Tom La Farge
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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.
In 2022, The Tom La Farge Award was created.
WASHINGTON POST BOOK WORLD, February 3, 2002
by Gregory Feeley
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.
THE NEW YORK REVIEW OF SCIENCE FICTION, January 2003
by Henry Wessells
From "Ticket to Bargeton: The Writings of Tom La Farge"
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.
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."
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... READ MORE