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More on Gene Wolfe

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.

Larry McCaffery interview

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.

James B. Jordan interview

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.]


  1. I independently developed the same take on Wolfe’s obscurities, including the machine metaphor: he’s simply not managing to do the job he wants to do. His factory produces too much smoke and noise for its nanoproduct to be discernable. What seems worthwhile in the work (and it’s not negligible) is a side-effect of his main intent.

    The Joycean effect is not so much that of a fair-play mystery which must be solved as that of a seemingly bottomless store of Easter eggs.

  2. aaron singleton

    1 April 2008 at 13:52

    I disagree completely. I am glad Wolfe does not pander to the lowest common denominator, as many other writers feel the need to do. He leaves his clues once, and will not beat you over the head with his intent. Instead, he lets the reader sort through the facts. His stories are open to interpretation, and therefore hit the reader on a more personal level. Wolfe is just over some peoples’ heads. Maybe those should stick with NYPD Blue and Terry ‘the Yeard’ Goodkind. Wolfe is among the best writers alive today.

  3. I’m not sure why books need to have plots. Why must the reader be challenged to “figure it out”.

    As if there was some need for people need to pat themselves on the back, to congratulate themselves after reading the last chapter when all is explained so they may sleep through the night.

    Are we only machines that break down and croak “this does not compute” when someone writes 1+1=3?

    Wolfe doesn’t save the best for last, he just writes about the experiences of Severian, and we make of it what we will. If we want to.

    That is why Urth comes alive. Not because it is described well, but because it isn’t.

    Poetry doesn’t need a logical conclusion to be enjoyable. It can just be read, and be done.

  4. Fraser Hawkins

    16 May 2008 at 08:08

    I can’t disagree with this complaint regarding Wolfe more. I’m sorry, but it simply feels like what you’re taking issue with is the necessity of close reading, and of rereading, when ingesting Wolfe’s novels. This also becomes apparent when reading your questions considering the New Sun series in a previous post of yours, as many of the queries you put forth are not as ambiguous as you seem to suggest. In fact, they aren’t ambiguous at all. Nabokov’s “Pale Fire” makes the same kinds of demands of its audience, and like Wolfe, Nabokov has stated that he expects the reader to remember details in order to piece together the work. I do not feel that you’ve given Wolfe his due, not his novels the attention that they require. Frankly, as chance would have it, your opinions on Wolfe are the first and so far only thing I’ve touched upon at this blog, and it’s not the best first impression. I’ll check out your views on Coetzee before judging too much. Everyone makes mistakes.

  5. There are real problems with Wolfe, but they are problems connected to the man, not the writer: his strange and somewhat repellent attitude towards woman, the need to make excuses for God such as a thinking religious man is obliged to do, and the moral confusion arising from the latter. These personal issues bear upon his art as they would that of any writer. The greater the writer, the greater the relevance of such issues, because great literature is ultimately a means by which the author manifests himself through the medium of the reader. The real problems with Gene Wolfe’s work are moral problems, in particular the shortfalls of a religious, conservative worldview when it comes to apprehending reality. You could legitmately call it the fear factor, I suppose.

    Your problems with Wolfe appear to be of a different order – ultimately, you may find they collapse to a single problem, namely that – dare I say it – this author is too good at his craft for some readers. I read your earlier comments on Wolfe before coming on to these, and I fear he has left you far behind. The list of unanswered questions in your earlier post was telling.

    I agree with you on one thing: Wolfe’s style is overdone, over-heavy and serves him poorly. To ascribe the ‘highfalutinness’ of the BOtNS to intratextual considerations, as one of your respondents did in an earlier comment, is to ignore the fact that nearly all Wolfe’s prose is written in that style or some minor variant of it. In this sense, Wolfe would be well advised to heed what Nabokov, a writer to whom he is sometimes compared, said about his own style: that an old Rolls-Royce is not necessarily preferable to a Jeep for some purposes. Nabokov was all too conscious of the difficulty he had in disembarking from the Rolls and putting himself behind the wheel of the Jeep; but he had, and used, the excuse that he was writing in his third language. Wolfe is writing in his first and has, therefore, no such excuse. And it’s no good, as some do, to point to the idiosyncratic diction of many of his characters as evidence of his flexibility in characterization through dialogue; the characters may speak differently, but they all speak artificially, and that just isn’t right.

    Dickens had the same trouble, oddly enough.

  6. The self-congratulation in this thread is getting out of hand. Commenters are equating criticism of Wolfe’s dubious narrative cloakery with a resistance to close reading. In doing so, they themselves fail to give Waggish’s post more than a cursory read. The complaint with Wolfe is not that his secrets are difficult to unearth, but rather that crafting the series as a puzzlebox mortally wounds the text’s artistic unity. Book of the New Sun, while as fascinating in parts as everyone says, is made lumpy by a number of too-long episodes that seem to exist only to set puzzle apparatuses in place. They lack formal necessity in the sense that their existence in the narrative simply as themselves is unsatisfying. The duel in Book 1 with the poison leaves springs to mind: it is far too long and poorly dramatized, and we can feel the writer laboring to set this lever next to that sprocket. Typhon is another example. His episode juts out in the larger narrative, seemingly pointless except as puzzle apparatus. One could say that we keep hearing the author shout, “Please, please pay all your attention to the man behind the curtain!”

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