The following was written as a preface to the proposed (and still pending) Hunted City reprint of the complete Argo Legend, and to Archipelago in particular.
… and here it becomes necessary to pause for a moment and to recount for you the history of Lafferty’s World up to this point.
Over the course of about three and a half decades, R.A. Lafferty wrote 36 novels, 260-odd short stories, and assorted essays and verse. These writings are placed in a wide variety of settings, from ancient Rome to far-future Astrobe. They divide into three loose groupings: the historical works set in the past (The Fall of Rome, the Coscuin Chronicles, Okla Hannali); the futuristic off-world SF stories (Past Master, Space Chantey, Annals of Klepsis and tales such as “Nine Hundred Grandmothers” and “Snuffles”); and the tales of the present-day.
This last group further divides into those set against an indeterminate, usually apocalyptic backdrop (Not to Mention Camels, “Ishmael Into the Barrens,” “And Walk Now Gently Through the Fire”); those placed in or around Lafferty’s own Tulsa (Reefs of Earth, In a Green Tree, the tales of Austro and of the Institute of Impure Science); and those located elsewhere on the globe, whether international (the Malay Islands in “Cliffs That Laughed”; much of the globe in East of Laughter) or domestic (Chicago in The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny; Galveston in any number of tales about the Old Wooden Ship bar).
Now set against this a comment by Lafferty himself, reflecting on his entire literary output:
“It seemed, until I thought of it a bit, that I had written quite a few novels, and many shorter works, and also verses and scraps. Now I understood by some sort of intuition that what I had been writing was a never-ending story and that the name of it was ‘A Ghost Story’. The name comes from the only thing that I have learned about all people, that they are ghostly and that they are sometimes split-off. But no one can ever know for sure which part of the split is himself.”
In an earlier handwritten draft of the above note, Lafferty refers to the sum of his works as “one very very long novel … a ghost story that is also a jigsaw puzzle”—and while this story is “never to be finished,” still all of its pieces can be made to fit together. Considering the range of the man’s fiction, this might seem a surprising statement. Yet it confirms what many of his readers have suspected: that, as Eric Walker puts it, “the fanatic, with patience, could probably link all of Lafferty’s works.”
In the sketch above we can already see some of these links: The Fall of Rome and East of Laughter connect through the authorial stand-in Atrox Fabulinus (“speaker of lies”). The Institute scientist Aloysius Shiplap turns up in a small but crucial part in Annals of Klepsis, while itinerant researcher Velikov Vonk is shown in an alternate life as “Wilcove Funk” in Not to Mention Camels. A more surprising connection—and one highly important to Archipelago—is the follow-up story to Space Chantey, “Hound Dog’s Ear,” which ends with the Irish culture hero Finn McCool joining Capt. Roadstrum’s crew for adventures among the stars. More generally, though, these links bring together chronologies and topographies in ways that render impossible any attempt to establish a single consensus map or timeline.
Of the many startling extrapolations that can be made from the foregoing, here are only a few: first, what we call past, present, and future are not so easily separable; second, what we call linear time is in no way adequate to describe or contain our multiple existences; third, while we have no way of determining which if any of our aspects in the multiplicity are singularly valid, we can nonetheless fit these pieces together in various configurations; and finally, this piecing-together, whether in the fictional or real world (and remember, there is no telling those apart) is always a collaborative act, extending across multiple layers of reality, shared by many thousands or millions of people. This collaboration is how worlds are made: Lafferty’s world, our present world (if indeed we have one)—any world, potential or actual.
Many such worlds are found lacking, and subsequently exploded, or dismembered for use in successive worlds. Others fall apart, are flattened out or otherwise distorted by later generations. Others still are forgotten, fading away for lack of collaborators: such was nearly the fate of Lafferty’s world, after a change in critical tastes left him dependent on fans to publish many of his greatest works, including the vast bulk of what is called The Devil Is Dead trilogy, or less inaccurately, the Argo Legend.
The book you hold in your hands, Archipelago, is the first volume of that trilogy as well as a central piece of the Legend and Lafferty’s work more widely. It is, as the cover notes, a great novel in its own right, a work of high hilarity shot through with melancholy. It is also Lafferty’s widest-ranging book stylistically, folding in not only his usual rollicking prose and doggerel poetry, but also a poetic dialogue, Latin prosody, and even free verse. Above all though, it is in this present edition a testament to the resilience of Lafferty’s world: a hope for its revival, and its continued renewal.
If this renewal is to continue, Archipelago—and the Argo Legend more generally—must be central to the project of revival, because it is here that Lafferty grapples most desperately with all of the questions raised above. It was no accident that it was the second volume, The Devil Is Dead, which initially allowed him to speculate about the collaborative jigsaw-fiction metaphor: “This is a do-it-yourself thriller or nightmare. Its present order is only the way it comes in the box. Arrange it as you will … Put the nightmare together. If you do not wake up screaming, you have not put it together well.” Nor that it was the third volume, More Than Melchisedech, which provoked the extension of this metaphor to his entire body of work.
It was in Archipelago, though, that Lafferty first began exploring the “ghostly split” that would prove so central to his work. Though published after The Devil Is Dead, Archipelago was always intended to provide an entryway to the Argo Legend, introducing readers not only to the five members of the human archipelago—Hans, Henry, Vincent, and Casey, and Finnegan—but also to other characters who will play substantial parts in the books to come: Absalom Stein, Dotty Yekouris, Mr. X, Show Boat Piccone, Melchisedech Duffy—and, moreover, to their mythological precursors. As Hans Schultz (who was Orpheus, who was Apollo, or Dr. Faustus, or Aquinas Redivivus) will later say, “Nobody can be in life who has not been in legend and myth first. That is a requirement of being born.”
