Tuesday, March 7, 2017

YOU ARE ALREADY SNAKE-BIT (Fourth Mansions Chapter 1)

How does one begin to tackle Fourth Mansions? My best advice is to read through it as fast as you can, then return and read through it slowly a few more times. Or, if you're following our weekly schedule and don't want to read ahead, I suggest hanging around in a chapter, dwelling there, getting a feel for it, re-reading the chapter at least once or twice during the week.

What do we get in Chapter 1?

Here's the basic structure:

1) Prologue
2) Intro to Freddy
3) Intro to the Harvesters
      -Harvesters Gathered
      -Brain-weave in action


The chapter starts with a quote from Teresa of Avila's Interior Castle, setting up the action:
"For there are all these obstacles for us to meet and there is also the danger of serpents."
So, in the rest of the novel, let's at least be expecting some obstacles and serpents.

Following this quote is what I'm calling the Prologue, a marvelous bit of writing that instantly hooks the reader even as it disorients and disarms.

The style of this prologue, in its earthy urgency and in that it directly addresses the reader, is different than what follows. It also connects to and sets up what is to follow. In this prologue, we read of "entwined seven-tentacled lightning," "seven-colored writing in the darkness," and "seven murderous thunder-snakes striking in seven directions." Besides this multiplication of sevens, we get the continuation of the "danger of serpents" theme that Teresa has set us up for. We are "snake-bit" and we feel the "snake-death."

The word "seven" is repeated twelve more times in the relatively short space of Chapter 1, always connected to the Harvesters and to brain-weaving. ("It is a seven-bladed sword; it is no joke.")

Intro to Freddy

Ah, but before we are introduced to the Harvesters, we are introduced to Freddy Foley, "a young man who had very good eyes but simple brains."

We first encounter young Freddy arguing with his supervisor, Tankersly. The entire scene reads like a classic 30s screwball comedy script. I imagine William Powell playing a screen version of Freddy Foley.

In a tight exchange of dialogue, we learn that Foley is a newspaper reporter, that he has been chasing an unlikely story that Carmody Overlark, Special Assistant to the Secretary of State, is the same man as a Khar-ibn-Mod who lived 500 years ago, that Foley has been intimidated and injured chasing the story, and that there are also low-grade seismic disturbances happening locally. Written out like this, the plot seems serious, building toward adventure and confrontation, but again, on the page, it reads screwball.
"Ah, why don't you take off the rest of the day and get drunk, Foley?"
"I did that Monday on your advice. I'd still rather have followed up that case."
"Well, it was better than having you go off quarter-cocked on the Knoll story. That would really have gotten us laughed out of town. And this thing now, drop it! No more Carmody stuff. No more stuff of men who live for centuries or who live more than once. Try one more bender for my sake now, and I hope to see you tomorrow morning, red-eyed and trembling, with your, ah, sanity restored, and ready for work. Get out of here now."
"Yes sir," Freddy Foley said, and he got out.
It's worth noting that Foley is a young man. It's subtle, but there are many instances of this youth theme through the chapter. The head of the Harvesters is described as young-looking and another of their number is explicitly called young, while yet another is described as "nineteen years old and had been nineteen for quite a while." The target of the brain-weave described later in the chapter is identified repeatedly (ten times) only as a "young man," and the Harvesters engaged in the brain-weave are described as "young people." All of this youth language may or may not be set against the possibly 500-year-old Carmody Overlark. It is there, I think, to direct the reader toward the open possibilities of youth, that all of these characters are as yet immature and must grow into who they will be.
As all cats (and especially tigers) are loose in their skins, this Freddy Foley was loose in his face. There was room there for far more things than his winking innocence and his easy grin. There was room for multiplex character that Freddy hadn’t developed yet, for expressions he had never used. It was a face unplowed, though momentarily bloodied.

Intro to the Harvesters
"There were seven of the Harvesters. It takes at least seven to make up a brain-weaving, and this was their favorite game. They met in the evenings especially, and often in the daytimes, for they all had a sort of entanglement going about each other. Apart from each other they were powerful in their persons. Together they became critical mass."
The seven Harvesters meet at the mansion of James Bauer and are the source of the "low-grade seismic disturbances, earthquake jolts which were mental but which fooled instruments and men."

David Pringle and many others classify Fourth Mansions as a fantasy text, and maybe it is, but I feel pretty strongly that this brain-weave is a direct descendant of the multitude of esp/psionics stories that Campbell had championed decades earlier. (This type of sf story was not limited to Astounding. One of my favorites of this subgenre is Bester's The Demolished Man, which was serialized in Galaxy.) Fourth Mansions exists in the context of a very clearly defined and even popular science fictional set of ideas, regardless of whether or not we've since discarded those ideas as pseudo-science.

