In podcast 170 of Notes from Coode street, Neil Gaiman says that while Lafferty is one of the all time greats, some of his novels are impenetrable (not bad, but inward-focused). I've many of his short stories, as well as 'Reefs of Earth' and 'Space Chantey,' and loved all of it. Do you agree with Gaiman -- or would you be willing to recommend some of his novels over others?
I don’t agree with “impenetrable,” but I do agree that some of the novels get very opaque because of the sheer difficulty of the concepts he’s trying to address, and also because of how little they resemble the novels of almost any other writer. This happens more often toward the later end of his career—Not to Mention Camels is notoriously troublesome, and Arrive at Easterwine seems to elude a lot of people—but it’s evident even as early as Past Master and Fourth Mansions.
Lafferty himself believed that his short stories were better but that his novels had more to say, and I think he harbored a hope that readers would come around to his novels and reconsider them in time—I think if anything he undersold them, and that there’s a huge amount to be learned from reading his longer, more difficult works. However, I’d hardly recommend starting with them.
The best and most important Lafferty novel is Okla Hannali, a view of the 19th century from the perspective of one larger-than-life Choctaw. But beyond that, if you’ve got Reefs and Space Chantey (and Past Master and Fourth Mansions and Easterwine) then you’ve already got a good foundation, so I’d recommend diving into a trio of excellent novels he wrote in the early 80s: Annals of Klepsis, about a pirate planet with no history; East of Laughter, about the death of the Scribbling Giants who write all the world’s history; Serpent’s Egg, about a group of super-intelligent children trying to survive (or possibly bring about) the apocalypse. You might also try the easily available volume Apocalypses, which includes two challenging and enormously fun novels: the spy thriller/farce Where Have You Been, Sandaliotis? and the murderously operatic alt-history The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny.
On the deeper end, there’s Aurilia, which details the advent and preaching of a Camiroi girl on Earth; Not to Mention Camels, which shows the development and corruption of a media icon across various modes of existence; and the Dana Coscuin tetralogy: The Flame Is Green; Half a Sky; plus two as-yet-unpublished volumes.
And then, preeminent among all of these, the Argo Legend books: Archipelago (itself a manageable and fascinating novel); The Devil Is Dead (difficult, but a surprisingly common intro book); and More Than Melchisedech (possibly the deepest waters of all—plus plenty of other texts assorted with it, including what might be his simplest, most straightforward and yet thoroughly devastating book, Dotty.
I’ll write about all of these in time, but to cut all this short: yes, all the novels are worth reading, and yes, some of them are more immediately comprehensible than others. But as with all great authors—Joyce with Ulysses and Finnegans Wake, Woolf with To the Lighthouse or Mrs Dalloway, Faulkner with The Sound of Fury, Pynchon with Gravity’s Rainbow, etc. etc.—the most challenging works are often the most rewarding, once there’s a foundation in place to begin grappling with them.