Review: The Best of R.A. Lafferty (2019)

9/10

The editors at Gollancz realised that you can’t simply publish a collection of Lafferty stories and expect it to land well. Lafferty is too strange a writer; too bizarre. Imagine the shock on the face of the poor, unsuspecting reader grown up on a diet of LeGuin and Banks! She wouldn’t know what hit her! No, better to cushion the blow, to pack the stories in protective insulation to keep the universe from phase-changing. Better to round up a busload of established authors, one for each of the 22 short stories in here and an inevitable introduction by Neil Gaiman, to warn us again and again of what we are about to read. 

Because Lafferty is weird. And brilliant, writing stories of boundless energy and boundless imagination. If you’re reading this review I’d love for you to read the stories and to hear your thoughts on them. Alternatively, I could go door to door with the book in my hands and ask people to read the first story. The closest I can come to a description is that of speculative tall tales told by a hyper-intelligent drunken Irish sailor, who is constantly bullshitting his way through his own stories but giving a knowing wink. The closest comparison would be Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics (1965), or the stranger stories by Stanislaw Lem. He is a bit like Philip K. Dick too, but more compressed. More childlike and droll.

There are recurring characters like the scientists Velikof Vonk and Willy McGilly, who always turn up when strange things are afoot. Like in the second story, Narrow Valley, in which a Native American magically makes his mile-wide valley narrow as a ditch to deter settlers. Dr. Vonk shows up with nonsense explanations about a psychic nexus or noospheric fault-line and concludes that “I am glad I was able to give a scientific explanation to it or it would have worried me.” See, I am not even sure that this is science fiction, but I wouldn’t know where else to fit it. Lafferty is a fantast, a fabulist. None of it should be taken seriously anyway.

Or should it? The stories aren’t just about craziness and jokes, there’s more to them. Many have a sadness to them and most of his stories leave you with difficult to define feelings. Like:

  • Quiet acceptance of the unexplainable.
  • A loving hopelessness about human drives.
  • Justified grotesquery against shortsightedness.
  • Apprehension of hidden meaninglessness.
  • The loneliness of loss unacknowledged by others.
  • The tension of veneration versus exploitation.
  • The wistfulness of bygone spectacle.

The funny and strange story Nine-Hundred Grandmothers, for instance, plays on more than one of these feelings.

The stories, most of them written in the 1970s, run at a super-high pace, full of little side jokes that sometimes come back as part of a resolution or to slipstream the story in sudden new directions. The great thing is that the stories are very unpredictable, even on a sentence-by-sentence level, and do away with many established rules of storytelling. Much like Jack Vance’s writing, a story can immediately be recognised as Laffertian on the very first page and is almost impossible to imitate. Just don’t overload yourself with it. 

Not every story is great (like Interurban Queen, about a pastoral future without cars) but even the lesser ones are perfectly sculpted and do precisely what the author intended. It is the crazier ones that feel utterly unique, like nothing else. (like Slow Tuesday Night, about a greatly speeded up society, or Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne, featuring Epiktistes the finest Ktistec machine. That story is reprinted in every major Lafferty collection. Lafferty also wrote an entire novel about Epikt, named Arrive at Easterwine: The Autobiography of a Ktistec Machine (1971) anyway I am getting off topic).

Imagine writing a story about a floating mountain with a city on top. Most writers would come up with something epic, highlighting the scale and impression of it. Think of Erikson’s Moon’s Spawn or of Laputa. Only Lafferty would write a story like Nor Limestone Islands, in which a strange foreign salesman tries unsuccessfully to sell huge amounts of limestone to a city council. Lafferty gives some hints to his writing process in an afterword to the incredibly weird but haunting Continued on Next Rock:

How did I write ‘Continued on Next Rock’ then? Upside down and backwards of course. I started with a simple, but I believe novel, idea about time (my edit: to have archeologists dig upwards through strata into the future, and somehow make it the setting for an unrequited love story between earth gods). Then I involuted the idea of time […] and I turned the systems of values backwards, trying to make the repulsive things appear poetic […] I let the characters that had been generated by this action work out their own way then. After this, I subtracted the original simple but novel idea from the story, and finished things up.