Here is the SFE entry on Psionics: http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/psionics

The Harvesters each get their own brief introduction before they come together in a demonstrated brain-weave. It is in these introductions that Lafferty links each character with a painting style. This close linking of character to a visual style was unpacked by Gregorio Montejo at last year's LaffCon

James Bauer - “This Jim Bauer was in oils, in the splotchy sort of oil-painting that Eakins did do well, that should have been sketchy in result, and wasn’t.”

Bedelia (Biddy) Bencher - “This Bedelia (Biddy) Bencher was a drawing in red chalk by Matisse. She was red-haired and lightly freckled and beautifully bony (the last her own description). She had a lustful mouth and innocent eyes, and was full of green passion. She was nineteen years old and had been nineteen for quite a while.”

Salzy (Ensalzamienta) Silverio - “This Salzy was a bit by Degas, yet he would never have guessed the twisted passion of this dark, gay, unsmiling young woman. “Not twisted,” Salzy once said of her own passion, “it is helical. That sounds better.”

Arouet Manion - “This Arouet Manion was a Reynolds piece. Having a Reynolds face, he appeared more profound than he was. But that maker touched many of his characters with his irony.”

Wing Manion - “Wing Manion reminded one of a fish done by Paul Klee: not in her actual appearance, of course, but in her style. Yet she was good-looking, and Klee never painted a good-looking fish in his life. Those Klee fishes, though, they have passion.”

Hondo Silverio - “This Hondo Silverio could have been by Ingres. ”

Letitia Bauer - “Letitia Bauer was the pale or moon-colored, slim woman whom Burne-Jones had painted several times: as Beggar Main, as Norse Goddess, variously.”

Beyond this linking to painters, Lafferty gives us at least one more descriptive hook which will recur with each character. Each character is distinguished from one another. Each character has their own motivations for participating in the brain-weave. Though all are involved in something dangerous, not all appear to be villainous.

Through the interactions of the group members, the connection of these seven to Freddy Foley is established. He is Biddy Bencher's boyfriend, and he has been chosen as a patsy, a fool used to probe at the powerful Carmody Overlark. And Carmody Overlark, it is revealed, is quite powerful himself, able to brain-weave on his own and able to resist the brain-weave game of these amateurs playing at power for the first time.

After all of the Harvesters are established, the chapter concludes with them attempting to gain psychic influence over a man named Michael Fountain, to pour "fire" into him and use him as Lord of the Harvest. The Harvesters, led by Bauer, intend to sift the entire world, with themselves set up as the lords of power behind the powers-that-be. Not all agree on the how or the why, but each feel the power and allow themselves to be caught up in it.
“The brain-weaving was something that the Harvesters themselves did not understand, though they had developed it deliberately. Now they gathered the power and the goal to themselves, and they projected it. They did not, any of them, understand it completely in their own persons, but they understood it more completely when the seven of them were linked together. Surely they would understand it in near totality when they had linked more and more strong persons to themselves. These seven were all projecting persons and they could feel their own effect welling through.”
This last section is perhaps the most difficult of the chapter. Lafferty skillfully juggles descriptions of the Harvesters in their physical realities with descriptions of the Harvesters in their pyschic realities as they probe at and attempt to control Michael Fountain. It is confusing for the characters and confusing for the reader that these Harvesters end up struggling psychically with a a "bewildered young man" who is perhaps inside of Michael Fountain but distinct from Michael Fountain. This young man is gradually revealed to be separate from Fountain, but somehow related to Fountain.
“The brain-weave was fabricating a new and uncontrollable personage in the name of Michael Fountain, but did he know it? He knew it in fright and agony, and he slipped away from it again and again. He had felt the death of one man caught in it accidentally; he felt the total penetration of another. But were not both of these himself in some way?
The brain-weave had entered, deeply and forever, into a mind under that of Michael Fountain, and yet it was a mind associated with his. Had the brain-weave made a new mind and a new man and named it Michael Fountain?”
When this new man is revealed as Miguel Fuentes at the very end of the chapter, the reader is left unsure of who this man is and what is relationship to Michael Fountain is. Despite this lack of clarity, there is no question about what kind of man this is. The young man has now become a main person in the world. This young man has become a germinating man. This young man has become a timeless man.

- - - - - - - - - -


Is Fourth Mansions science fiction or fantasy? Or something else?

Lafferty's novels have a reputation for being notoriously difficult to read. Is Chapter 1 difficult?


  1. Lafferty gives us a lot of visuals in this chapter, but very little of that visual detail is description. His description of the each of the harvesters is a description of how their personality or persona reminds one of the (for lack of a better word) vibe of the works of a particular painter (not a word I imagine Lafferty would use).

    Freddy is described as being loose in his face, unplowed, and young--even kid-like. Yet nowhere does Lafferty tell us what Freddy looks like. Is he dark haired or blonde? Is he tall or short? This forces the readers to supply the visual description of Freddy out of our own experiences and ideas, which works to make Freddy truly an everyman.

