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2.8 out of 5 stars
5
2.8 out of 5 stars
Evil Guest, An
Format: Mass Market Paperback|Change

on 10 January 2009
The fly-leaf of An Evil Guest quotes Michael Swanwick "Gene Wolfe is currently the best writer in the world working in the English language" (or words very close to that effect). I had a deja-vu sense reading that, as it is so close to the feeling I've had about Wolfe for years now, though mine is slightly less singular as there are a few others (Roth, Cormac McCarthy, Ian McEwan for me). Of course since Wolfe writes genre fiction this wouldn't be a widely held opinion and so he's not well known.
Reading that Wolfe had written a book with Lovecraftian influences, a book which quotes "That is not dead which can eternal lie" in the blurb, I was giddy with excitement and anticipation, since I am also an huge Lovecraft fan of many years standing. Here was a truly great writer who would transcend the parodies and pastiches of some much "Lovecraftian" fiction.
It is not unfortunately the book I hoped it would be. But I should know better since this is Gene Wolfe about whom I'm talking. So had it been that book, it would have been even more unfortunate. It seems for the last few years with "The Knight", "The Wizard", and "Pirate Freedom", that Wolfe has decided to bring his not inconsiderable talents to a quick tour of some other genres and he does two genres here.
The usual superlative Wolfe prose is here. The world created is utterly unique and very disconcerting in that it is set 100 years in the future and is a very strange amalgam of 30's Noir thriller, with overlays of contemporary technology and a seeming ad-hoc futuristic overlay, not to mention the forays into lore.
The problem I have with the book lies with the characters, and myself. Wolfe's narrators are always somewhat opaque or as he says himself, "untrustworthy" . The motivations of the characters here though are utterly impenetrable to me. In particular I have no understanding of Cassie Casey, the central character. She is a mix of naivety, childishness and inadvertent seductress to whom things happen for the most ephemeral reason, her "elevation" in some strange barely explained ceremony, yet she also possesses flashes of insight that seem beyond me and left me feeling what I'd missed. I also couldn't understand the relationships between the three main characters (though that between Cassie & Gideon Chase is reminiscent of Silk and Hyacinth in Litany of The Long Sun) as they required too great a leap of faith/trust for me.
The "Lovecraftian" aspects are, in the main just that, aspects. Of course I wasn't looking for Wolfe to start talking about the Necronomicon etc, in fact if he had I would have been very surprised and probably disappointed. Until the last section of the book one is wondering why this called Lovecraftian. I won't spoil it.
Some images though, like the ships firing into the jungle in Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" or boys running in Bradbury's "Dandelion Wine", well, they stay with you: Cassie in the hopper, looking down from above on the clouds, and what she briefly sees above them; the visitors at the window; her "rapport" with the US government spy sent, well, elsewhere...

And yet.
Yes. And yet...
I've been reading this man for 25 years. I'm left with the sense that I've missed the point again, that it's deep here and plumbing it is beyond my literary capability. When Gene Wolfe wants to tell you something, he doesn't do it obviously. A lot of the time what he wants you to see isn't shown and happens out of sight, off the page, or between the lines. He wants you to work for it. For me, that can be a draw, for many it would be a turn-off. I felt the same about "Peace" particularly. Maybe this is another Wolfe that will haunt me until I come back and re-read/re-evaluate it. I started writing this review about 50 pages before the end of the book and I'd given it 3 stars as a way of playing safe. But yes, the events of the last section change all that has gone before, and I had to rewrite the review and I'm moving it up to 4 stars.
Of course the point of a review is really whether one is recommending a book. With Wolfe as always, and this book particularly that requires caveats. If you haven't read Wolfe, this may not be the place to start. "The Book of the New Sun" or one of the short story collections would be better. John Clute in an old review of "On Blues Waters" said that might be a place to start with Wolfe but John Clute is a giant and far smarter than me as I could not have started there.
But if you have read Wolfe AND if you understand that he is complex and difficult, then regardless of what I say here, you should probably read this, (and hopefully email me so we can discuss and I can understand more). Think of this: Gene Wolfe is a far better writer than H.P. Lovecraft and very, very different. And while Neil Gaiman and Stephen King have written Lovecraft inspired fiction, it's highly likely that a better writer than Wolfe may NEVER again work in the Lovecraftian Mythos.
Looking back, just over the course of writing this review, I realise he's haunting me again. I'm confused.
Here be dragons.
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on 22 February 2009
The thing with Gene Wolfe, I think, is you can't really enjoy his novels till you've worked out what they are. I slogged all the way through his vast The Wizard Knight (Gollancz S.F.), wondering exactly that, and only afterwards realised I'd read one of the best heroic fantasies ever written, and a real re-imagining of the form. Here, "Lovecraft meets Blade Runner" is an enticing description, but one that doesn't really apply. In fact, considering the way that phrase gets the genre-glands salivating, it's a description that can only hinder enjoyment of what was never going to be either Lovecraftian, nor future noir -- those works are mostly to do with lashings of dark atmosphere, but Wolfe's prose is too sparse to be atmospheric in that way. He doesn't do the same sort of despairing existential darkness that Lovecraft did, nor the downtrodden uncertainties of Blade Runner. He just seems a bit too down-to-earth for that.

