Despair and the Duck Lady

“Despair and the Duck Lady” was written as an introduction to the original publication by Steve Pasechnick’s Edgewood Press of Iron Tears, a collection of stories by R. A. Lafferty. When Iron Tears was republished by Wildside Press, my introduction was dropped because print-on-demand publishers operate on a very thin margin. Ray Lafferty, as everybody called him, died in 2002. Other that, nothing has changed.

The best possible introduction to a book by R.A. Lafferty is one that begins “And they also tell the story” and ends “Is that not an odd introduction? I don’t understand it at all.” You can find it at the front of The Devil Is Dead, and it was written by the man himself. As usual, he did it first and he did it best.

The temptation when writing about Raphael Aloysius Lafferty is to employ his own tools: To play with paradox and contradiction, to dazzle with wild invention and high humor, to couch subtle ideas in a defiantly lowbrow idiom. And it’s always a mistake to try, because not only can’t you beat Lafferty at his own game, you can’t even do well enough to keep from looking foolish by contrast. You might as well take all your money out of the bank and sink it into the three-card monte game that the boys have set up down to the corner. The conclusion is a done deed.

So I will abandon subtlety. As artlessly as possible, I want to present you with a few facts and then labor toward a difficult conclusion. The important facts are three:

First, Lafferty is one of the best writers ever to work in the science fiction and fantasy genre.

Second, he is the single most original writer the field has seen.

Third, he is – except for small press publications such as this one – unpublishable.

To appreciate Lafferty as a writer, you need only sample the best of his work – his unparalleled short story collection Nine Hundred Grandmothers by preference, though such novels as Okla Hannali or The Devil Is Dead or The Flame Is Green will do almost as well.

To explain exactly how original Lafferty is would take more space and time than I have available here. In brief, most writers work from a received set of conventions. A dull, hot day is evoked in long, languid sentences that wander like dusty roads beneath the oppressively breathless burden of unvaryingly blue skies. Tense scenes are written crisply. In sharp staccato sentences.

Broken into short paragraphs.

There is nothing wrong with any of this. Great literature has been written in derivative prose. But those of us who are servants of the conventions are painfully aware that at our best we can only take so much credit for what is, after all, inherited wealth.

Lafferty belongs to a select group that includes James Joyce and Amos Tutuola, of writers who have reinvented the language of literature for themselves from the ground up. Joyce, of course, was a scholarly writer who was strongly influenced by archaic texts. Tutuola came from a tribal culture and it will take somebody familiar with the Yoruba storytelling tradition to determine how much of his genius is his own and how much is his people’s. Lafferty has drawn strongly from the oral tradition of the American tall tale, from writers now forgotten or neglected, from sources yet to be catalogued. There is a gold mine here for critics, should they ever find him.

Unpublishable, though – how can such a writer be unpublishable?

“Madness and buggery!” said one editor when I asked. ‘The numbers just aren’t there,” said another, meaning that not enough readers buy his books for them to turn a profit. But these are just rephrasings of the problem. Nobody knows why. Nobody has any plausible theories. Still, the fact remains: There’s not a publishing house in New York that will touch a book by R.A. Lafferty.

But here’s an odd thing. Talk to almost anybody in the field about Lafferty’s plight and you will inevitably hear him compared to Philip K. Dick. On the face of it, two more dissimilar writers – in style, voice, or intent – would be hard to imagine. Yet the claim is made repeatedly that the fate of the one must surely be the fate of the other.

Philip K. Dick led a rough life, hacking out paperback originals, scrabbling after pennies, taken seriously by nobody but a few prescient readers. But when he died, something phenomenal happened. He was discovered. Movies were made from his books. A small critical industry arose, devoted to his work. The highly respected composer Tod Machover wrote an opera based on Valis that premiered at the Pompidou Center in Paris. It was a strange and ironic twist on a life that was strange and ironically twisted to begin with.

More people than I could list have independently assured me that the same thing is going to happen to Lafferty. The first time I heard this asserted, ti seemed an interesting notion. The second time I thought was a coincidence. The third, I began to wonder. Somewhere between five and eight, I came face-to-face with despair.

