(R.A.) Lafferty Looper


I am thinking of the SF writer I loved most at the age of 15 – by which time I had already accumulated an encyclopaedic familiarity with the genre, by way of weekly book-exchanges of novels and anthologies, the excellent shelves of the East Melbourne library, my Talmudic readings of the local (and rather intellectual) fanzine SF Commentary, and my attendance at conventions devoted to the SF religion (not quite yet the fan/commerce/Star Wars orgies they were to become).


In fact it was, in part, hearing the film critic John Flaus speak (at great length) at one of these spacey-con events – and learning that there was a culture of SF films by people named Godard, Tarkovsky and Marker, revered by people like George Turner and Stanislaw Lem, who also quoted people like Elias Canetti – that I made my teenage switch from SF to cinema. A fickle moment, but a sustaining passion … as it turned out.


I got rid of almost all my SF books (and I had accumulated quite a library) at that moment. Got rid of all the comics, too. Only a few of each I have kept. And the word order in that last sentence is a clue to the gentleman I’m talking about: R.A. Lafferty (1914-2002).


I have always been amazed, a bit dismayed, at the very narrow range of SF authors to whom modern art/culture theory pays homage. J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick, Dick and Ballard, from A to B and back again. Later there was the cyber-generation (William Gibson et al), but that was a continuation of the same line; it was fiction for the McKenzie Wark era of fast theory. Earlier, much earlier, there had been a less cool generation, given to quoting Asimov or Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke or Clifford D. Simak. That generation peaked with Kubrick’s 2001.  Over and out. Pre-October magazine, around 1968, Annette Michelson wrote the last great phenomenological art-theory manifesto for Kubrick’s film. Artforum (where her piece appeared) peaked then, too. So did Michael Snow with Wavelength, and a whole bunch of other cats (Hollis Frampton et al) doing their sensual-conceptualist-structuralist thing. Godard and Marker and Varda and Fassbinder and all those others were waiting in the wings for a change-up of theory to the post-structural. It came, it saw, it conquered. At least JLG keeps paying homage to Simak’s City (1952) in his brightly-coloured screen fantasies of dogs and lamas and donkeys and suchlike overrunning his gas-station world.


Lost in these lifting and falling fogs of fashion was R.A. Lafferty. I put this perception into a footnote in Tension magazine – Utopia edition, 1985 – where no one would notice or read it or take it seriously. But I meant it. I called on the world of groovers to start quoting Lafferty as their Theory Master, their privileged source of handy allegories and metaphors. They didn’t. They still don’t. Walter Benjamin emerged from even greyer ashes to beat him at that. Damn that guy!


But is my own vision blurred now? I am Bruce Willis looking at myself, shot/reverse-shot, in the face and body of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and something is not quite right here. I am looking up the Nets and Webs and I am learning that R.A. was a staunch conservative, and deeply, fanatically religious to boot. I must turn away from these horrible revelations. I didn’t know or intuit any of that when I was 15, and I refuse to know it now. It’s not in the texts, I’m telling you.


I have only the faintest clue what Steampunk is (Ted Colless knows, I’ll ask him), but I am nonetheless absolutely certain that R.A. Lafferty invented it. In a story of 1961 (I think: even the attributions of provenance are eccentric and confusing) called “Rainbird”, collected in a 1973 Daw SF paperback titled Strange Doings. (That proves it: in ‘73 I was 13 going on 14.) Which is the greatest book-work of World Literature Then or Now, as far as my 15-year-old, Gordon-Levitt self is concerned.


“Rainbird” spins a very typical Lafferty tale. It’s a far-out time-travel story where the central character, self-styled inventor Higgston Rainbird – who keeps encountering himself at different ages, on top of a mountain, and having a knowing yarn with himself – keeps re-doing the time-warp trick with his self-made time-machine, and rewriting the earth’s (or just his own) destiny, over and over. Yes, a little like in Looper!


