The Man Who Wrote Lafferties: Arrive at Easterwine

Arrive at Easterwine was another 1971 publication, and another of those invaluable Dobson Books editions, without which I would have found it harder to get into Lafferty’s works. It would have saved me a considerable amount of money, yes, but just think what I would have missed out upon.
The book’s cover and title page are out of the ordinary, and are explained by an ‘exchange of letters’ between the author and a representative of his Literary Agency, over the credit for the book. The novel’s full title, which is key to the understanding of the book, is actually Arrive at Easterwine the Autobiography of a Ktistec Machine as Conveyed to R A Lafferty. You see, the book is written by a machine, Epiktistes, the aforementioned Ktistec Machine.
Fortunately, by the time I bought this book, I already knew what a Ktistec Machine was, or at least I knew about Epiktistes. I was looking forward to reading at full length about the several members of the Institute of Impure Science, with whom I had become acquainted via a number of stories in Laffferty’s first collection, Nine Hundred Grandmothers. Oh yes, the shambling giant, Gregory Smirnov, the anima’s rock-throwing little sister, Valery Mok, her unoutstanding and overshadowed husband, Charles Cogworth, the stiff-necked Glasser and Aloysius Shiplap. Are these not wonderful names? How can you not have fun with scientists of those kinds of names, and an Institute that dedicates itself to Impure Science?
The book is Epikt’s account of himself and the Institute’s first three Great Failures, over the first months of his existence, from the moment he’s acquired enough sentience to start re-directing it. As such, it pre-dates every short story about the Institute, though it’s fair to say that though it has its moments of interest, and the space to go into who and what the members are as people, it never approaches the heights of the short stories, whose brevity focuses upon the idea Lafferty is exploring.
Indeed, much of the novel is, as is very often the case, based in Lafferty’s philosophical interests. Epikt, for all his intelligence, is starting from point zero, collecting information in great gobbets but always watching from a different angle than that of the humans. He’s an amalgam of naivete and boastful knowingness, which makes him the ideal observer, searching for enlightenment and requiring answers, whilst placing himself above humans in knowing, but not necessarily understanding those answers.
The cast is expanded a little, to include Gaetan Balbo, Director of that earlier and eradicated Institute that didn’t include Gregory Smirnov, and also two others among Lafferty’s vivid and highly intelligent short story regulars, Audifax O’Hanlon and Diogenes Pontifex, two of the elegants, like Aloysius, as opposed to the fellahin, like Cogworth and Glasser, but who are excluded from membership on account of failing the minimum decency rule.
To provide the book with what narrative structure it has, Lafferty and Epikt relate the Institute’s first three Tasks, tasks we’re told in advance will fail. Gregory’s intent on outlining these in turn, which, stripped to the barest possible explanation, will take an hour or so each, that is until his colleagues reduce them to three words: they (and Epiktistes) are to find a Leader, a Love and a Liaison. And Epikt has his own vision (he intuits visions) integral to his cause. This is of Gaetan Balbo’s family crest, its familiar but symbolic quarters, it’s curious writhing scroll and changing motto and, at its centre, its overwritten area, where various levels exist, obscured by the others. The contents of this flow through different but closely related names: El Brusco, the brusque one, La Brusca, the Burning Bush and Labrusca, the wild-wine.
Each name, in turn, relates to the three investigations, or searchings or uncoverings or failures Epikt and how each is illuminated by the synbols Lafferty produces.
Ultimately, though the characters are as vivid and enjoyable, the fact that the book is about three Great Failures robs it, for me, of any successful ending, not even in the sense of that of Fourth Mansions, where the ultimate effect is withheld for us to determine from our individual readings. And, like all Lafferty books, it has its fans and its detractors, whose opinions seem to derive from how flexible the mind can be about a book written with no thought of convention in mind.
It is immaculately Laffertyesque, with lines and thoughts of brilliance and high humour, and it throws out a hundred thousand ideas that no-one else could have had and which leave the receptive reader speculating wildly which one of them or the writer is on powerful hallucinogens (hint, it wasn’t Lafferty), and more than half convinced that Laff is on to something that none of us have noticed. And it’s incredibly funny, to those of us tuned to Lafferty’s absurdity.
So, Arrive at Easterwine. I have known it too long to be anything other than affectionate towards it, and incredibly defensive on its behalf to those who plainly do not understand (this means most of you, right? Don’t worry I don’t mean that insultingly) but I will not pretend it is the book you should want to read to decide if you like the Cranky Old Man from Tulsa. But if you do, and once you are sure, don’t leave it long, people.
As Epikt says, it really is the best thing ever done by a machine.