As ever with Lafferty, such pronouncements are given both in jest and in utter earnest: John “Finnegan” Solli is not Ulysses by analogy, like a Leopold Bloom “Everyman,” but by actual mythological inheritance. Likewise is he Iason, master mariner of the Argo and discoverer of the Golden Fleece; and likewise Finn McCool, Irish giant and future companion of Capt. Roadstrum (another Odysseus stand-in). So also is he a “Teras, or an Arracht”: a monster, a gargoyle, a Neanderthal; a changeling with the “double blood” running through his veins. All of these are valid perspectives on the character Finnegan, roles he will inhabit over the course of the Legend.
Yet all these roles remain only aspects and not the actual thing. As we change perspectives on Finnegan, we should not be surprised to find ourselves switching between mutually incompatible timelines: so do we all, unconsciously, in our everyday lives. What makes Finnegan such a compelling subject is his awareness of this multiplicity, and his struggles with his status as a fictional character split across multiple levels of reality. This disconnect is especially pronounced in the shift between the Ulyssean wanderer in the present book and the swashbuckling monster in Archipelago’s dark mirror, The Devil Is Dead, but there are other Finnegans split off in between these, and still others set apart, ranging from Count Finnegan in the “eschatological spy drama,” How Many Miles to Babylon?, to domestically blissful Finn in a discarded universe, “an alternate that was not used.”
Absalom Stein writes of Finnegan that he is “the link between several different worlds,” that “Finnegan himself believed he was subject to topographical inversion; that one of the worlds was always interior to him and another exterior, and that they sometimes changed their places. But where does that leave us who live in either of the worlds?” Well, where does it leave us? If the interior-fictional and exterior-actual worlds are subject to inversion, are we all not, as Stein asks, “sometimes reduced to being no more than items in the mind of Finnegan?” Bear in mind that Stein, an item in the mind of Lafferty, goes on to quote statements about Finnegan from authors in Lafferty’s world—Terry Carr, Virginia Kidd, even Lafferty himself—thus inverting the passage on inversion.
The world of Archipelago, as part of the wider world of Lafferty, is constantly subject to such inversions: in Henry’s vision, in Hans’ Wanderjahr, in the dynamic between Casey and Stein, and especially in the final chapter, when Finnegan’s two primary worlds begin to collapse into each other. But it is crucial to remember that, while such showy metafictional moments are supremely, grotesquely Laffertian, they are not the entirety of Lafferty’s World. Whether at any moment Finnegan is an item in our mind or vice versa, these perspectives and many more are all just parts of a reality too massive for us to comprehend or conceptualize at any single moment. The book—like the Legend, like all of Lafferty’s work—is a patchwork of perspectives on characters too vibrant, too expansive, to be captured within a single point of view.
In his essay on alternate endings, Lafferty writes that
The people of the world are none of them common, are all of them geniuses, are all of them wonderful… All the people are ghostly, and all of them are split or exploding people. They have rapport with all their fellows in time and in space, with all of them now in the world, with all of them who have been or will be in the world.
Note the wording: these people—all people—are not fractured but split; not shattering but exploding: an outward propulsion, rather than the inward disintegration of many modern psychological theories. Lafferty’s characters reflect his expansive and immensely humane views on the nature and relations of mankind: what makes a world—again, his world, our world, or any other—are the interrelations of the people within it (or as often, without it, when the topography is inverted). No man can be an island because no world exists for one man alone; a group such as the Dirty Five can, however, be an archipelago, sustaining a world in their mutual communion.
Lafferty is always seeking, through his fiction, to reach out and find those who will join him in creating and sustaining new worlds. Most of his books reach their peaks not in moments of intense action, but in moments of extreme connectivity, with two or more people coming into sudden rapport, a mutual understanding strong enough to resonate throughout the multiplicity of worlds. Thus in Archipelago the climax comes not at the end—and how could it? As Lafferty notes in his essay, there aren’t any endings—but instead at the St. Louis Conclave, with nearly all of his characters gathered together and drawing sparks off one another.
The centrality of these meetings, especially between Finnegan, Melchisedech Duffey, and Show Boat Piccone, will be seen in later volumes, as Lafferty returns to these scenes from (what else?) different perspectives, in More than Melchisedech and the short story “Anamnesis.” In this latter story, the characters recollect their mythological roles; and, through this remembrance, in fellowship with one another, succeed in renewing and enriching their entire world: “the World of Melchisedech Duffey did begin its reanimation with that St. Louis Conclave, in spite of it being all full of errors of time and space … it found a validity in itself, and it is a living and growing thing today.”
In “Anamnesis,” Lafferty offers the story itself to corroborate this reanimation: “The chapbook or brochure with the name ANAMNESIS exists only in the World According to Melchisedech Duffey. Really. We defy you to find it in any of those minor alternative worlds.”
So also let the Hunted City edition of Archipelago, and eventually of the entire Argo Legend, corroborate the reanimation of Lafferty’s World. Read, and enter into fellowship with him and all the other members of our human archipelago. Recollect your own mythological roles, and enact them on a stage of high hilarity. Renew the world, and yourself along with it.
This concludes the history of Lafferty’s World up to this point. The world itself does not conclude: it is a forward surge on multiple tracks of multiple powers, and it still goes on. It does not end…