So what sort of a novel is An Evil Guest? Instead of 30s film noir, I'd say its nostalgic air has more to do with the screwball musical comedies of the era, with its glamorous actress heroine, Cassie Casey, pursued by not one but two desirable leading men: the high-powered consultant and fix-it man Gideon Chase (who may be a wizard), and the ultra-rich Bill Reis (who may be an alchemist, or an alien, or an enemy spy). Shenanigans ensue as Cassie, caught between them, tries to work out what's going on. This reader wondered too, and often found himself in the midst of conversations where the characters sit each other down with the intention of asking some telling questions, but somehow never quite manage it. There are abrupt changes of direction -- what starts out as a political/occult thriller enters gangster territory, then innocent-American-abroad; characters disappear suddenly, leaving you wondering why they were there in the first place; brief, enticing hints of an alien presence on Earth, a supernatural strain amongst humans, and an alternative science on another planet, remain just that -- hints. I know Gene Wolfe is renowned for his subtle hints, but surely a hint can be only so subtle before it becomes merely an undeveloped idea. The Lovecraftian bit, when it arrives, points to an intriguing take on the Mythos, but, again, is barely developed before we've moved on. There are lots of ideas, but they don't ever cohere into a satisfying unity, a satisfying world. I began to suspect I was reading something which would resolve in the same dreamlike way as, perhaps, Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday, or perhaps Philip K Dick's Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch, but An Evil Guest isn't that either.

I know there are many to whom Gene Wolfe can do no wrong, and to a certain extent the ambiguities of his work leave it open for people who disagree to be accused of just not getting it. I loved his longer fantasy works (The Shadow of the Torturer etc., and The Wizard Knight) but have to admit that here I don't get it, even having left it a while after finishing the book in the hope it will digest a bit. Perhaps, in this case, Wolfe's reputation worked against him, and I expected too much, but I'm left feeling a bit empty and disappointed, as though I've sat down to a faerie banquet: all too much glamour, and not enough substance. And it may be that "glamour" is the key word here -- Cassie's success as an actress is all about the glamour of her "star quality", and the off-stage Lovecraftian menace gets its power from the fear (or negative glamour) it engenders in its worshippers. But, although Wolfe says that Cassie's "elevation" to star status is just a bringing to the surface of what was within her anyway, it still all comes down to glamour in the end. Beneath all the glamour, what is there?
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on 11 September 2010
great story. these are jokes would've been a better title, but wolfe has already used it. in an evil guest everyone is playing a role (or two), and they camp it up, big time! an evil guest has just about everything we've come to expect in a wolfe novel: colonised worlds with shape-shifting natives, hidden familial relationships, causality paradoxes, bad accents and totally wacko pacing. there might be a reason for everything, but my guess is that the great cthulhu was more of a red herring god than a squid god.
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on 2 January 2009
Having read the synopsis, I was hoping for another "Gene Wolfe classic", however the book so far has been a disappointment to me. Apart from a few flashes of brilliant writing (hence the two star rating), the characters are two-dimensional, the plot is ponderous and there are pages and pages of simply boring dialogue - I've looked for the usual hidden clues and alternative meanings, but even these seem to be scarce. I must admit that I am only half-way through the book, however, unless someone can persuade me that it's worth persevering, I am going to put it aside. When comparing "An Evil Guest" with a similar type of story, such as "There are Doors", this is not in the same league.
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on 24 February 2011
Once more I've wasted my time reading Mr. Wolfe's vapid drivel. I try his novels from time to time, hoping that one will will match the quality of The Book of the New Sun. Alas no. Mr. Wolfe is a one trick pony. It is said that everyone has one good book in them. If only he had stopped at that one.
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