(R.A.) Lafferty Looper
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).
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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,
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
the world would now end.
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 Raśl 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.)
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.
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.
© Adrian Martin 27 January 2013, 7-11pm