Manual of Constraints
Collection of tales.
Terror of Earth
In this collection of tales I took a set of Old French beast-fables and fablaux, some from Marie de France, better known for her lais, and retold them. Such fablels (the inclusive term) are often accompanied with a moral, a closing couplet, so evidently off the mark that it seemed to me a cue to search deeper for subtext. I was at that time reading Mikhail Bakhtin's book on Rabelais and the "carnivalesque," where he reads carnival as an expression of a joy springing from a connection with the earth. Beastly and bawdy stories of this sort seem as if they should fall under the rubric of the carnivalesque, since they seem so independent of the doctrinal superstructure erected in the Middle Ages, and a joy in the earth is a value I endorse. I want to be living in the world. But these stories struck me as having exactly the opposite tonality: a terror of the earth, of weather, of the wild, born perhaps from having to live much closer to nature than we do. Since terror of earth is still a mood in the back of our affect, I thought the stories worth retelling.
Here is an excerpt of a review by Paul Maliszewski in RAIN TAXI, Vol. 1, Issue 4.
Retooling fables is work tht has interested plenty of writers before La Farge. It is the nature of fables to invite retellings, if not orally then by other means. From Anne Sexton, Italo Calvino, and Donald Barthelme to Anglela Carter, Robert Coover, and Jeanette Winterson, writers have come to this material and returned bearing gifts. It is getting to the point though that even the hopeful reader worries the latest retelling will fall for the traps. La Farge does not. His fables do not update. His fables do not set to reveal the psycho-sexual underpinnings of seemingly innocent tales. His fables do not attempt to make relentless and annoying comparisons to the way we live today. A good retelling does not just tinker--a dirty word here, a little modern-day frankness there--and of the writers listed above not one took to a fable the way a teenager does a hot-rod. Anybody can soup up a story. Anybody can make an old story run rings around this year's model. Rather, a good retelling invents. A good retelling makes monsters from scratch. La Farge is an inventor of fine monsters.
What is most impressive about La Farge's collection is that he approaches each fable individually. He is clearly not a writer of single method or voice. The reader of Terror of Earth wil find some fables done in recognizable language and other that render older language forms. Some fables feature narrative prose while others resemble poetry, particularly in La Farge's use of punctuation, imagery, and wordplay. The title story is the book's most experimental. Incorporating a prayer, colloquial speech, passages from books on birds, flight, and animal behavior, the account of one Saint Slogomir, a letter from a landlord, a hilarious provision from a lease, and a play, it is a real demonstration of La Farge's inventiveness as well as a good fable to boot.…
This is a fabulous collection.
In the Washington Post Book World for September 1, 1996, Gregory Feeley wrote:
Tom La Farge, who wrote the unconventional two-volume fantasy The Crimson Bears, has retold a series of French fables and fabliaux, mostly based on the work of Marie de France, in Terror of Earth…. La Farge's retellings--sometimes antique in manner, sometimes slyly postmodern--are notable for their striking imagery: A fisherman spying upon his own cuckolding notices that the seducer's hand makes his wife's breast "leap like a flexible pearl." The title story, my own favorite, deftly plays off the old tale of the kite that fouled the jays' nest; it brings together a cacophony of birds' voices ("My most beloathed darling, I fly to you as to the corpse on which I am compelled by my ghoulish nature to feed," writes the vulture to his beloved) and can be fairly said to do for the medieval Parliament of Birds rather what Pamela Zoline once did for "Sheep."