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Tom La Farge

Price: U.S. $5.25
Tom La Farge
Series No.: 046
ISBN: 1-931243-06-9, Pages: 338
American Literature, Fiction

Tom La Farge's new novel revisits the animal world he created in his acclaimed The Crimson Bears and A Hundred Doors. The protagonist, Zuntig the Swamp Ape, makes a bid for dominance in her tribe but fails. Facing destruction, she discovers that she can change her shape and restart her story as another sort of animal. As she shifts, every new body imposes its own desires and sends Zuntig hunting for the habitat where it will be at home. As her search changes, so does her story. She becomes a herring and swims upriver to breed against a stream of consciousness. She becomes a lemming, finds mates and propagates in a season of courtship Jane Austen might have described. Her encounter as an auk with Ocean is told in swelling Shelleyan blank verse, and her plunge into the Ice Matrix mimics Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" as revised by Emily Dickinson, William Blake, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. But in each new shape she retains the memory of her first home and story, built into her physical being and fighting her adaptation to new environments. The sunstruck hills of the Biljub Desert, the flow of the river Flood, the snow-tunnels of Hyver, the empty ocean's dreaming, even the fabulous Pig Opera of Bargeton: none of these is a niche where Zuntig can adapt until she resolves her unfinished business in the Swamp. The result is a fantasy that- as a reviewer in American Book Review noted of The Crimson Bears - will "be the source of a new Nile," akin to the great fantasy writings of J.R.R. Tolkien.

Tom La Farge is a teacher in New York City. His collection of tales, Terror of Earth, won the 1996 America Award for the best work of American fiction.

Also by Tom La Farge:
Terror of Earth [Sun & Moon], $14.95
The Crimson Bears, Part I [Sun & Moon], Out of Print
The Crimson Bears, Part II: A Hundred Doors [Sun & Moon], Out of Print

Book Review(s)


by Gregory Feeley

"Talking Animals"

Tom La Farge's Zuntig (Green Integer; paperback, $13.95) is, like his two-volume novel The Crimson Bears, a tale of "Talking Animals" -- a designation specific enough to have its own entry in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy but sufficiently open to mislead, at least if you think it connotes whimsy in Edwardian nurseries. The animals of La Farge's humanless world communicate within and across species, but their discourse is the anxious and urgent interaction of adults mediating between the skin of the self, the constellation of community, and the void.

Zuntig, a swamp ape whose intelligence and initiative have led her to covet the leadership of her matriarchal society, sets about winning the approval of the tribe's Dispenser, who has no daughter and so must name a successor. Zuntig's resourceful negotiation of the particulars of her taboo-filled world -- its games, avenues of power and complicated belief system -- occupies the first third of the book, which is inventive, mysterious and suspenseful in a manner familiar to well-done fantasy novels. These are the pleasures of discovering a world and comprehending its true nature, and they sustain us to the point at which Zuntig wins her prize and loses it.

Devastated and expecting to perish, Zuntig unexpectedly changes form and escapes her straitened circumstances (she has been tied up with the skeleton of the Dispenser's infant daughter and thrown into the ocean) and is abruptly free in a large and unfamiliar world. From here on La Farge's novel becomes increasingly fluid and surprising, its inventiveness less bound to conventional narrative form. Zuntig changes shape repeatedly, seeking a stable life far from the swamp, but finds her efforts undermined by an unsettling discovery: The soul of the murdered infant is incorporated into her every incarnation, and some portion -- a bone, an organ -- of her new body wants to return her to the swamp and the victim's own unfinished business.

After enough transformations, La Farge's very prose begins to change, and Zuntig's season among a colony of lemmings is told in the style of the premier novelist of courtship -- " 'I lay it down as a rule, quite as a rule, Miss Zuntig,' intoned Mr. Arthur Lemming, an affected youth (but perhaps, she thought, his airs were to compensate for his person, which was stunted and nondescript), 'that any lemming's character may be safeliest read from the tunnel he cuts" -- while a succession of unhappy transformations is described in a Norton's anthology of verse pastiche ("Now her only solace is / Constant metamorphosis / All one tale, since she was ape: / Fouls her nest and shifts her shape," which the Coleridgean marginalia glosses as "Retrospection is Misery").

Zuntig's adventures swerve and sublime, offering the reader such a wealth of potential meaning that we may wonder how to parse it. (It is certainly possible, for example, to read the novel as beginning in a structuralist world, composed of rules and systems such as Lévi-Strauss would relish, which evolves into a successively poststructuralist landscape, contingent and uncentered, its heroine a floating signifier in a field of endless play.) Unflaggingly witty and surprising, Zuntig reinvents itself with every chapter, and readers who do not actually demand that fantasy novels be reassuringly secondhand should take steps to secure a copy.

