Tuesday, June 27, 2017

"You'll add to it yourself in your death straits, if there is any deformed originality in you."

I read the entirety of Not to Mention Camels over three days while on a family vacation this past weekend. It felt good to relax into a novel, especially one as thrillingly good as this one. I knew Camels only by its reputation as a "very bad, terrible book" and knew that DOJP was hesitant to fully love the novel. I think that Gaiman specifically mentions it as a failed novel in his Coode St episode. I also learned at this year's LaffCon that the book had been astoundingly popular in Spain when it was translated there, going through multiple print runs. (Weirdly, there's no entry for the Spanish edition on isfdb.)

I wrote the following the other day after reading the first four chapters.....

Anyone really love Not to Mention Camels? I think I do.

I'm four chapters in and really enjoying it. It's definitely strongly Laffertarian, but it's also giving me a strong PKD vibe with its immoral protagonist and unstable, uncertain realities. It's funny, but it's a much darker funny. Something about a highly capable male protagonist trying to exert his will over the world makes this novel feel more closely aligned with core sf than many of Lafferty's other texts. It almost feels like a subversion of the Campbellian/Heinleinian self-sufficient man myth.

Reading Camels jolted in me an awareness (I'd already known this but now thought it afresh) of how important community is to Lafferty's work.

In Space Chantey, Roadstrum is captain of an entire crew.

In Past Master, Thomas More joins a small band of misfits.

In Reefs of Earth, the Puca children are a family unit.

In Fourth Mansions, Freddy Foley is in constant contact with almost everyone else in the novel.

In Sindbad, there is, like in Past Master, a small band of weird heroes facing down swamp dragons.

In Serpent's Egg, there are the 12 children.

In Archipelago, there is the core group of friends.

In The Devil is Dead, Finnegan is central, but there are several women orbiting around him, and also the Devil and Mr. X.

Arrive at Easterwine features the Institute.

Annals of Klepsis is another ship's crew.

My Heart Leaps Up features dozens of kids.

Those are examples from the novels that I've read (excluding a few novels that I've dipped into but haven't read in their entirety).

Examples could be multiplied from the stories. (So too could exceptions.)

Multiplied is a good word. Lafferty dealt in multiples and abundance was a regular thing. Including a multiplication of and abundance of characters.

In Not to Mention Camels, though, so far there is no such community. There is the force of will of a man (?) Pilgrim and those who bend to his will. His antagonist, Evenhand, is surrounded by a company of eight, but even then, the are described as extensions of himself.

The Case of the Moth-Eaten Magician was published in 1981, five years after the publication of Not to Mention Camels. I believe that the opening of Moth-Eaten Magician gives us one clue as to what Lafferty was up to in this hellish novel. Contra Sartre, hell is not other people. It is a complete disregard for anything Other, anything outside of oneself.

Long excerpt from the beginning of Magician:

Well, following the same cleavage, there are two kinds of almost everything. There are two kinds of people in the world, and that's the difficulty.
There are persons with a strong interest and affection for themselves and themselves alone.
There are persons with a strong interest and affection for the world about them, and for its furniture and people.
So far as I know, these are the only two sorts of people there are, and the difference between these two sorts is very deep. It would seem that the persons of the first sort, having no real interest in other persons at all, would not be interesting to those other persons either; but this isn't always the case. These persons of the first sort are often able to transmit their intoxication with themselves to others.
“Everybody look at me,
I'm way and out the best there be,”
— the persons proclaim, and often groups and clots of folks, loitering and guesting clusters or clumps of people will give them the echo “Amen, Amen, you sure are!” This is mostly inexplicable to me. Many persons of the first sort do become cult figures and have followings. But it seems as though a universe with only one person in it, and a group of shadows, is too small.
These classifications have nothing to do with the artificial categories of introvert and extrovert. A person of the first sort will see and admire himself both from within and from without. He will see himself from a series of exterior vistas set like spotlights to highlight him.
And a person of the second sort will see the world objectively in whatever manner persons do see exterior objects and complexes. And he will also see it in a subjective and personalized way. No one can see things without putting his own personal signature on his seeing.


  1. I'm also going to copy and paste my FB post from yesterday (with Daniel's comments) here since I'm not exactly known for being a stable FB presence:

    G.K. Chesterton reviews R.A. Lafferty's Not to Mention Camels:
    That is, I fancy, the true doctrine on the subject of Tales of Terror and such things, which unless a man of letters do well and truly believe, without doubt he will end by blowing his brains out or by writing badly. Man, the central pillar of the world must be upright and straight; around him all the trees and beasts and elements and devils may crook and curl like smoke if they choose. All really imaginative literature is only the contrast between the weird curves of Nature and the straightness of the soul. Man may behold what ugliness he likes if he is sure that he will not worship it; but there are some so weak that they will worship a thing only because it is ugly. These must be chained to the beautiful. It is not always wrong even to go, like Dante, to the brink of the lowest promontory and look down at hell. It is when you look up at hell that a serious miscalculation has probably been made.


