Ticket to Bargeton : The Writings of Tom La Farge
By Henry Wessells
Originally published in The New York Review of Science Fiction, January 2003.
The Crimson Bears. Sun and Moon Press, 1993.
A Hundred Doors. The Crimson Bears Part II. Sun and Moon Press, 1995.
Terror of Earth. X Fablels. Sun and Moon Press, 1996.
Zuntig. Green Integer, 2001.
Tom La Farge is the James Joyce of comparative zoology, a brilliant writer in whose literary universe the "speakable kinds" are so varied and articulate that the absence of the human animal is barely noted. In his two-part novel The Crimson Bears and the recent Zuntig, La Farge creates a coherent world inhabited by Bears, Clowncats, Slizz, Ceruk, Thoog, Swamp Apes, Porcupines, Moles ("all books are printed by moles"), Lemmings, and a host of other babbling, muttering, grumbling, and talking beings. The country around Bargeton pulses with life and has a functioning economy that survives revolution and tumult. An acute observer of human and animal society, La Farge charts his chosen terrain in prose that sparkles with formal play and linguistic innovation. He is a master stylist, an artist for whom literature is a way of understanding the world; it is all the more surprising that his work is not widely known and appreciated.
His latest work, Zuntig, is a whirlwind journey of narrative consciousness through multiple existences, a novel where change in biological form is expressed through shift in literary form. For reasons that will immediately be apparent to anyone who opens the book, I am disqualified from writing a review of this book. Instead, I propose to conduct a tour of Bargeton and its environs, with stops in each of La Farge's books and a brief side excursion to the one of the fablels of his story collection Terror of Earth.
Who is Tom La Farge?
I have known Tom La Farge for a decade and am the dedicatee of Zuntig. This is the reason why I would have to resort to chicanery or pseudonym were I to write a "review" of the book. Tom La Farge is a friendly, articulate person whose prose is much like his conversation: witty, full of allusion, and subtle. It was he, for example, who remarked on the central WASP paradox that runs through Little, Big (and so many other works of American literature): Will I ever be as rich as my grandfather? To which the answer is almost invariably, No. Yet for all the spontaneity and life in his prose, I know him to be a careful, deliberate writer. He composes his novels longhand in ink from an inkwell in the shape of a grizzly bear's head and has described himself as the Marcel Proust of animal physiology. I asked him for the (un)usual biographical facts, and his response gives you some measure of the man:
La Farge was born prematurely in a Morristown hospital a couple of years after the cessation of global hostilities. At the age of 2 he began a career as a displaced person with a shift of the hearth to Paris, where domestic help was cheap. He was raised by Mabel from Swansea, Mass., aided by a number of neurotic young women with strong views as to what constitutes nutrition and hygiene. He was quartered in the 7th arrondissement, in St.-Jean-Cap-Ferrat, and in Gstaad, long before anybody lived in those places besides natives, whose uncontaminated rituals he was thus enabled to observe. His father, a writer, met Richard Wright in Paris but didn't like him or his political views. Following his parents' separation he returned to Hamilton, Mass., and then Katonah, N.Y., received the schooling that the state demands, and spent summers in Rhode Island playing killer Parcheesi with his father, who read him The Hobbit aloud and turned him loose on his vast collection of Pogo. After his father's death, La Farge was sent first to a churchy boys' camp in New Hampshire and then to a ritzy boys' boarding school in Switzerland, lest he become a sissy. He distinguished himself in Switzerland by losing control of his bowels in his first term but recovered his trim and learned French. Three years later he was back at a churchy boys' boarding school in Massachusetts, where he spent five more years not becoming a sissy. The most useful subjects he studied there, contrary to expectations, turned out to be Latin and Sacred Studies. Then he went to Harvard, where he took refuge at the Harvard Lampoon and learned to drink. Then he dodged the draft by becoming a teacher in New York, an imposture he has maintained at various schools ever since, with one interlude when he tried to become a shrink but got a doctorate in English instead. He has been married twice; the first union produced his son, the writer Paul LaFarge, who doesn't put the space between La and Farge, and the second, to the writer Wendy Walker, produced much happiness, several very satisfying displacements to Paris and Morocco, three published books — The Crimson Bears and Zuntig (novels) and Terror of Earth (fables) — and two unpublished: Night and Silence (play) and 2 Chameleons (travel memoir). He lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, has no desire to move to Brooklyn, and teaches at The Horace Mann School in the Bronx. He is currently working on a new novel and studying the Maqamat of al-Hariri and al-Hamadhani with a view to appropriating their formal devices.
