Some good responses on my post on Gene Wolfe below. Just to be clear, I find plenty to mull over in Wolfe’s books, particularly with regard to his political and religious attitudes. What makes him so vexing is that I find his work substantively disappointing and yet cannot dismiss him. But I maintain that there’s an attitude brought to the work that makes the books less than they could be, and indeed, what I think Wolfe wants them to be. Some quotes:
LM: All this “showing” in “V.R.T.” is made intriguingly ambiguous by the confusion about who “Marsch” really is.
Wolfe: In the end, of course, it’s important that the reader not be confused about this, although part of the fun is supposed to be figuring out what’s happened. I leave a number of clues as to who the narrator actually is. For example, both V.R.T. and the narrator are shown to be very poor shots, whereas Marsch is a very good shot, and there’s other hints like that. If you hire a shape changer as a guide, there’s a definite possibility that he’s going to change into your shape at some point. Which is what happens.
JJ: The Soldier of Arete is even more than
Soldier of the Mist a bit
hard to follow in terms of his plot. And I remember, in fact I
remember when it came out Orson Scott Card really complained that
(it was in Analog or Astounding; one of those magazines) he had a
review that said “Nobody reads Gene Wolfe with more care and
affection than I do but I can’t figure out what this book is about.”
What is wrong with this author? Does that kind of complaint
bother you or do you feel as if you wish you could leave more clues
or do you feel: Hey, read the book and look at it again and you
will find the answers.
Wolfe: I try not to leave a clue more than once. It bothers me a lot
when it is left more than once in somebody else’s book. If you told
me once that the hero is left handed, I have registered it or at
least I hope I have registered it or whatever this may be and if
you told me five times then I feel that you are writing to somebody
that is a lot dumber than I am. So I try and leave my clues once
and generally try and leave all the clues that I think the reader
is going to require, sometimes more than they require because you
don’t generally find situations in which you have exactly as much
information as you need to solve the thing. If it is solvable at
all you probably have more. If you have only a very few items then
it probably isn’t solvable with the information that you have. What
you need to do in a real life situation is to go out and get more
clues. If you know anything about actual police work very little of
it consists of reasoning from clues and the great majority or it
consists of finding more clues. Because when you have found enough
then you have got, you have very little difficulty in understanding
what they mean.
This talk of clues and confusion makes me suspect that yes, Wolfe does expect the reader to figure it out, and that the lacunae in his work are not meant to sustain indeterminacy, but to provide a framework for the reader to explore in search of answers. And since I am not the sort of person who remembers that a character is left-handed two hundred pages later, I find it frustrating, for example, that it would greatly aid my understanding of the book to realize that two characters with different names are actually one and the same by virtue of their handedness. This is just not what I read fiction for.
I did not consider this a problem in “V.R.T.,” where the crucial narrative trick is fairly obvious once you know what to look for. And, as Wolfe says, discovering this trick is necessary to understand the story. But by The Book of the New Sun, the elisions have multiplied beyond what I can manage, and I cannot convince myself that I can ignore them.
Now, I can enjoy Ulysses and draw much from it without knowing whether or not Bloom gives a condom to Alec Bannon at the impenetrable end of chapter 14. Unlike Joyce, Wolfe stakes so much of his book on these sorts of narrative obscurities that (a) in the absence of their resolution, the book does not reveal itself sufficiently, and (b) Wolfe subordinates thematic and conceptual integrity to the mere challenge of these games. Many people are content to enjoy the ride and pass over these issues, and Wolfe deserves the attention they give him, but this is not enough for Wolfe to satisfy his books’ ambitions.
[Special thanks to Spurious for articulating some of these issues better than I could. He brings up the even more perplexing subject of the correspondence or lack thereof to Christian deity and eschatology, then concludes that the book is sane. I agree, but I prefer a different phrasing. Wolfe was an industrial engineer by training and profession, and as with much science-fiction, a particular sort of engineer's attitude goes into the functional and architectural construction of his work, and these attitudes are reflected in the methodologies of Severian and Silk. Like many of his characters, Wolfe's books are machines, and it is only when looking for the animating spirit that one runs into trouble with them.]