Except that Lafferty only ever wrote shaggy-dog stories with droll, deflating conclusions: so, the more that Higgston travels back and forward in time to instruct himself better as to what he should invent, the more he cocks up the whole show. He ends his days as the little-known inventor of variations on the plow, the nutmeg grater, and the log-splitter. “He is known for such, and no more”, that’s the last line of the tale (it’s a cheap book, so the next story starts right on the same page). Which is worse, even, than being buried in a footnote in Tension magazine.


Where was I? Ah yes, Steampunk. Lafferty himself worked, for much of his life, as an electrical engineer. In this story “Rainbird”, during one of Higgston’s looper-ascensions, we read:


The milestones that Higgston left are breathtaking. He built a short high dam on the flank of Devil’s Head Mountain, and had hydroelectric power for his own shop in that same year (1779). He had an arc light burning in Horse-Head Lighthouse in 1781. He read by true incandescent light in 1783, and lighted his native village, Knobknocker, three years later. He drove a charcoal fuelled automobile in 1787, switched to a distillate of whale oil in 1789, and used true rock oil in 1790. His gasoline powered combination reaper-thresher was in commercial production in 1793, the same year in which he wired Centerville for light and power. His first diesel locomotive made its trial run in 1996, in which year he also converted one of his earlier coal burning steamships to liquid fuel.


You get the idea. And you get a sense of the wild, ridiculous, preposterous language of Lafferty: words upon words in trance-like, dazed repetition (power, light, oil, fuel), minimal variations (from whale oil to true rock oil). Endless lists, which are neither quite descriptive or narrative. Syntax from another time, another world: many times and worlds, in fact.


Stories don’t go forward in Lafferty. They loop, they twist. They are more like anecdotes or jokes than fully-fleshed-out narratives. Lafferty knew that he was no good for stories. He regarded his novels as just bloated-out versions of his short tales, or gimcrack machines to string a whole bunch of them together. I’d read all the novels he had out (like Pastmaster, his Utopian fantasia) by the time I was 15, but I can’t remember any detail of them now. It’s the short pieces I remember, and mainly the ones in Strange Doings: “Continued on Next Rock”, “Sodom and Gomorrah, Texas”, “The Transcendent Tigers”, “Camels and Dromedaries, Clem”, “Cliffs that Laughed” – even the titles are nutso-baroque.


I guess he wrote fantasy, or speculative fiction, or thought-experiments, or something else that has no tidy generic name. Magic Realism? Nah. Not space operas, which I hate and he hates, too. He seemed to mainly be motivated by a love of word-play – with silly person and place names (like Knobknocker) fully allowed. He started late (when he was 40); but he wrote a lot, and he wrote fast. He wrote histories and a multi-volume autobiography too. I have the impression that his writing was so odd that no sub-editor, even of the dreary old-school SF sort (“Rainbird” is early ‘60s, remember), dared fiddle with it – and in this, I deeply admire him. I pictured him (insofar as I needed a picture at all when I was 15: I’ve never seen a photo of him until now) as some rolling, Irish drunkard, and in some of these details, the Webs inform me, I was not entirely wrong: he was an all-American who lived most of his days in Tulsa, but he did indeed drink a lot.


Who cares? I’m remembering how John Cale described Dylan Thomas’ Welsh-flavoured language (which he set to music) as “rambunctious”; and I’m thinking about how I came to love (once I had converted to cinema) the screwball dialogue in Preston Sturges’ films (with their Kockenlockers and Ginglebuschers), and the dense, knotted-up, back-and-forth impressionism of the film critics Manny Farber or Bill Routt or Raymond Durgnat. Swampy writings, obsessive, murky, impenetrably obscure and cryptic and private-keyed sometimes: but flying on a rhythm that carried and sustained you. Something like what I like to be writing here.