Badabing badaboom. Reading it was an incredibly trippy experience and only afterwards I started to understand it. What I can’t understand is how all of these stories are produced by a single mind. They are all so different and range all over the place. When I first read his stories as a young adult, I didn’t like them at all. They didn’t match what I was looking for in SF, and I think that many first-time readers will have a similar experience. But Lafferty is what they call a “writer’s writer” and after a decade of reading I suddenly see the light and can’t help but be immensely impressed. But I would be lying if I enjoyed every story equally immensely. They can be frustratingly opaque, skirting around the edges of the real. I can’t give it the highest mark because the constant sense of dislocation got tiresome. I should have taken my own advice and not overload myself. Just read a story or two between other books.

I would like to end with one of my favourite Lafferty passages. Even if it is not in one of the stories of this collection, it gives a good impression of his style:

Flip O’Grady was a chimpanzee of mature years and unusual intelligence. He stood a full four feet tall. He was employed as a penny-flipper at the Probability Division: it was under the direction of Doctor Velikov Vonk, and so was Flip…

The flipping was dogged hard work as Flip O’Grady did it, steep psychic stuff with preternatural aspects, and he sweat a lot on the assignments. He wore a T shirt and boxer shorts when he flipped pennies. After every flipping session he took a brisk five-minute shower. Then he put on horn-pipe pants and sports jacket for a forty minute coffee-and-doughnuts break. He took most of his breaks in the International House of Doughnuts, but also in Speedster’s Cafe and in Zabotski’s Bagelrees. The flipping, the shower, and the break constituted a cycle.

Flip lived in a little cottage that was eight feet by eight feet square. It was really a ‘Garden Giant Little Gem Prefabricated Tool Shed’, the deluxe or two-window model. Flip had fixed it up according to his own exceptional taste, painted in three tones, and with red simulated tiles on the roof. It was heaped and overgrown with flowers.

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14 Responses to Review: The Best of R.A. Lafferty (2019)

  1. Ola G says:

    Sounds fascinating – thanks for the rec, Jeroen, I’m putting this one on my TBR!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wakizashi says:

    Jeroen, this is another writer who has been on my radar for years. I first heard about him via Neil Gaiman’s blog years ago. I’m a big fan of weird, bizarre stories, so these should be a great experience. You really sell the book with your enthusiastic review! Nice one 🤩

    Liked by 1 person

    • You’re welcome! Lafferty is one of those writers that you gradually become aware of after reading in the genre for many years. Writers love him, but he never gets popular. If you are after unique experiences and bizarre stories, then Lafferty is obligatory reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Andreas says:

    I just checked and found that I have nothing from Lafferty on my blog, or at GR. Strange. Thanks for bringing this up!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Lafferty has written fantastic short stories, and a lot of them. I see how many reviews of short stories you post on the blog 🙂 but Lafferty really shines in that format. His novels I heard can be challenging. It is hard to find his stories because most are out of print but once in a while some press reissues a series.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Andreas says:

        It’s not that difficult. I‘ve found two collection from him sitting on my shelf, both very cool Moewig-Playboy editions from 1982. And I guess there are a lot of other stories in other anthologies.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Which ones are they? Maybe they contain some of the stories that are also in the collection that I reviewed here.

          Like

          • Andreas says:

            Darn. On second glance, they are not collections but anthologies by Lafferty. At least they have a story from him: Try to remember, St Poleander‘s Eve, Quiz ship loose. I further found Sky, Continued on Next Rock, and I‘m pretty certain that others are spread over anthologies on my shelf. It’s always a hunt 😁

            Liked by 1 person

  4. bormgans says:

    Never even heard of Lafferty. Any of his novels you would recommend? I tend to prefer novels over short stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t dared touching one of his novels yet. I read his short stories years ago and didn’t like them, so I wanted to try those out again first before tackling a novel. And I fully believe those who say that his style is best suited to short stories, because it is dense and trippy. I’m not sure I could handle a full novel. That said, people usually recommend Fourth Mansions or Past Master as your first Lafferty novel. In any case, I do want to try them out now and this collection won’t be the last Lafferty that I will read.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: R.A. Lafferty – Nine Hundred Grandmothers (1970) Review | A Sky of Books and Movies

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