After such pyrotechnics there is little to be added in the biographical mode, save for this genealogical note: Tom's father, Christopher La Farge (1897-1956) was an American author, painter, and architect, and was a graduate of the Harvard College Class of 1920. He was the grandson of artist John La Farge and the brother of novelist Oliver La Farge (1901-1963), Harvard Class of 1924, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Laughing Boy, who is also remembered in science-fiction circles for several stories from the 1950s: "John the Revelator," "The Resting Place," and "Spud and Cochise."
The Crimson Bears
La Farge's talking animals, like his thinking, are devoid of fuzziness, imprecision, or cuteness. The world of his books is one where human beings are literally irrelevant and therefore not part of the evolutionary and political hierarchy. (Unlike, for example, the work of Scott Bradfield, whose Dazzle stories are dependent for their humor upon the human context against which the dog rages or whimpers.) The world continues to turn very well without humans, thank you very much; the beings populating this world are under the sway of the full range of economic and emotional complexities; and, most importantly, these beings experience change and growth in the course of their adventures.
As The Crimson Bears opens, Alice and Edgar, adolescent bears, sister and brother, are on a walking tour across the Commonwealth of Bears. Their goal is Bargeton, a riverport and commercial center, with "a large population of other kinds in permanent residence: merchants, brokers, bankers, factors, and artisans, but also actors, dancers, singers, jugglers, tumblers, mountebanks, zanies, story-tellers. Any kind of food at all was to be had from Bargeton's cookshops. All sorts of books turned up in the stalls there. And yet the city was under the peaceable rule of the bears, whose Senate regulated all aspects of life and business; and their father's brother, Claudio, was President of the Bargeton Senate. They would be privileged visitors and could see everything." Alice has an ambition of her own that is central to the novel and indeed to understanding La Farge's writings as a whole: "Being fond of stories and poems, she had formed her own little project of an Anthology of the Literature of Other Kinds."
Alice and Edgar are joined by a Slizz along the way. This large green wool-bearing lizard, languageless and kept as cattle by the bears, has a unique trait: "every ten thousandth hatching will produce an individual capable of speech," who is then reared as befits one of the speakable kinds. Known as the Ceruk (feminine Cerugai), they are most often associated with the trade in precious metals. Alice and Edgar quickly reach the Citadel Hill at Bargeton, the massive fortified city-within-a-city that is the residence of the ruling bears. After a night-time glimpse of intrigue and high politics in their uncle's rooms, they go for a walk into the teeming warren of stairs and corridors and streets that is Bargetown. Away from the closed society of the ruling bears, and in the jostle of the marketplaces, they experience a different city: Alice "saw Citadel Hill then as the head of a great amorphous body, which was Bargeton. The head contained as many dreams as rooms; for all the glittering windows, there were more thought chambers that never saw the light than ones, like the attic she had slept in, that let in sun and air. The hill had swallowed her whole; now she held back from the border of the crowd, fearfully resisting her final ingestion into the gorged tissues of the city."
What they find is a city on the verge of insurrection from within and threatened by alien invasion from the desert across the Flood, the river upon which Bargeton is situated. They stumble into a vast decaying suburb, the home of the outcast Clowncats, rulers of Bargeton before the bears took power. These cats, whose head is the Chief Hooburgaloo, have a fondness for elaborate rhetoric and weird gastronomy, and a fetish for devices and debris (huge Ballardian heaps of mechanical detritus and just plain garbage). They are implacable enemies of the bears. In short, Alice and Edgar have walked right into the heart of the Revolution. And they love it. There ensues war, complete with devil's bargains, complex strategy, deus ex machina, and a genuine hero. Bargetown endures the confusion and remains a living, bustling city. (After publication of The Crimson Bears La Farge and his wife Wendy Walker lived in Morocco for a year; there he found the real-life equivalent of the city he sought to evoke in Bargeton).
