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...
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.