David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Gene Wolfe Redux

I have never gotten as much flak for an entry as I have for my criticism of The Book of the New Sun, and since people have been reading that troublesome entry lately, I thought I’d add that I do like Wolfe, or at least find him very intriguing. I see him as having a large wellspring of talent that, for a number of reasons, goes off track too frequently to write much that is genuinely successful, even if it is highly evocative and complex. When he avoids the pitfalls, as with “The Death of Doctor Island,” he can be well-nigh brilliant.

So among the world-building riches that his work offers, I think the problem arises in his combination (and misalignment) of narrative (epistemic) subjectivity and factual absolutism. He puts readers through knots trying to figure out what goes on in his novels and stories, but both in the work and in Wolfe’s own interviews, there is no doubt offered that all questions have answers: you just need to figure them out. If you enjoy the puzzles, great, but there is still something unsatisfying to me in knowing that any given question pretty much does have a simple yes/no answer (or, and this is a significant exception, chalked up to divinity as per Wolfe’s Catholicism), and that much of the obscurity is not serving any other purpose other than as “entertainment” for the reader. Take this excerpt from a Q&A between some devoted fans and Wolfe:

5. Do you care to enlighten us as to whether the Enlightenments are purely miraculous or are concurrent with activities of Mainframe or Pas? — They are purely miraculous.

10. What are the dimensions of the Whorl? — I don’t know.

12. Who was Blood’s father? — Patera Pike. [DRL: This was a complete surprise all round, by the way.]

15. Is the Outsider a form of Severian? — No. Severian is a form of the Outsider.

21b. Who is the narrator of the very last chapter …? — I think you mean the Afterward. It was written by Hoof, Hide, and their wives — but mostly by Hide.

Is the Outsider a spiritual God? Or another virtual being? — The Outsider is a spiritual God.

To continue on the issue of divinity in Wolfe’s work, I wanted to point Wolfe readers to Five Steps Towards Briah, an essay by Nick Gevers that is the single best thing I’ve read about Wolfe. Gevers gives a remarkably coherent and comprehensive account of Wolfe’s agenda, interests, themes, and techniques, and more significantly, how they reinforce one another. His analysis is of The Book of the Long Sun, but his points apply more or less to all the Wolfe I have read. Gevers’ key point, with which I agree:

The entire 1400 page text [of The Book of the Long Sun, with its hundreds of characters, scores of voices, and countless veering twists of plot, is an exhaustive proof by Wolfe of the need to obey a simple injunction: transcend the material world. As a very subtle but also very emphatic Roman Catholic propagandist, Wolfe is commanding us to perceive our bodies and our physical surroundings for the pale mortal envelopes that they are, and rise into the divine light. Any godless secular world, he declares, is Hell, a place where any solutions are temporary, partial, empty. The Whorl is a reflection of contemporary Earth, that fallen spiritual wasteland. The way out is not fruitless secular endeavour, but rather an ascent back towards God, an exodus into His Creation.

The ultra-short summary: Wolfe’s tales are Christian parables (or propaganda, if you will) told or retold by acolytes of one form or another with imperfect knowledge, just as the Gospels are.

Wolfe is not quite as explicit about his religious content as James Blish was in his singular novel A Case of Concience (which overtly treats the Manicheistic heresy), but ultimately there is less doubt about Christian doctrine than there is in Blish, and more emphasis on the One True Way, getting past all the false gods to reach the true one. Gevers maintains, and I agree, that beneath all the puzzles and complexities, this is the fundamental purpose and position of Wolfe’s work. Determining the worth of such a message–that anything that can be known in this world will fall short in providing purpose in life and one must look to the transcendent and undescribable–is up to the individual reader.

Oh, and also…

The Gene Wolfe challenge: in response to some of the comments made on my last entry that insisted that all narrative ambiguity in Wolfe was easily soluble by close reading (my thanks to Jonathan Rock for instead answering my questions about the ambiguities), I issue the following challenge: give a coherent and defensible account of the actual events of Wolfe’s “Seven American Nights,” an eerie postcolonial story that, as far as I can tell, collapses into obscurity and narrative indecipherability by its end. I cannot find a commonly accepted account of the plot, but here’s an excerpt of Robert Borski on the Wolfe mailing list trying to figure things out, just to let everyone know what they’re in for:

When the narrative recommences it’s with the passage I quote at the beginning of paragraph 9, wherein Nadan wants us to believe that someone has broken into his room, relocated his journal, and eaten the missing egg. Actually, however, I believe this is being written an entire day later, on the night that concludes Day 6. Nadan makes it seem as if the break-in and the events preceding it are still part of Day 5, but I believe Wolfe provides us with several clues that it isn’t when he has Nadan reprise the evening’s activities. As we expect, Nadan goes to the theater; when he arrives, however, much to his surprise, he discovers that Bobby O’Keene is already there and preparing to go on-stage. “You are free,” Nadan says. But given Nadan’s and Ardis’s previous frustrations with the police (who, remember, seem to believe there’s something more to the alleged robbery than a simple mistaking of intentions), in addition to the sorry state of the prisoners, is it likely that O’ Keene is going to be this well groomed and composed–especially since Nadan describes him as having been beaten to the ground by the crowd that’s witnessed the robbery–and ready to trod the boards?