In The Crimson Bears, La Farge chronicles the growth of individuals raised in the restrictive comfort of elitism when they shake off the fetters of class and privilege. Literature is at once the key and the doorway and the final result of this embrace of the wondrous and the forbidden. That early hint, the Anthology of the Literature of Other Kinds, emerges as the central transition of the first part of the novel, as the voices of beings other than bears begin to be heard. The second part, A Hundred Doors, is radically different in form, reflecting a greater openness to the many speakable kinds. While many American writers "advertise" their conceptions yet fail to give them substance in the course of the novel, La Farge is that rare, wonderful writer whose work gives concrete form to his ideas: Bargeton is a truly multicultural city whose literary forms record its diversity.
Terror of Earth
This is a collection of ten fablels, adaptations of medieval beast fables and fabliaux in which La Farge shows considerable range of form. It is the title story, "Terror of Earth," that is most relevant to La Farge's longer works. His version of the story of "The Kite and the Jay" tracks the rivalries and hatreds of families of birds living in an elm tree that is as divided as a West Side co-op board. Told through dramatic excerpts, extracts from the correspondence of the real estate management company of The Elm, literary quotations, and stream of consciousness narrative, "Terror of Earth" is notable for the raucous voices of its protagonists and the evident scatalogical humor. "The arrangement that allows the idle rich on the higher floors to defecate on the sober workers below them will hold little mystery to students of class relations."
Zuntig is a Swamp Ape who lives in the tidal flats (well downstream of Bargeton). She is close to the line of succession in her clan and is conspiring with and maneuvering against her sisters to claim the position of Dispenser. "The Dispenser, you see, assigns husbands — I'd better explain. First you should know that all Swamp Apes are females. The males are Fish Apes and live on the ocean side in shacks that slide across the dunes like rafts on a lazy swell." The Swamp Apes are ruled by tradition and prospective heirs engage in feverish activity to curry favor with the Dispenser, making presents and playing a whimsical, deadly serious game. Zuntig breaks a clan taboo while ensuring that her present is the most elaborate of all, but she is cheated of the post by one of her sisters. When her crime (touching the skeleton of a murdered baby ape) is found out she is sentenced to "Flee," to be sent to the underwater city and drowned. "I ceased to be what I had been and changed my shape."
The skeleton of the baby ape was tied to Zuntig before she "fled" and the two minds with their conflicting aims remain inextricably linked through numerous changes of body. Zuntig remains undeniably herself through each of these different incarnations, even as her new form is reflected in a changed literary form. In the Biljub desert, she has a languid conversation with a hibernating Salamander; in a subsequent incarnation, Zuntig is a lemming, prey to convulsive lust and overpopulation, and the prose shifts hilariously to a chronicle of marriages and scandals reminiscent of Jane Austen. As Zuntig undergoes her transformations, La Farge plays upon all domains of literature, both high (tones and echoes of Shelley or Coleridge) and low (Porcosueño's La Madra Skua, as performed at the Bargeton Pig Opera).
We revisit Bargeton in the course of this novel, and it is recognizably the literary landscape of The Crimson Bears, but Zuntig has her own agenda, to correct a past wrong, and schemes her way back into the heart of her clan. La Farge is an acute social critic, one who has really deciphered the magic of class. The rivalries among the Swamp Apes makes perfect sense when one understands that it represents, for example, a translation of struggles for succession to the matriarchy of an old Massachusetts family; while this goes on, the men (read Fish Apes) are all off at work in the city. When you read Zuntig, as I strongly urge you to do, hold onto your hats, and let go of your egos, and enjoy the ride.
Originally published in The New York Review of Science Fiction, January 2003. Copyright © 2003 Henry Wessells. All rights reserved.