Nate D's Reviews > The Devil Is Dead

The Devil Is Dead by R.A. Lafferty
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's review
May 21, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: sci-fi, 70s-delerium, read-in-2012, favorites
Recommended to Nate D by: Patrick M, of the double blood
Recommended for: alcoholic sailors and their doubles, alive or dead or both
Read from May 21 to 24, 2012

A night-dune imaginary: there was a world full of people with pumpkin-heads for heads, and candles burning inside. Then Seaworthy and the Devil and their spooky crew came along, lifted the top off each head, blew out the candles inside and put the tops back. The pumpkin-headed people seemed to get along about as well as before; yet there was a difference.

A man awakes into one of his lives, partway through conversation with a bum who may be a millionaire, as they wait for the bars to open, on the morning after they have buried someone who refuses to remain dead. A ship is outfitted, an obscure voyage undertaken. Events multiply without resolving. The nature of the world, maybe, is interrogated.

What is this? Not really a sci-fi story at all (though, as with Ice, pulp publishing can be a haven for secret masterpieces too weird and veiled in design for the usual literary engines. This is not a loss.) Rather, this might be (as often observed) a set of overlapping adventure yarns and shaggy dog stories spun out of alcoholic haze by a bunch of sailors and layabouts. Frivolous tall tales covered in mythologizing filigree, and rendered less frivolous by their recurring motifs of cyclic death and rebirth, doubles and fetches, fate and will. And all underwritten by a secret history of the human race in battle with either demonic forces, or its own prehistory and genetic dead-ends, or both, or both being the same anyway.

The entirety is also underwritten by certain uncertainty and subjectivity about the layers of reality here (universal reality in addition to narrative reality), something familiar to Phillip K Dick, as well, and which I gather is further expanded upon by the other parts that make up the supposed trilogy of which this is the centerpiece. Really, with the meta-story expansions of the trilogy and beyond -- the lost chapters (the final chapter was omitted from this printing because it supposedly arrived too late at the publisher(?!) but Lafferty might have viewed this as an advantage*, perhaps happenstance was not so happenstancial afterall), the omissions (apparently including a mysterious, omitted "interglossia" later published elsewhere), the variations (between editions, between stories, between published versions in various places), the general obscurity and unavailability of the whole body of work -- the implication is both that every story exists only in Calvino-esque multiplicity, and that to seek a single definitive narative reconstruction is entirely besides the point. Stories don't work like this, human experience doesn't work like this, the universe, even, does not work like this.

The experience of reading this novel is a unique one. For much of the book the fog of strangeness and narrative ambiguity kept me in a state of pure anticipation: where might this go? It was impossible to guess, each new detail added to a bridge into the pure nothingness of possibility. Then, a resolution and re-track. Initial disappointment: was I building a bridge to nowhere? Was all that mystery really just a screen for a fundamental lack of direction? Later, no: there are Things Going On Here. I just may never know what exactly. Like Carrington's The Stone Door, another favorite, a mythic weight emerges from the half-sketched narrative.

And here's the amazing first edition cover of my copy:

*"It is the first and the last sheepskins that are always
lost or worn. There is no story that is not improved by having its first and last pages lost." See here.
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Reading Progress

05/08/2016 marked as: read-in-2012

Comments (showing 1-12 of 12) (12 new)

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message 1: by Eddie (last edited May 24, 2012 11:37AM) (new) - added it

Eddie Watkins I have that very edition, but as intrigued as I've been by him for years and years, I'm yet to read a single book.

There's some guy here totally obsessed with him who claims he's the greatest writer who ever lived.

Nate D It's very worth reading. This seems to be one of those cases of a very clever and unique vision lurking in the pulpy peripheries of the literary world, thus free to pursue courses otherwise too insurmountably strange.

Nate D It still remains to be seen if he's actually a secret genius or if he's more of a highly inspired crazy person, or if he's some kind combination of the two, like PKD.

message 4: by MJ (new)

MJ Nicholls I pity these poor "talespinners" whose artistry is buried in cheap SF paperbacks.

Printable Tire Great review! Although it's important to note there's a weird (gnostic?) Catholicism underlining all his books. His personal history is really interesting: a WW II vet, he spent most of his life in Oklahoma, was an electrical engineer and took up writing in his 40's to replace drinking (although this picture tells a different story:

Nate D I dunno, MJ, sometimes the chreap SF paperbacks are an excellent way to get really strange things published. Maybe it can lead to unfortunate pigeon holes, but it also means you are massively in print. The other two volumes in this trilogy were put out in nice editions by classier presses, I think. Hence the mass makret paperback of this one is the only of the three it seems possible to obtain for less than hundreds of dollars.

Patrick -- I did notice how he kept watch on the catholic calendar to give the cyclic rebirth a tether-point. He seems to have a pretty personal worldview, whatever its sources.

message 7: by Moira (new)

Moira Russell Wow, that is....a lion? And a snake....with tentacles? And purple birds? My.

I think the only book I have of his is Nine Hundred Grandmothers, with this cover:

Nate D Equally amazing. The 70s did it so right.

Nate D Really interesting / useful Lafferty thesis here:

Printable Tire Oh yeah that's looks interesting, I'm going to read it.

message 11: by Emilie (new)

Emilie this sounds interesting and fun. i don't usually like science fiction (it's usually too plot focused for me), but i like science fiction that isn't really science fiction (like ice and like the pkd i've read). i love that quote about the candles inside their heads.

Nate D You are in luck, this is definitely not plot-focused in any traditional way.

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