I’ve been tardy in mentioning it, but a reader going by the sobriquet “Dave Tallman” has posted a very convincing explanation of Gene Wolfe’s cryptic Seven American Nights, and in doing so has answered the challenge I made nearly a year ago. Bravo, Dave Tallman! In doing so, not only has he made the story far more enjoyable for me without my needing to expend more effort than I wanted, but he has also given the lie to those who say, as one commenter did, that “There are no true clues or false clues; the mystery is the point of the exercise.” For your work, I am proud to award you the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary:
On the Wolfe wiki, there is his detailed explanation of the ending, as well as a timeline. Some of the minor points are disputable, but for the crucial questions, I can’t imagine a better explanation.
The crucial points of the explanation: there is no hallucinogen and Nadan certainly doesn’t take one, Nadan is dead by the end of the story or shortly thereafter, and the last few entries of the journal are forged by some US governmental agency trying to cover up their killing of Nadan.
The explanation does indeed give shape to the story where I could not find any before. It sounds like Mr. Tallman was led to these conclusions by looking at the Biblical Jesus parallel, which in retrospect makes great sense, but which I wouldn’t have considered, not having that background myself. The whole “play” business clearly matches up with the passion play, but oh well, my mind just didn’t work that way. I should have figured out the “Sunday we will be great again” business in connection with Easter, however, so there I’ll chide myself. I’ll chide Wolfe, however, for inserting the red herring of the supposed presence of the hallucinogen, which serves thematic purposes but, to use a timely analogy, makes the story NP-hard: you can verify a solution very quickly, but finding one is damn near impossible because of the multiplication of possibilities involved. And one key clue, that the quality of the journal’s prose decreases once the forgery machine is writing, is amusing to me because I don’t find Nadan’s prose particularly high-quality.
Still, the ultimate plot details are yet again interesting in revealing Wolfe’s seemingly strong anti-colonial attitudes once again. America looks even worse than it does on initial reading now that their evil plot is revealed, and Islam comes off as positively tolerant. At least in recent years, Wolfe has been something of a Catholic populist right-winger, and so I find it hard to believe he would write this story today. I would say the same of Fifth Head of Cerberus, but here he goes even further and seems to hold up today’s third world as a better model for humanity than Ugly America. Post-Vietnam syndrome?
There were others who claimed knowledge of the story’s plot (and therefore meaning) without giving it. Since all the explanations I found online and elsewhere (including several academic texts, which do their best to fudge the fact that their authors do not have an explanation for the story) fell far short of the satisfaction of Mr. Tallman’s, I’m inclined to be skeptical.