First of all, I gave this book the good ol' college try: I read it very carefully and took notes, getting all the characters and secret societies straight in my head, etc. Having been warned that it is considered a difficult book, I paid strict attention and did not read it in the bathtub.
Normally I'm not a science fiction guy, but I had heard this book referred to reverentially a couple of times in that film about the guy who tries to find Dow Mossman, "The Stones of Summer." Intrigued that people whose opinions I respected would be speaking so highly of a book I had never heard of, I determined to find out more about it. Then there was the internet: more lauds, such as those from the other reviewers on this page.
So I read it. Currently I'm mulling over whether I should read it again, because at this point, to my shame, you'll have to append my name to the list of those who simply didn't "get it."
It's a pretty trippy book, and that, for me, is part of the problem: I'm not an alternative realities-type guy. And this book is very much in the vein of William S. Burroughs or the author or "Valis," whose author Amazon is uncomfortable with my naming. I would recommend it for anybody who would be a fan of the Illuminati Trilogy, or "The Crying of Lot 49."
The plot is more than a little baffling, but I'll try to help you with that. The story follows an everyman-type reporter, Freddy Foley, as he slowly becomes aware that human history is being influenced by secret, powerful forces that have been around for generations. He travels all over the U.S. in an attempt to meet with people he suspects are involved in these conspiracies. As he gains more understanding, though, he himself actually begins to have superpowers of a sort, but then, towards the end of the book, we begin to suspect we shouldn't have trusted the narrator: was he even Freddy Foley to begin with? Is he crazy? Was he even a man? Has he actually even been traveling anywhere? Is this the story of a man slowly proceeding from sanity to insanity, or the reverse? Etc.
So what's my beef? First of all, a mind-bending book like this one should have done a lot better with characterization. I feel Rafferty is poor at this. Other than their names, all characters basically feel the same. Further, they all talk the same: you certainly can't tell them apart with dialogue. Moreover, all the settings of the book feel the same (mainly because Rafferty eschews much description of place). It's hard to remember where Foley is geographically at any particular point in the book because you don't really feel you're "with" him, and for a book that plops you in the middle of all sorts of nutty scenes, conveying a sense that you were "with" the main character is sort of the sine qua non.
Lastly, the whole thing is massively implausible. It would be one thing if it started out familiar and gradually blew your mind, like that movie "Vanilla Sky" with an ending that upturns everything. But this novel starts crazy. Right from the first page, you'll see why people consider this to be daringly original.
But daringly original doesn't necessarily mean good. I'm not surprised it's out of print.
As I say, though, to be fair, I ought to read it again without delay. Only by doing so can I be confident in my opinion. Preventing me from doing that, though, is my suspicion that whatever wisdom Lafferty has to impart to me upon a second reading is not worth the trouble. I'm skeptical there was much wisdom imparted on the first go-through.
Thus I only offer my initial judgment for what it's worth. Here's at least one guy who wasn't so taken with the thing.
[UPDATE:] Okay, I just finished reading this twice. Something drew me to it, perhaps not its rumored excellence so much as the challenge of sorting everything out.
This second time I read it more carefully than the first: the most careful reading I give to books: bolt upright at my computer, outlining in Word all the characters and places, double-checking everything on Wikipedia, etc.
Here's how I'd characterize the experience of reading this book: it's like you've got this storyteller buddy. You get him totally wasted on LSD and make him tell you a long story without giving him any time to prepare. Meanwhile, you transcribe his ramblings using careful grammar, spelling, and punctuation. That's what it felt like.
Yeah, it's definitely a head-trip of a book, but I'm not sure that necessarily makes it good. As Bill Hader wrote in the NYT about Lafferty's short story colleciton, "Nine Hundred Grandmothers," "You get the feeling like it's a guy just writing to amuse himself."
It's possible that my present sense of satisfaction with the book is merely satisfaction with myself for sorting the whole thing out. I can't think of much I like about the book, but I can think of a couple of things I don't:
1. I believe Lafferty (here, possibly elsewhere) is not so great with characterization. All of the characters basically talk and emote the same. Those who don't, such as Letitia Bauer and Miguel Fuentes, are given hardly any lines. You'd never be able to identify a character merely from a line of dialogue in this book. Even Freddy, the main character, has got virtually no character other than being stubborn. I know he's supposed to be an everyman, but you can still have an everyman without his being so flat. (I'm thinking of several of Jimmy Stewart's many roles.)
