Saturday, June 15, 2019

Peace by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe is my favorite writer. Pale Fire is my favorite novel, but if any book unseats it, it is likely to be one of Wolfe’s standalone masterpieces, The Fifth Head of Cerberus or Peace. There is a group of books I read every year, and both of these are going on the list for the time being.* Wolfe writes very tricky books with unreliable narrators, so it often takes a couple of readings to begin to understand what is happening. This was my second pass through Peace, the first time was in 2009. I will not pretend to fully understand it on this reread, but I will likely spoil a couple things in this post.

I was introduced to this novel by Neil Gaiman’s blog, so I went into it knowing that at first pass it could seem like an older man, Alden Dennis Weer, writing about his life in beautiful prose that gradually revealed how unpleasant he was. With a closer reading it is clear that it’s a ghost story/haunted house narrated by the ghost. And a murder mystery, in which the number of murders is unclear (though I hope to figure that out with further readings). The narrator seems guilty of at least a couple of them, and towards the end of the novel he commits an even worse crime.

There are stories within stories all told by narrators at least as unreliable as Weer. There are fake books. There is mad science happening under the auspices of a successful orange powdered drink company (it seems like Tang, but the founder’s first name is Julius!). There are carnival workers from an old school freak show who deliberately maim or poison their children to make them fit in the troop. There’s a bookseller who is likely an ancient being. It’s the type of book that will yield more with every reading.

He buries clues to the complexity of the narratives in seeming asides like, “Have you never thought as you read that month's may lie between any pair of words?” (He used the same technique regarding the uncertainty of elapsed time between chapters or even paragraphs and lines to great effect a decade later in the Latro books.)  The first line references a tree falling, and it is two hundred pages into the novel before an offhand conversation reveals the significance of that. He sneaks in great insight into human communication, as in this bit where Alden’s aunt made a joke about cutting the rope that her suitor was rappelling from then telling him she would have stopped him if he tried, and asked if he realized this: “If I had been older I would have told her I did, and I would - after the fashion of older people- have been telling her the truth. I had sensed that cutting the rope was only a joke; I had also sensed under the joke there was a strain of earnestness, and I was not mature enough yet to subscribe fully to that convention by which such underlying, embarrassing thoughts are ignored- as we ignore the dead trees in a garden because they have been overgrown with morning glories or climbing roses at the urging of the clever gardener." This is a good insight, but as Weer is gradually revealed to be a murderer and probable sociopath, it becomes more sinister.

The prose is some of Wolfe’s best, rivaling that of the first novella in Fifth Head of Cerberus. Peace might be his most Nabokovian book, though of course he was way more likely to admit to working in genre fiction. Wolfe uses unreliable narrators as skillfully as the Russian emigre.  In an interview somewhere Wolfe said that all narrators are unreliable, and either implied or said outright that he was just more honest about it. Wolfe uses that technique in nearly all his work. It is part of what makes them such a pleasure to reread.

Wolfe’s recent passing is incredibly sad, but he left an unparalleled body of work that rewards and even requires multiple readings. I’ve read well over half of it.  I’m paralyzed between wanting to plow through the remaining books and to go back and just dig deep on a couple or three of them. This is firmly in the dig deep category.


*The others I currently read every year are Pale Fire, Moby Dick, Wild Seed by Octavia Butler and Prater Violet by Christopher Isherwood. I’m considering which Kelly Link collection to add to the list. I suspect Holy the Firm by Annie Dillard and one of the Claire Dewitt books by Sara Gran may join the list

Formerly on the read every year list (and now on the read every once in a while list) are: The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Godric by Frederick Buechner and Till We Have Faces by CS Lewis.

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