Michel Serres said of a particular Tintin comic (I can quote this one without looking it up, I left it back in an ‘80s issue of Art & Text): “The fable is profound, and without ostentation”. Hergé cannot be mine, for he is Spielberg’s now, poor thing. But I can say it of a story by R.A. Lafferty. Once again, I must risk the loop, and actually confront my sweet memory of this tale with what is on the pages of my yellowing and slightly smelly 1973 paperback.


– Here is what I remember, an incredible image that is better and more beautiful than any metaphor/allegory I ever drew from the shallow wells or short-memory banks of Theory: there are climbers who brave this incredibly difficult mountain that curves right at the top – plunging them to their death. Just before they fall, they notch out a bit of graffiti on a rock face. They die; the cliffs laugh at them. To write a little more, a little further along, is just to get one tiny fraction of a second more of life before certain death in the valley below. That’s what writing, and life, are: a little scratch or scribble of shit on a rock, meaning nothing communication-wise (just ‘blah-blah was here’), just that hopeless, quixotic gesture, and that’s all, before the end. But the gesture you have to do, have to perform: why else be born in the first place? Cosmic befuddlement of this sort is the ground-tone of Lafferty’s fiction.


I don’t remember any specific characters, any developed plot as such (I never do in his stuff, which also says something about the types of cinema I will come to love): only that image of the clamber, the graffiti and the laughing cliff, repeated and built-up mercilessly. Who even tells the tale? Narrators are always strange confabulations in his stories, either omniscient gods or just nerds reading out of some diary they can’t fathom, and which they throw away at the end.


– Here is what I discover, 40 years later: that, in fact, I cannot even correctly recall the title of this story! I thought it was “Cliffs that Laughed”; it’s not. Then I checked “Continued on Next Rock”; nope. (But I enjoyed reading them, immensely.) I still can’t figure it out on this deadline – and the Internet, although teeming with Lafferty fans and tribute-pages these days, can’t solve it for me in a hurry. Bad luck. If this was Looper, the world would now end.


But, leafing frantically through the pages of Strange Doings, I realise that so many of Lafferty’s cherished motifs and word-games, images and situations, even the associations struck by their titles, are virtually interchangeable, from item to item. So many of the pieces turn out to be structured a bit like a Raúl Ruiz film (of course) – like Three Crowns of the Sailor especially. Narrations within narrations; false starts; parodies of the fan worlds of comics and SF, and of theory too (there’s even someone named ‘Foulcault’); crackerbarrel wisdoms about the art and craft of storytelling itself. (All wisdom is of the crackerbarrel variety in Lafferty, but no less profound and unostentatious for that.)


Tales filled with fantastic-plastic exoticism, like Josef von Sternberg crossed with Jacques Tourneur: islands, native informants, pirates in the Indies, age-old mythology, ghosts and golems, spells and comas, mother-daughter teams specialising in fury, duplicity and voracious desire. Endless sea voyages. Landscapes that keep breaking apart and languages that keep mutating in translation. Jokes about countries and the people and customs and language-idioms in them: even Australia, where he travelled.


I remembered none of this in specific detail, but it all seems to have seeped into one hundred cinematographs that I later came to study and worship. Thank you, R.A. Lafferty.

We will be known for such, and no more.

Postscript 21 October 2018: By serendipitous chance, I have finally discovered the identity of the Lafferty story I described at the end of this piece, and even know now where I read it: it’s “The Cliff Climbers”, written in 1958 but first published in the 1970 anthology Quark/#1 (edited by Samuel Delany & Marilyn Hacker), which I bought and owned at age 10 or 11. It is collected in his Golden Gate and Other Stories. In the comments following a June 2013 entry on a tumblr site devoted to Lafferty (Continued on Next Rock, http://ralafferty.tumblr.com/), this tale is yoked to the (then) latest philosophic-intellectual fad of Object Oriented Ontology. Revenge at last for R.A.L.!!


© Adrian Martin 27 January 2013, 7-11pm

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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