A Sense of Wonder: R.A. Lafferty’s “Strange Doings”

I first heard of R.A. Lafferty by reading Neil Gaiman. In his collection Fragile Things, Gaiman praises Lafferty as being one of the best short story writers in the world. Eager to find a new author I’d probably like, I looked up Lafferty’s name in the library and found nothing. I looked it up on Amazon and found the next worst thing to nothing: an incredibly expensive specialty edition that was a first volume in a complete collection, and well out of my price range. I began scouring used bookstores and continuously came up empty until a couple of years ago when I finally hit paydirt: not just the short story collection Nine Hundred Grandmothers but also two of his novels. Soon after, a trip to Powell’s Books in Portland resulted in another Lafferty collection, Strange Doings.

I didn’t review Nine Hundred Grandmothers when I read it, partly because I didn’t have the time and partly because I wasn’t sure what had hit me. Lafferty is almost entirely unclassifiable. Elements of science fiction blend with fantasy tropes before being mixed into a surrealist cocktail. He plays with language and the reader’s sense of reality in equal measure. But it is precisely this verb ‘play’ which makes his stories both too much to read in large doses and also too good to put down. He is palpably enjoying throwing us for a loop. No one who writes the sentence “And Judy retched funfully” could be doing anything else.

Galli was an hereditary storyteller of the Indies. “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.'” He was the storyteller, and he offered to teach me the art.

 – “Cliffs That Laughed”

Throwing people for a loop seems to be a theme of this collection. Characters who think of themselves as ‘smart, intelligent people’ are confronted by the unusual or fantastic, declare it to be impossible, and are then swept away by the allegedly impossible reality bearing down upon them like a tidal wave. At the beginning of “The Transcendant Tigers”, a young girl solves an insoluble toy puzzle over and over again, while her father explains to his friend why the puzzle can’t be solved. When his wife tries to show him what their daughter has done, he asks not to be interrupted and goes on with his inane prattle.

Lafferty also invites us to play around with the idea of what is real and what is imaginary. The surreal tale “Entire and Perfect Chrysolite” introduces us to a group of people who can apparently bring what they imagine into reality. They are sailing on the southern coast of Libya; the world they live in being the one depicted by the ancients, oval in shape and lacking an African continent. So they imagine Africa and it becomes real — along with the crocodiles, the rhinoceros, and the pythons who all try to kill them as the people gradually realize they are in a swamp instead of on their ship.

The unreal, strange, and wonderous is a force of nature in these stories, challenging the limits of our intelligence in the face of the fantastic. And there is often a sense of deeper, more profound truths than either the characters or the reader are able to plumb. “World Abounding”, an incredibly strange but also wonderous longer story about an expedition to an impossibly alive alien planet, touches on the mysteries of God and creation and life in ways that probably only multiple readings will be able to suss out.

I confess to not always being comfortable with modern fantasy’s obsession with realism. Building the details of a fictional world, and telling a story in a logical sequence of events is one thing; forcing it to resemble the real world to such a large degree strikes me as futility. In a narrative with impossible elements, something is always going to be illogical. The realism and the fantasy in such a tale are always in conflict. Realism locks imagination in a stranglehold, and without room to breathe, the fantasy element becomes not only unnecessary but a burden on the story. Were it not needed as window-dressing for the genre, it would be killed off altogether. On close examination, the resulting story is found to be a ridiculous mess in which neither reality nor fantasy actually reach their full potential.

But Lafferty is never very interested in reproducing reality. Instead he soars to improbable heights of dream-world nonsense. Even his dialogue is wonderfully stilted and unbelievable. The net effect of a fine Lafferty story turns out, however, not to be escape, but illumination. Even while he forces us to abandon common sense, he gives us a sense of wonder at life in the world.

The first story in the collection, “Rainbird”, is about a scientist who invents the most amazing and useful things, like a time machine (which Lafferty calls a “retrogressor”, defying even the conventional genre vocabulary) which lets him go back and start his career over so he can develop even more wonderful advancements. But always he reaches the end of his life wishing he’d focused on what now seems to him important, to achieve more and more. He returns yet again to the beginning of his career, a morning when he decided to stop enjoying the sport of hawking and get back to work, but he finds his younger self too distracted to pay attention to what his older self has to say. And eventually he becomes distracted himself. Soon, Higgston Rainbird is no longer known as a fabulous inventor because he has learned the value of appreciating a beautiful morning with his pet hawk, high above the clouds, wondering at the glory of the world.

This concentrated dose of wonder is what makes Lafferty overwhelming, but also strangely addictive. He holds you in his spell until he’s finished a story, but once it’s done you need to come up for air. He’s one of those writers who has somehow managed to capture what his writing is like in his own inimitable style:

For the next three and a half hours he held that intelligent audience completely spellbound, enchanted. They followed, or seemed to follow, his lightning flashes of metaphor illumining the craggy chasms of his vasty subjects.

They thrilled to the magnetic power of his voice, urbane yet untamed, with its polyglot phrasing and its bare touch of accent so strange as to be baffling; ancient surely and European, and yet from a land beyond the pale. And they quivered with interior pleasure at the glorious unfolding in climax after climax of these before only half-glimpsed vistas.

Here was the world of mystery revealed in all its wildness, and it obeyed and stood still, and he named its name. The nebula and the conch lay down together, and the ultra-galaxies equated themselves with the zeta mesons. Like the rich householder, he brought from his store treasures old and new, and nothing like them had ever been seen or heard before.

At one point Professor Timiryaseff cried out in bafflement and incomprehension, and Doctor Ergodic Eimer buried his face in his hands, for even these most erudite men could not glimpse all the shattering profundity revealed by the fantastic speaker.

And when it was over, they were delighted that so much had been made known to them like a great free gift. They had the crown without the cross, and the odd little genius had filled them all with a rich glow.

– “Aloys”

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