  2. I don't have time to read the chapter or even this blog post right now (hopefully I can catch up next week after some deadlines are past!), but I wanted to drop a line to say that I love that this is happening and want to take part. I read my first Thomas Pynchon recently (The Crying of Lot 49) and it's got me really wanting to have yet another go through Fourth Mansions. Thanks for doing this!

  3. There are a lot of subtle bits in this chapter that become important through repetition as the book progresses.

    1. Freddy had good eyes. The ability to see - to perceive the world in all its levels is central to this book. Eyes will be mentioned often in the chapters ahead, including the wonderful line, "One misses so much who uses only one set of eyes."

    2. Tankersley speaks prophetically: "Now I will tell you one thing: there are stories that reappear with the same faces when they should have been dead for more than five hundred years. And there's a special aspect to reappearing stories about reappearing men: follow one out and you will be killed for it every time. I don't know why this is so but I tell you that it is." This sets a pattern, and various characters speak prophetically throughout the book, including Biddy, Michael fountain, Richard Bencher, and once even Freddy himself.

    3. Each of the harvesters is introduce by three methaphors, 1st their similarity in aspect or persona to a painter's style, 2nd their impact on the ambient environment, and 3rd their impact when they invade the mind of Miguel Fuentes.

    3a. Jim Bauer: Oil painting by Eakins, A dead night-hawk falling from the sky with every bone already broken, and a new-horned bull in Miguel's head. Bauer will appear as a bull again near the end of the book. Most of the descriptions of Bauer also could apply to a bull, for example: "...it was all choice beef than hung on him."

    3b. Biddy Bencher: A drawing in red chalk by Matisse, flowers (both artificial and real) lifting their heads and following her when she walks into a room, a canelón or cinnamon cookie in Miguel's head (but canelón also means gargoyle). Cinnamon cookie becomes a 2-word reference used to describe Biddy throughout the rest of the book.

    3c. Salzy Silverio: a bit by Degas, a mouse dying blinded with it's own blood but dying happily, and a she-snake of Miguel's own people in his head. Also note that the description of her passion as helical will appear again and again through the book as a short-hand reminder of this intro.

    3d. Arouet Manion: A Reynolds piece, a nearby man falling from grace to commit the sin of calumny, he poured ancient ice into Miguel's mind to counterbalance and augment the fire of the others, adding a cosmic wrongness.

    3e. Wing Manion: The Klee fish, seismic disturbances picked up by seismographs nearby, and a bruja (witch) appearing in Miguel's head. The references to her as fish are repeated throughout the book, and she is most often described as being in the water.

    3d. Hondo Silverio: Painting by Ingres, a boy spontaneously being cured in a nearby hospital, and a noble creature in Miguel's head. Hondo may be the conscience of the harvesters, in that he at least is wise enough to know not to trust their blind instincts and impulses.

    3f. Letitia Bauer: The moon colored or ashen figure painted by Burne-Jones, a stringless harp playing evil-sounding music at a house nearby, and the addition of "ashen and angular passion and swift hope of danger" to the weave in Miguel's mind. Through the rest of the book she will be described as ashen, and her hope of danger referred to. Lafferty also makes several points about her name, Letitia, translating to "joy" or "happiness"

    4. We are also treated to the first reference to Biddy's father, Richard Bencher. He s not a main character in the book, and we only see him directly at the end of the book, but he is mentioned often throughout the book.

  4. I should have said at least thee metaphors.

  5. And it is interesting to me that Hondo, who is described as a snake, is the one member of the harvesters who questions the morality of what they are doing. A little inversion of Genesis here? Do the Harvesters regard themselves as man-in-the-garden, and Hondo therefore is playing the snake role in breaking that false Eden?

    Hondo is often referred to as a noble snake. How does this connect with or perhaps contradict the Snake in Epiktistes' bosom in ARRIVE AT EASTERWINE?

  6. What I noticed here newly is the way the chapter title plays across the whole chapter. Like every title in the book it's taken from a phrase that occurs somewhere in the chapter, in this case not 'til the end when Miguel Fuentes says "I think I will dismember the world with my hands." Because it's the title of the chapter, however, it has to be calculated in terms of all the action, and Jim Bauer is the man most conspicuously doing things with his hands--here and elsewhere in the narrative. Fuentes' ambiguous revolution doesn't really fit this description, which I think applies more to Bauer and the Weave, and is in a sense parroted by Fuentes, though with unusual gusto. Like Fred Foley, he hasn't settled into a fixed role, and like Fred Foley he uses the Weave to communicate unbeknownst to its creators. Sacrificial goat imagery will be associated with the Weave as well, which echoes Miguel's reference to the world as a cabrito.