THE COLLIDESCOPE, December 19, 2021

by Andrew Hermanski

In the fantasy of La Farge’s Zuntig, the society and culture of the Swamp Apes have been fully crafted, seemingly over centuries. The customs have been set and are known by all, the positions of power are spoken of without explanation (as who are we to not already know them?), the islands dotting their territory are specifically held to their purpose, and, most importantly, the taboos live in the minds of each ape—maybe at the forefront when faced with a choice, but always subconsciously lingering, affecting even unrelated actions. The root fear, that most unbreakable taboo, is centered around death. The fear of dying is so pervasive throughout their society that it has been decided it is less terrifying to take one’s own life at the time when one knows death is closing in. If one takes power over death, not allowing it to spread its way through the apes and taking them when it desires, then perhaps the fear will be abated—if only for a moment.

In fact, the touching of the dead is a fate more taboo than dying oneself. Now, having touched this root fear, you have become it. You walk among the living, transmitting that sense of dread to every ape you come across. The fate for touching the dead is of course death itself. Drowning—pulled down to the depths of the swamp by a heavy stone. Yet, Zuntig, our main character, after being found to have touched the dead, is not ready to die. It is that last moment of fear she experiences while sinking to the depths of the swamp, maybe only seconds away from taking her final, watery breath, which saves her. Her shape shifts and so begins her metempsychotic journey.

Zuntig is about many things, all centering around these primal fears: it is about culture, expression through changing language, alienation, and evolution. When Zuntig is not yet ready to die, she miraculously takes the form of various animals, then another and another, shifting her language and thought patterns with those of the society she now lives in. La Farge’s purpose for this is not only to demonstrate the lengths one would take to preserve themselves but also how societies build rituals around this fear and how language can be used to express it. In one instance, we watch as she becomes a fish that can only think in rapid, distracted thought. The life of a small sea creature is so comparatively short and more dangerous than the life of an ape—how else can thoughts of death be cast off but a difference in language. Her view is now composed of “left-world right-world.” She experiences bombardments of sensory information and evolutionary input: “two thousand ductile homes drawn down the joining streams twine in the Flood’s thick cable / hunt them by pause and surge / pause and surge / none of these paradises mine”. These never-ending distractions act as a shield until Zuntig changes again.

Romance takes precedence in some societies: monogamy in one, pure unfettered procreation in another. In the former, the love of a specific individual may give one the comfort and happiness they need to come to terms with mortality. In the latter, the knowledge that your line has been given the possibility of exponential growth could make you believe that you have, in fact, become immortal. Other societies thrive because their methods of hunting require a plunge that involves so much skill and bravery that what else could take precedence in their mind but the hunt itself? Some find solace in moving from location to location—for what is better to distract than a life that never remains the same. And even the languages of these societies exemplify these means. Whereas the fish used a stream-of-consciousness style, some find relief in verse, some through theatrical means, some stay stoic and serious.

Nearing her final transformation, even though Zuntig now understands so much more than any creature possibly could about life and death, she still has not found acceptance in herself. She has not moved past the pure terror of death. Because, in societies not built around her psyche, comfort cannot be found no matter the lengths they have gone to remove that fear. Still, they were not pointless endeavors. She now sees the importance of culture—how one culture’s taboo may be the means of another to survive, how different mannerisms or methods of language are more than simple variation. And with this knowledge, she better understands her own society. So, in her final transformation, what else could be possible but to shift back into herself? The Leg, the fused portion of the dead child she touched which caused this whole fantastic flight, has been trying to pull her back to the swamp the entire time. She now sees why. It, being Death itself, knows that the swamp is the only place she could find solace in dying. The home there was built for her. While the fear can never be erased, it can be eased. Its incomprehensibility can be given meaning. She can be given a purpose, a meaning beyond nothingness, in death.

In the literary world today, Tom La Farge reminds us of the purpose of literature. He pleads for us to not allow complexity to fall to the wayside in favor of stoic, to-the-point sentences. Because stream-of-consciousness is not simply some pretentious way to convey the same thought; it weaves its way into our mind, showing how fluidly unrelated ideas can morph into something greater. And contemporary poetry is not dying – it is beating away in the underbelly of the world of literature, mimicking great authors but still bringing wholly original verse. How else could he have conveyed the veil that the ice-matrix laid over Zuntig’s mind? Simple prose would not do. Yet, while La Farge’s distinctive style goes nearly unheard, drowned out by thousands upon thousands of less original authors, a voice of this power cannot be hidden forever. It is my belief that a voice of this capacity will reemerge as a prevailing force. Not immediately, perhaps, but like Melville, will be rediscovered and hailed.

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