Ardis, in turn, then asks Bobby, “Was it very bad?” To which the actor responds, “It was frightening, that’s all. I thought I’d never get out.” But if he was arrested late the night before, and released the following day, perhaps being confined, at the most, 16 hours, this hardly seems to warrant a comment about never getting out. In addition, when Bobby says, “I hear you missed me last night,” Ardis responds, “God, yes.” But if Bobby has actually been confined in jail for a day-and-a-half, Ardis may well be commenting on the poor performance of his stand-in (the fact that Bobby has been missed by her is obviously communicated by someone else).

I gave up. But you, Gene Wolfe fan, should not!


  1. I expect little from this latest effort considering how closely the Wolfemen read your earlier posts (number two) before commenting. After you compared Gene Wolfe unfavorably to James Joyce, you were accused of wanting writers who “pander to the lowest common denominator,” advised to “stick with NYPD Blue,” and diagnosed as disliking authors who were “too good at their craft.” There’s no arguing with hero-worship.

  2. > He puts readers through knots trying to figure out what goes on in his novels and stories, but both in the work and in Wolfe’s own interviews, there is no doubt offered that all questions have answers: you just need to figure them out.

    Yes, I think they are all there in the text. Wolfe tries not to cheat.

    But I think he has also said in the past that he’s consistently surprised by what readers find obvious and what they just never figure out, when he considers what they find hard easy, and easy hard.

    7 American Nights is just a story where he did it again. Someone will figure it out eventually. Even Fifth Head wasn’t obvious on release.

  3. I really need a word for the queasy feeling I get deep inside when I’m reading/watching a narrative and suddenly realize that, yes, the author probably does have an absolute answer to every question about this narrative.

  4. gwern: I had a lot less trouble with 5th Head (and consequently, I think better of it). I didn’t quite figure out the family tree, but the central trick of identity appropriation is fairly apparent.

    The multiplicity of interpretations of 7 American Nights suggests to me that no, it will never be figured out. There are too many “clues” people are finding that Wolfe did not intend; or rather, the real clues are too obscure.

  5. I just taught “Seven American Nights” in a sophomore-level class. I’m not sure if it’s as difficult as “Cues” or even “Tracking Song,” but what I centered on in the class discussion was the conversation in the (first visit to the) theater. I don’t want to be so coy as to say that it explains everything, but it should be read (the story, and that conversation) in conjunction with “Feather Tigers.”

  6. I realize I’m terribly late to comment on this…. But it should be noted that trying to come up with a definitive, defensible account of everything that occurred in Seven American Nights (which is a work of brilliance, really) is just to miss the point.

    The point of the story, it seems to me, is to present the reader with the puzzle. I enjoyed it and have my own interpretation. (I look to the opening scene on the boat, and the clear indication that Nadan has no idea how much the Americans dislike and distrust him; the later introduction of a search for treasure is too fantastic — they’re running a scam on him that he’s too naive to see.) As to whether or not my interpretation is defensible, I’d say it certainly isn’t. None can be.

    There are no true clues or false clues; the mystery is the point of the exercise. And in the case of Seven American Nights, there’s a joy in that.

  7. Dave Tallman

    21 July 2010 at 19:31

    I found extremely solid clues that the last part of the journal is forged. The description of the last day and night is false. There’s an impossible journey on foot from Nadan’s hotel to the Jefferson Memorial, for one thing. The revelation scene implies he drank alchol.

    Nadan was made away with by the American authorities to stop him talking about a plot he stumbled into involving Mr. Tallman and Omer the grain importer. The treasure story is part of the clumsy cover-up.

    For more details, check out the entry for this story in the WolfeWiki.

  8. Bravo, Mr. Tallman. I’m not certain of some details of the timeline, but I’m convinced that the main schema of the forgery is correct. The overload of the “hallucinogen,” excision from the journal, and potential forgery made for too many possibilities for me to sift through, but your general account is by far the best explanation. It also recapitulates the narrative trick of VRT (sudden, hidden switch of first person narrator) rather closely, which I didn’t expect either.

    And contra Travis, the story is *much* more interesting and satisfying seen in this schema. (And yours is the only explanation to cause this effect.)

  9. Thank you for the compliments. I found another interesting hint. Ardis is speaking of Bobbie, who was arrested part-way through the performance of “Marie Rose”:

    “Bill — someone you don’t know — tried to go on for him in the third act tonight. It was just ghastly.”

    This foreshadows Nadan’s fate, and also the experience of the reader of the story if they fail to see through Wolfe’s trick. (And incidentally it tends to refute Borski’s theory of the missing day, quoted above).

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