he calls ‘indecipherable nonsense’.

I don’t know who Adam Kay is or what he writes. He’s as entitled to dislike Lord of the Rings as I am to like it and neither of us is right or wrong.

But given the sheer volume of readers it has had, the reams of academic study it has undergone, its translation into film and radio by people with creative abilities, ‘indecipherable nonsense’ is demonstrably one thing it is not and Kay’s description says more about his comprehesion skills than the book itself.