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R.A. Lafferty, The Best of R.A. Lafferty

Review copy provided by the publisher. Edited by Jonathan Strahan, with so many other contributors beyond Lafferty himself.

I think it’s a cop-out sometimes to say, “Oh, humor is so subjective,” instead of, “This story wherein the protag blows up a young woman for not wanting to date him: I did not find it funny. And then the bit where he builds a robot for beating teenagers into submission to adult dress codes and mores: I did not find that part of this story funny either.” I mean, sure, humor is subjective, but also “Eurema’s Dam” is one of the most mean-spirited pieces of un-funniness I have ever read. And I read a lot of Silver Age purportedly-funny SF, so I have a big data set to draw on.

A “best of” label can be problematic in a case like this, because you end up staring at the stories with sexually precocious seven-year-olds and constant anger at women who inexplicably do not want to sleep with particular men and going, “Well, huh, this is the best? Okay then.”

The structure of this volume is one that seems to assume that anyone who might ever want to read R.A. Lafferty has already read R.A. Lafferty and this volume is just a convenient place to have a lot of their favorites in one place. I say this because not only is there a collection introduction, but there is also an introduction to each story (by divers hands), and sometimes there is another note at the end as well. The latter structure is far less problematic, but at least half of the people writing introductions have written the sort of introduction that tells you exactly what will happen in the story you’re about to read. In most cases they don’t do it any better than R. A. Lafferty, in a few cases they do, and neither is particularly successful. I found myself grateful for the other half of the introduction writers, who talked about their own reactions more and plot summaries less.

And particularly for Kelly Robson, who actually grappled with the story in front of her, writing, “I try to forgive Lafferty the use of troubling racial epithets (should I?) even though they throw me out of the story (in 1978, no, there was no excuse), because he touches my world to his.” Robson is not trying to pretend that enjoying a story means condoning its faults–or even leaving the reader wondering whether she has noticed them, which is worse. Given the opportunity to look into how actual Romany people or various indigenous groups portrayed in these stories might regard them, the editor…didn’t. Opportunity missed.

Did I find any good in this collection, then? Well, some. The phrase “tall tale” kept coming up as a description of Lafferty’s default mode of storytelling, and it’s not a mode you find much in other places. I expect that most people would enjoy this volume more if they took it in little bites than if they read it all at once, and that’s in part because of the prevalence of that particular mode, which is better suited for shorter bursts. I think Lafferty’s strength is in surreal ideas that bend the world a little for the reader, and many of us can use periodic doses of that.

2 thoughts on “R.A. Lafferty, The Best of R.A. Lafferty

  1. Huh. Well, tastes differ. I haven’t see that particular collxn, but his very best ranks high in my estimation. “Narrow Valley”, online at his estates website, might be my favorite. I’m from Oklahoma, an hour for Tulsa, and I regret never making the effort to meet Mr. Lafferty. Though he was known to get quickly drunk at public events. SO perhaps as well.
    His best-known early collxn:
    — with a link to another classic story. FWTW. Maybe you had to grow up in his milieu?

  2. Even within Lafferty’s (copious) oeuvre….
    My friend Michael Swanwick, whose literary judgment i respect (and whose writing I LOVE!), sent me to read Lafferty’s novel “Okla Hannali.” I HATED it:

    Which goes to show…. Something. Chacun à son goût!

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