The Best of R. A. Lafferty (2019) by R. A. Lafferty (Book Review)
“’There is only one story in the world,’ he said, ‘and it pulls two ways. There is the reason part that says “Hell, it can’t be” and there is the wonder part that says “Hell, maybe it is.”’”
Cliffs That Laughed, 1969
“Every science is made up entirely of anomalies rearranged to fit.”
Continued on Next Rock, 1970
Raphael Aloysius Lafferty was an American writer from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who wrote over two hundred short stories and thirty-two novels from 1960 to 1984. It is his genre-defying and hugely inventive short stories he is most well-known for. The Best of R. A. Lafferty (2019), edited by Jonathan Strahan and issued as part of Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series, collects 22 of these stories. Each story contains an introduction written by an author influenced by Lafferty’s work, including Neil Gaiman, Samuel R. Delany, Connie Willis, Jeff VanderMeer and Michael Swanwick. The stellar list of contributors should give you an idea of how far Lafferty’s literary influence extends beyond his relative obscurity. What they don’t tell you is just how wonderfully bizarre and compelling Lafferty’s writing is. Lafferty is a lover of myths, legends, tall tales, jokes, and shaggy dog stories. Any given Lafferty story is likely to be a combination of all of these, at least as much as it is a work of science fiction or fantasy, if not more. But then again their innate humour doesn’t hide Lafferty’s knack for mind-bending ideas or powerful emotional impact. Basically, there is nothing quite like a Lafferty short story, and once you’ve developed the taste for them you are likely to want more. After years of his work being out of print and difficult to find, Gollancz’s Best of serves as a welcome introduction to Lafferty’s writing.
Lafferty stories are immediately identifiable by his unique voice. So much of what makes these stories wonderful is in how they are told. Lafferty’s default style is that of the tall tale or shaggy dog story, and his fascination and love of stories leads to him playing various games with narrative convention. Nested stories – or stories nested within stories nested within stories – are common, as are puns and wordplay, frequently across various languages. ‘The Primary Education of the Camiroi’ is written as a school curriculum for alien children. Stories are frequently set up around a silly punchline, and are peppered with witty one-liners. The stories brim over with a love of language and storytelling, and the sheer joy of how these can be played with and rearranged in surprising new forms. However just because jokes and humour are an essential part of Lafferty’s toolbox does not mean that the stories are flippant or slight. At heart, Lafferty is interested in perspective, and how who is telling the story alters the perspective, and the best of his stories allow us to look at the familiar world around us in a new and unsettling way.
Many of Lafferty’s stories manage to take utterly bizarre, gonzo speculative fiction ideas and run with them, part of the fun being to take a ridiculous idea at face value to really see what it means. ‘Slow Tuesday Night’ imagines a world in which humanity’s perception has been sped up, to the extent that entire cultural movements and business careers rise and fall multiple times over the course of a single night. The story is breathtakingly fun, but also has a serious point to make about dwindling attention spans and the speed of modern life, anxieties that users of the internet will easily recognize. ‘Selenium Ghosts of the Eighteen Seventies’ reimagines the early days of television, where the programmes are given increased emotional resonance and depth every time they are watched, playing with the idea of how we imprint our emotions on the mass media we consume. ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ takes the science fiction staple of using time travel to meddle with the past and so alter the future and takes it in unexpected and hilarious directions. The story is built around the pun of cutting one’s own throat with Ockham’s razor, which it uses to explore ideas around determinism and free will. Lafferty takes us through unexpected turning points in history, and wryly questions science fiction’s love of magical solutions to technologically framed problems. As such it is a pretty good example of his wayward genius at its best.
Lafferty had a fascination with Native American traditions and culture, and was aware of how the land of his native Oklahoma was taken from them. Many of his most powerful and devastating stories engage directly with colonialism and dispossession of native peoples. In ‘Narrow Valley’, a member of the Pawnee tribe manages to avoid having his land taken by the US government by geographically folding a valley so that it only appears five feet wide. ‘Land of the Great Horses’ sees the land of the Roma, which has been physically taken off the planet by alien powers, returned to them, whilst Los Angeles is removed and its people left to wander the Earth. ‘Ride a Tin Can’ explores the colonialist attitude at the heart of anthropological studies, and shows us the heart-breaking consequences of a people being denied their status as human. Other stories such as ‘Thieving Bear Planet’ and ‘Nine-Hundred Grandmothers’ explore situations where contact with alien beings goes horribly wrong because of the baggage and preconceptions the humans bring with them. These stories demonstrate that Lafferty’s humour and playfulness does not obscure his awareness of the darker side of human nature, that his love of America is tempered by his understanding of the tragic legacy of colonialism.
Many of Lafferty’s stories deal with folded realities, the idea that just underneath the world we know is a world more vital and strange, a realm of myth and imagination that informs the waking world. This is evident in ‘Boomer Flats’, in which a group of scientists on the hunt for the Abominable Snowman unwittingly enter a mythic realm and become part of the legend themselves. ‘The World as Will and Wallpaper’ anticipates the New Weird by imagining a world-engulfing city not just inspired by William Morris’s political ideals but geographically recursive like his iconic wallpaper designs. ‘Days of Grass, Days of Straw’ is about the secret days that do not fall on the calendar, when life is more vivid and colourful and bloody. Although any character’s attempts at trying to navigate these overlapping worlds is unlikely to be successful. Ceran Swicegood’s quest for knowledge about the origins of the universe in ‘Nine-Hundred Grandmothers’ is a joke he can never share in, whilst the three disappearing soldiers in ‘Cliffs That Laughed’ escape the siren’s call only to be dragged back in again. Jim Boomer and Art Slick give up trying to figure out how the people from ‘In Our Block’ achieve their impossible tasks and go to the pub instead. Transcendence most definitely exists in Lafferty’s stories, but it does not come easily, nor does it necessarily provide the answer the characters would like to hear.
The Best of R. A. Lafferty is a wonderful introduction to Lafferty’s singular writing, and an excellent addition to the SF Masterworks series. It celebrates the work of one of the genre’s true originals, and hopefully, the endorsement of so many other wonderful writers throughout will lead more readers to discover Lafferty’s work. My only issue with it is that I’m somewhat at a loss now that it’s over. Most of Lafferty’s work remains out of print and his short story collections can command excessive prices over the internet. I very much hope that any publishers reading this will bring more of his stories back into print as soon as possible, as I am now thoroughly addicted and need my Lafferty fix.