2. Regardless of how carefully you pay attention, much of the novel will remain opaque, as Lafferty jumps right into the middle of things without building up to them or letting you come up for air. Before the book even begins, Freddy has been touched by the weave and has therefore begun to obsess about Carmody. Also, Biddy was his girlfriend who gradually got more and more involved with the Harvesters. By the time the novel opens, she's fully involved. Meanwhile, though, Freddy's powers continue to grow until he can receive instant messages in his head and then transport himself anywhere he wants without having to travel conventionally. Further, characters seem to know each other who haven't met, and Freddy suddenly knows things that the reader knows he didn't know yet hasn't seen him learn. (E.g., Are the Harvesters literally snakes or not? Or both? And why on earth would Tankserly care about "O'Claire," for example, and how was it that Freddy abruptly knew he was a patrick, or even what that was? From conversations with Biddy? Where were those?) Things like this are gonna be seriously disorienting on first reading. The way I reckon it, you're gonna hafta read the thing once just to see what people are talking about, a second time to figure out what just happened, and a third time to actually enjoy it -- if possible.
3. There's a lot of digressions that you're patient with the first time, but the second time since you know they have nothing to do with the plot, you realize it's just the author being undisciplined. Things like (just to take one example) how Southern river cities are all "mean." That had zero to do with what came before or after, so you'd think that in such a carefully-wrought masterpiece, asides like that would be excised. But they're not, casting suspicion on how carefully this was written to begin with.
Others have claimed there is essentially a T.S. Eliot-style message buried under all the craziness (modern life is jejune; let's get back to our spiritual and mythological roots), but if so, I couldn't detect it.
My advice if you're in to this kind of thing is to make instead for G.K. Chesterton's "The Man Who Was Thursday," which is another mind-blowing book about conspiracies (also written by a Catholic) that shares much of Rafferty's sense of humor. It covers much of the same ground as "Fourth Mansions" does but is not so head-breakingly difficult to navigate.
Final judgment: uncertain this was worth the effort I put into it. "The feeling that the whole thing was a hoax."
[Update II] Well, I've read this a third time -- not sure why. On the first couple of readings I suspected that "Fourth Mansions" was essentially a densely-written gimmick, but it took three successive readings before I was able to resolve the question to my satisfaction. Three readings! And I don't even really like it! Some applause, please.
Certainly this book is the ultimate mind-eff. You might think you've had experience with an unreliable narrator (Borges, Eco, Joyce, Marquez, etc.)? Hah! Mere provincials! You haven't tasted hide nor hair of what it's like to have an unreliable narrator until you've taken a heady quaff of Lafferty's "Fourth Mansions."
At its deepest levels I would assert that the book is an extended mediation on the nature of knowledge: how it is that, at least in a book, one knows what one knows. What can be trusted? What is real? What makes you so certain of this or that? The book invites you to assume something, then merrily smacks you about when you do. (Plan on writing "WTF?" in the margins many, many times.)
To be sure, the book is very carefully written. At first it appears to be the story of a reporter on the trail of secret societies. Then you realize it's the story of a sane man's descent into madness. And then you realize you had no good grounds for assuming he was sane to begin with. Ultimately it dawns on you that there is no solid ground anywhere in the book on which to base any of those interpretations, and, further, that there is no aspect of the book whatever that cannot be called into question -- starting with the name of the protagonist!
Here's how I'd summarize the experience of reading this book, using Melville as an example:
"I'm gonna tell you the story of a man who goes to sea on a whale-boat. His name is Ishmael. He meets a captain who's lost his leg to an enormous white whale. Now he seeks revenge against this whale. The whale could symbolize many things: evil, fortuity, animal instinct, beauty, the absence of meaning in the universe, etc."
Here's where you go, "Okay, tell me more about this whale."
"You said there was a whale being hunted by this captain."
"There might not be a whale."
"Then what is the captain seeking revenge against?"
"Uh, he might not actually be a captain."
"Well, what about the sailor Ishmael?"
"That may not be his name."
"Well, at least they're on whale-boat, for Christ's sake!"
"I never said anything about whaling . . ."
And that's what it's like reading "Fourth Mansions."
On the one hand, Lafferty, I suppose, is doing his job insofar as his book gets you talking about it and constantly re-thinking it. For me, though, I found myself not so much pondering the applicability of Rafferty's insights to the world at large as whether the book were nothing more than a humbug, trying to be a bugbear.
That is why, although brilliant, "Fourth Mansions" is also a bit silly. Any insights you gain from the book won't leave the book. In other words, the book's insights are circular: the only thing reading "Fourth Mansions" is good for . . . is for reading "Fourth Mansions" some more! Unlike the wisdom of Melville, you'll find little to take home with you.
In closing, I note with no little embarrassment that, upon re-watching "Stone Reader," I see that the guys who were waxing enthusiastic about this did say they were in 11th grade at the time.