To explain why, I have to tell you about the Duck Lady.

The Duck Lady was for many years a common sight in Philadelphia. She was a fat old woman with a short-stepped waddle. When she was in the throes of her mental disability – which was most of the time – she talked constantly to herself, saying “Quackquackquackquack­QUACKquackquackQUACK­quackquackquack!” and so on. During those years there was a persistent rumor that she was actually the matriarch of a wealthy Main Line family. Mad, yes, she was mad. But cared for. The family let her wander the streets only because that was what she insisted on doing. A good friend swore to me he had seen the Duck Lady being picked up at the end of a day’s begging by a chauffeured limousine.

This is a classic example of an urban legend. Such tales do not originate in a vacuum. They arise spontaneously to provide soothing excuses for situations people find intolerable.

When the Duck Lady died, the truth came out. She was an impoverished, homeless bag lady. The mansion, limo, and family were all inventions in the face of an intolerable truth: That a harmless old woman with a disabling mental illness would be forced to live on the streets. That nobody had the slightest idea how to help her.

And so with Lafferty. He’s one of the best writers that science fiction has ever seen. He’s certainly the most original. And he’s unpublishable. So we tell ourselves that he’ll get justice just as soon as he dies. They’ll be making movies of his work, writing biographies, publishing his collected letters. There’ll be societies and magazines and the intellectuals will posthumously lionize him. We tell ourselves these things because the alternative simply doesn’t bear thinking about.

This is the case for despair.

But just because something is unbearable does not make it true.

The single best argument for hope is the book you told in your hands. Iron Tears is only the latest skirmish in one of the most remarkable – even heroic – literary campaigns that a field known for Quixotic endeavors has ever seen. In the wake of Lafferty’s being written off by the publishing establishment, a congeries of small-press publishers has sprung up, dedicated to bringing all of his unpublished novels into print and gathering his uncollected stories in permanent format. Not just Edgewood Press, but United Mythologies, Corroboree, Chris Drumm Books, The Manuscript Press, Broken Mirrors – and for all I know, there may be others.

One of the Master’s most persistent tropes is that of the Lamed Vuv – the tradition that the world is precariously sustained by the existence of thirty-six righteous men. If so, then surely publishers Steve Pasechnick, Dan Knight, Chris Drumm, Bryan Cholfin, and all the others , stand a good chance of being numbered among them. The economics of small press publishing are such that I can pretty much guarantee you these guys are not making any money. The winds of literary popularity are such that I can also guarantee that they could be doing significantly better if they put the same effort into backing any of a number of inferior writers. At their level of publishing, critical attention barely exists.

Still they persist.

Let’s raise the stakes and point out here that not all the works being preserved deserve it for their own sakes. Some of the stories in Iron Tears are top-drawer, as good as anything you’ll read this month. Others are not. Major writers sometimes produce minor work. Burt as clues to the workings of Lafferty’s mind and fiction, even his minor works are worth preserving. For the sake of future academics and critics. For future readers.

For posterity.

There had been nothing comparable to this enterprise since Donald Wandrei and August Derlith founded Arkham house to preserve the life work of H.P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft was as good as forgotten at the time of his death. Today his reputation looks secure. And Lovecraft was not half the writer Lafferty is.

Knight, Cholfin, Drumm, Pasechnick, and the others believe that Lafferty’s reputation will not only endure but prevail. So, ironically enough, do many of the editors who will not publish him. There is, among those familiar with Lafferty’s oeuvre, no doubt that it contains some of the best fiction of our times. All agree that it deserves to be read and loved by generations of readers to come. But will it be?

Here is the crux of the thing. Do we delude ourselves with hope? Or is it despair that is the illusion? Lafferty himself, from the testimony of his stories and novels, is an enemy of despair, and would side with joy, with laughter, with the tramps and angels, with the seven righteous men and their shaggier kin. We can only follow his lead.

Is that not an odd introduction? I don’t understand this one either.

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