Strike One, Lafferty

by Arthur B

Arthur was disappointed in R.A. Lafferty's The Devil Is Dead.
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A while ago, some enterprising store clerk at Blackwell's (Oxford's most Oxfordy book shop) convinced the management that it would be a good idea to devote some of the shelf space in the SF and fantasy section to American imports and rare reprints of books which otherwise would not see the light of day in a British bookshop. The experiment appears to have died, or at least been significantly cut back - at least partially because of the high prices demanded for some of the books (presumably due to shipping costs). 15 for a 300-page book that you can buy for half the price online simply isn't worth it. An additional problem, of course, is that since many of the authors in question were quite obscure it was obviously difficult to tell the gems from the duds.

The upshot of this downscaling was that a lot of the stock in question was sold off for one or two pounds per book, and as a consequence I found myself in the possession of a large chunk of Wildside Press's reprints of the works of R.A. Lafferty, whose Nine Hundred Grandmothers I have previously reviewed on Ferretbrain. Sadly, not all of these books are up to the standards of that collection; Lafferty's 1971 effort, The Devil Is Dead, despite a very strong beginning, does not quite come up to scratch.

In theory, The Devil Is Dead is the second part of the trilogy which bears its name; the first part, Archipelago, is quoted in The Devil Is Dead but was not published until 8 years after The Devil Is Dead came out, and both Archipelago and the final novel, More Than Melchisedech (which came out in three parts, Tales of Chicago, Tales of Midnight and Argo) were only ever published in very limited print runs. However, I found that The Devil Is Dead stands alone perfectly happily, and indeed a prequel and a sequel would only compound the problems that I have with it: namely, that it goes on for too long.

This is a common complaint about fantasy novels, but not a common complaint about novels which only last for 225 pages. Nonetheless, I stand by it; The Devil Is Dead should have been only 112 pages long; the point where it goes from being magical and mysterious to prosaic and irritatingly quirky is sharply defined, and lies almost precisely halfway through the book.

The action centres around one Finnegan, apparently named in reference to Finnegans Wake (the novel does in fact conclude with its opening sentence, apparently a reference to the circularity of that book), although this is apparently a pseudonym: Finnegan, and a number of other characters share a certain propensity for double lives, pseudonyms, doppelgangers, ghostly manifestations, amnesia, and a mark on the left wrist. Having fallen in with the shady millionaire Saxon X. Seaworthy - who for all the world appears to be a mere tramp, like Finnegan himself - Finnegan finds himself compelled to come on a sea voyage with Seaworthy and his mysterious master Papadiaboulos, often referred to as Papa Devil and who Finnegan frequently (but not always) believes is the literal Devil. Papadiaboulos has a hidden face that only Finnegan can see and recognise, and seems to have the same sort of peculiar double existence as Finnegan. As they float around the world, riots, wars, mass rapes and social collapse unfold in their wake, often mere days after they leave port - but Finnegan is more concerned with his love affair with Anastasia, who might be a mermaid, and Anastasia's rivalry with Maria, who might be an ogress, and the murders which are slowly whittling down the doomed ship's crew.

This early portion of the novel is dreamlike and slightly disjointed, demanding the reader's full attention without being frustrating or confusing, and as it progresses the various disconnected strands slowly begin to draw together and become more coherent, giving the impression of waking up from a dream (or coming out of an alcoholic daze), until at the halfway point of the novel the various hints and suggestions throughout the story point to a terrible, awful possibility (or set of closely-related possibilities), as the nature of the evil on the dread ship Brunhilde looms into focus, and the long-threatened explosion of violence takes place.

Here is where I think the novel should have stopped. Had Lafferty only written these 112 pages, the novel would be an abstract classic, an experience much like having a portentious dream which one wakes up from shortly before it all makes sense. Alas, Lafferty keeps writing, as Finnegan recaptures his memories of his true nature and the world of possibilities alluded to in the first half of the novel collapses to present a single explanation for the strange phenomena. The rest of the novel consists of Finnegan stumbling between violent encounters with the Devil's people, whose plans to usurp humanity he is constantly trying to thwart (even though this involves betraying his own nature), in between long conversations which don't come to much with characters who aren't as interesting as the long-lost crew of the Brunhilde which seem mainly to be excuses for Lafferty to spurt allegorical stories which simply reiterate themes of the novel which a reasonably intelligent reader would have already picked up on. Most frustrating is Mr. X (not to be confused with Saxon X. Seaworthy): the "X" must stand for "eXposition", because that is what pours forth from his irritating mouth whenever he shows up - he basically exists either to present the answers to mysteries the reader has already solved or to clue the reader in on the backstory, which while interesting does necessarily rob the earlier half of the novel of much of the ambiguity which made it appealing in the first place.

The Devil Is Dead is a failed experiment, thwarted by Lafferty's excess of confidence in his invented mythology's ability not to crumble when the spotlight is focused on it.
Themes: Books, Horror
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