Friday, April 30, 2010
Friday's "Forgotten" Books: Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum, THIS LIFE SHE'S CHOSEN: STORIES; R. A. Lafferty, THE MAN WHO MADE MODELS AND OTHER STORIES
It's almost too easy, the contrast between these two collections, which I can recommend with a few reservations (and both are essentially out of print, though available, the Lafferty in this form only at collector's prices). Two writers with clearly not enough names nor ethinicity implied in those names between them, Kirsten Sundberg Lunstrum, born 1979, has been a creature of the MFA programs and the AWP (the Associatio of Writers and Writer's Programs, which like the SFWA [now the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America] used to fit its acronym better); Raphael Aloysius Lafferty was an eventually retired engineer who began writing fiction as a form of therapy and distraction from alcoholism, and began publishing in 1959 and 1960 in New Mexico Quarterly Review and Science Fiction Stories magazines. This Life She's Chosen is Lunstrum's first collection; she's since published another, which was met with less praise (a particularly harsh review from Publisher's Weekly sits on the Amazon page); The Man Who Made Models was one of Lafferty's last, a chapbook in a series of booklets published by bookseller Chris Drumm in the 1980s and '90s, after the larger commercial publishers and Lafferty had largely parted ways. Both are collections of stories that were, as far as I can tell, never previously published.
The Lunstrum is a collection of tales of mostly young and middle-aged women enmeshed unhappily in family relations, with mothers, sisters, husbands; there are deft descriptions of small slights and continuing minor cruelties which alienate the characters from each other, while also rarely being enough to allow for clean breaks, nor does it occur to most of the characters to try to tell their family members how they are being chivvied, until explosions of rage or sublimation into cold resentment occurs. They are well-written, but clearly the work of a talented but young writer--she paints delicately, but in all primary colors, and certain tropes are too much in evidence--people are always smelling strongly of the air and leaves and other outdoor scents as they are greeted or (often grudgingly) embraced; the horizon is forever merging into a gray or gray-like haze in the distance, from story to story (that latter not too surprising given that the stories take place almost exclusive in the Pacific Northwest, from Juneau to the SF Bay Area, locus of Lunstrum's primary residence up through the time of publication). The single biggest factor in my picking up this remaindered paperback edition was Karen Joy Fowler's largely correct blurb, that these are "Deft [so apt I steal it above], rich, moving, and memorable"...and they are rich in detail, and can be moving, even given the delimitations Lunstrum places on her characters, who lead sexless lives (perhaps not so oddly, but the consistency of the sexlessness of the protagonists' lives, and indeed the consistency with which sexuality is seen only in terms of threat does encourage a certain vest-pocket humming, particularly in the work of a writer who seems to have married rather young). While most of the characters are almost stereotypically Norwegianly closed off emotionally, they do tend to be industrious (her portrayals of work life and other busy-ness are also rather good for a writer who seems to have been in academe so thoroughly throughout her adult life), and there are nice touches of wit to alleviate the gloom.
While R. A. Lafferty was all wit and invention and the constant questioning of received wisdom and of the limits we accept in ourselves. He, more than any other writer I can think of, was a brilliant teller of tall tales, delivered in raucous and yet elegant prose. Patti Abbott was lamenting recently the dearth of new fair-play detective fiction that she sees; Lafferty responds, in these stories originally written in the mid 1970s but slightly revised by Lafferty for their 1984 publication here, with "Two for Four Ninety Nine," offers a detective agency featuring two ridiculously perceptive geniuses, putting Holmes to shame, one a Homo sapiens named Roy Mega, the other an Australopithecus named Austro (who is also a popular cartoonist)...who are joined in their efforts by the disembodied soul of a young woman, who serves as their in-house oracle. (This kinf of thing had not been done to death when Lafferty was writing it, and it still is fresh in his hands.) You'll have to read the story for how the grackle fits in. In fact, all of the stories here are at least borderline criminous, as well as mostly fantasticated, instructive, and funny as hell. It is genuinely difficult to find people to compare Lafferty to...Avram Davidson in his more antic moods is similar, Robert Benchley if he tackled matters with a serious subtexts might be somewhat comparable, Peter De Vries if he was willing to take more risks with form and structure and admitted more fantasticated content into his work...neither Kingsley Amis nor even Bruce Jay Friedman have quite matched the joyful liberties, the Tall-Taleness, of what Lafferty regularly does (Donald Barthelme in his more arch way also came close at times, and fellow-traveler Carol Emshwiller also comes close in certain moods), and one of the stories here, the utterly unfantasticated "Of Laughter and the Love of Friends," is even a tale of not so small cruelties between a husband and wife that the manic flipside to Lunstrum's work.
There's more to say, but so little time...here's the Locus Index for the Lafferty (I believe thes Drumm Booklet short stories have been since recollected, shall look around for that volume if so):
The Man Who Made Models and Other Stories, R. A. Lafferty (Chris Drumm, Sep ’84, $2.50, 51pp, ph) Original collection of five stories. Drumm Booklet #18.
3 · The Man Who Made Models · ss *
14 · I’ll See It Done and Then I’ll Die · ss *
22 · The Effigy Histories · ss *
31 · Of Laughter and the Love of Friends · ss *
41 · Two for Four Ninety-Nine · ss *
For more of this week's special short-fiction edition of FFB, please see Patti Abbott's blog.