    "For there is nothing so delightful as a nightmare-when you know it is a nightmare."

    If NtMC isn't a straight-up horror novel, then I don't know what is.

    At first, I thought that it was Dark. Then I realized how fun and funny it is.

    (A scene I'll never forget early in the book of a child being murdered and fed into a shredder is one such moment of high hilarity.)

    Darkly funny. Terribly funny. Maybe even Grimly funny.

    The book ends on a note of pure horror. And yet it's still so damned amusing that it demands a horrified chuckle.

    1. Daniel: I squirmed during that part. For all the grotesquery I had encountered in Lafferty by then, I wasn't prepared quite for that! The novel *is* funny as well as horrific. But I suspect even Lafferty wondered if he'd gone too far indulging hellish imagination. And it's not so much about any particular depiction, but perhaps the more soulish movement of sardonic lampooning to the point of genuinely devilish meanness (hatred?). I dearly love NtMC - one of my all time faves by Laff - but something about it didn't sit totally right with me somehow. But another reading may make me feel very differently.

      Me: I think that uneasiness is the point.

      I wish that FB had a spoilers tag.

      Spoilers to follow.... (though, to be fair, as is almost always the case with Lafferty, he tells you the end in the beginning)

      One of my favorite movies is Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. It's the story of two young men who commit the "perfect murder" and then throw a dinner party on top of the corpse (inside of a crate in their apartment). The audience knows from the beginning that these two men have acted wickedly and continue to act wickedly. Yet, as the film plays out, because they are our protagonists, every time some thing occurs that may jeopardize their deadly game and reveal their crime, the audience so relates with these two individuals that they don't want these men caught, even though they do.

      I think that something similar is at work in NtMC. The protagonist, (for simplicity's sake I'll call him) Pilgrim, is immoral, wicked, evil. But since Lafferty has privileged his perspective, we slowly come to identify with him. Especially after the (anti)climax in which he makes his way to the Nine Worlds. We know that he will not repent and deserves hell, yet we keep hoping for redemption for Pilgrim. We keep hoping that he'll be saved from hell by some slim margin. (The most heartbreaking moment in the book to me is the Plugs from Suggs joke that Pilgrim can't understand is funny; even when he has made motions toward positive behavior, his motives are selfish and he cannot understand others. He has no sense of humor.) We're used to our protagonists winning something, for there to be some slim happy resolution. We don't even want our antiheroes to fail.

      The horror of the book, in the end, is that Pilgrim does not change. He reaps what he has sown. Lafferty makes us feel that all the more viscerally by having us like the man by the end of it all, and even feel sorry for him.

      I also think that the book is an extended riff on the first kind of person that Lafferty mentions at the beginning of Moth-Eaten Magician.

      Daniel: I love your interpretation above, John. I hope that's the case. It seems plausible, but again I need to re-read it. I don't know that I so much identified with Pilgrim, thus whether I really empathised. I love your connection to the passage in 'Magician' and I think you're spot on. It's such a telling observation from Lafferty (and fits various presidents and celebrities and so on so well). Yet that could surely never be the whole story of even the most noxious narcissist. It potentially locks a person into their defining character flaw, without nuance or narrative prequel. It takes incredible skill to write a truly sympathetic (yet critical) portrayal of a truly repulsive, wicked person. Whatever Lafferty achieved or didn't with NtMC, I'm not sure he achieved that. I'm dying to know why Lafferty himself scribbled that it was a 'terrible, terrible, very bad book' (or something along those lines) when he signed someone's copy. I always think of Aurelia as his more generous sequel to the same themes of Camels. Yet I'm so very glad he wrote Camels the way he did, as it sets up the more gracious Aurelia so perfectly.

  2. As with your comments on FB, I love your thoughts in the main post here, John. You've nailed it with the observation about lack of community. I hadn't noticed that. There's a sardonic satire of community as with so much else in NtMC. I can't remember if it's those eight around Evenhand that I'm thinking of (not gonna look it up just now), but there's that part where these Lords (I think) are named and they're something like Mut, But, Wut, Dut, Lut, etc. So opposite of the wonderfully diverse and fulsome cast of character names you usually get clustering into Lafferty's yarns. There's a part in one of his novels (I want to say it's Annals of Klepsis) where he mentions that there were fifty people associated with something. Then the narrator kind of shrugs his shoulders and decides to list all fifty! And it's a total pleasure to read! (He does something along these lines at one point in Okla Hannali as well and gives a brief defense of the practice.)

    Also, your mention of NtMC's popularity in Spain reminds me that I've yet to correspond with a French fan of Lafferty who didn't say NtMC was Lafferty's masterpiece. I suspect he really hit a distinctly European chord with this one!

  3. Daniel, you're thinking of Chapter 14 of The Devil is Dead. It's one of my favorite things in all of Lafferty's work.

    As for the French fans, I think that they cannot resist the Cannes World that Lafferty includes in the nine pleasure worlds, where basically live participatory films run at all times.

    The Spanish fans? I think that they're just quicker than us to love and accept their devils.