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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: gene wolfe (page 1 of 2)

Rod Humble and the Marriage: Not Labels, Not Pointers, but Live Fragments

A few years ago, Rod Humble wrote a short, abstract game called The Marriage. The action consists of trying to get two squares not to shrink or fade out while circles drift around them. You control the blue circle. The pink circle is not under your direct control.

But the game interests me less than the rhetoric of Humble’s explanation for the game. I really am not picking on Humble here, who seems like a reasonable person. It’s just worth observing how utterly foreign his analogical mindset is from that of the best writers.

He wrote the game in an attempt to get away from concrete, visual representation of ideas and concepts, yet what resulted was something conceptually very concrete.

Here is his interpretation that guided the game’s construction:

The game is my expression of how a marriage feels. The blue and pink squares represent the masculine and feminine of a marriage. They have differing rules which must be balanced to keep the marriage going.

The circles represent outside elements entering the marriage. This can be anything. Work, family, ideas, each marriage is unique and the players response should be individual.

The size of each square represents the amount of space that person is taking up within the marriage. So for example we often say that one person’s ego is dominating a marriage or perhaps a large personality. In the game this would be one square being so large that the other one simply is trapped within the space of it unable to get to circles and more importantly unable to “kiss” edge to edge.

The transparency of the squares represents how engaged that person is in the marriage. When one person fades out of the marriage and becomes emotionally distant then the marriage is over.

Your controls reveal the agency of the game. You are only capable of making the squares move towards each other at the same time or removing a circle by sacrificing the size of the pink square. You are playing the agency of Love trying to make the system of the marriage work. Not only does this mean that the mechanics of attraction and sacrifice communicate love but also the physical way the game is controlled, I wanted a gentle almost stroking like feel to playing the game, that’s why clicking or rapid motion was not appropriate.

The backdrop’s colour has meaning. It starts off blue representing the world of the masculine. The club scene perhaps or adventures and exuberant experimentation. It then over time transitions to purple a mix of blue and pink representing the beginnings of a more permanent relationship. Then to pink as we enter fully the world of the feminine such as a home made together or emotionally the relationship becoming more kind. Next onto green colour of life and renewal, this represents a giving back to the world by the marriage, perhaps creatively, perhaps by having children or caring for others. Finally it becomes black symbolizing that at the end of the marriage when life is done there is nothing but each other. The only break in the blackness is at the bottom, where the strip of light representing memories of the marriage has been built up.

The game mechanics are designed such that the game is fragile. Its easy to break. This is deliberate as marriages are fragile and they feel fragile, I wanted to get this across.

The final part of the game comes if the marriage ends while the backdrop is black. At every point the two squares have kissed during the game a pair of tiny squares is created and drift off the screen, as the last one leaves the game ends.

Now, without getting into heavy analysis, some points should already be clear.

  1. The incredible literalness of the mapping from game elements to concepts.
  2. The stripped-down simplicity of the conceptual vocabulary in order to allow for such a literal mapping.
  3. The received nature of the concepts, taking stereotypical notions like the blue masculine and the pink feminine in order to obtain an easily-grasped mapping.

(In 1910 pink was considered a very masculine color, so the symbols are culturally relative, but some relatively common symbol set within a community must always exist, and is probably always trite by its very nature.)

None of these are inherently bad tendencies. In many ways, they are necessary ones for making playable games. But the risks and problems of applying such an ambiguous conceptual vocabulary onto a literal representation should be apparent as well. It encourages a fallback onto the most common of common knowledge in order to make such a mapping comprehensible. Subjective metonymy within a simple framework (the “stroking feel” being linked to love, the various meanings of all the colors) is the key dynamic at work.

But it’s not even the particular symbols used (pink feminine, blue masculine), so much as the need for such a simple framework itself. Let’s say we need two things in a game to represent the male and the female. Is there anything satisfactory that isn’t either reductive or opaque?

  • The Mars and Venus gender symbols
  • Sword and pillow
  • Square and circle
  • Drum and cymbal
  • Hot dog and donut

The use of pink and blue didn’t produce a more sophisticated set of symbols, just a less blatant set. The metonymy was at the same concrete level as any of the duos above. And it applies to metonyms like the transparency equating to engagement.

It is the mindset of a Gene Wolfe, then, where every element, no matter how obscure, has a single definite meaning, rather than the mindset of a James Joyce, where the embrace of ambiguity and contradiction on lexical, semantic, and structural levels yields greater riches than a single postulated meaning.

My contention is that this sort of Platonic, atomistic thinking goes hat in hand with the sort of thinking used in constructing and utilizing scientific models of the world, as opposed to the messier business of human language and human relationships where a far greater degree of ambiguity is both acceptable and accommodated. This ambiguity inevitably leads to misunderstanding, sometimes destructively (say, in a marriage). The question is whether sufficient clarity can be achieved without adopting such a reductive, game-like model. Otherwise, you’ve adopted a view of the world (or of love, or of a marriage) that could easily fail you.

Ironically, this is the sort of analysis often performed in literary criticism. Thomas Karshan’s recent article on Nabokov in the TLS quoted this scabrous response from Nabokov in response to W. W. Rowe’s finding sexual innuendos in Pale Fire such as “wick” in “wickedly folding moth”:

The various words that Mr. Rowe mistakes for the “symbols” of academic jargon, supposedly planted by an idiotically sly novelist to keep schoolmen busy, are not labels, not pointers, and certainly not the garbage cans of a Viennese tenement, but live fragments of specific description, rudiments of metaphor, and echoes of creative emotion. The fatal flaw in Mr. Rowe’s treatment of recurrent words, such as “garden” or “water”, is his regarding them as abstractions, and not realizing that the sound of a bath being filled, say, in the world of Laughter in the Dark, is as different from the limes rustling in the rain of Speak, Memory as the Garden of Delights in Ada is from the lawns in Lolita.

Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov appeals to a hermeneutic holism that defeats such easy metonymic models. It’s not that the richer worlds of which he speaks cannot be quantified as such, just that the vocabulary required is so dauntingly extensive as to require lived human experience. No such sophisticated symbolic model for this experience yet exists, and I don’t see one coming any time soon. A model cannot capture the live fragments of which Nabokov speaks. When rendering such fragments in a game, the abandonment of complexity disguises itself by using a sufficiently obscure model, so that the model does not seem banal.

Nabokov hated Freud and psychoanalysis (hence the veiled reference to Vienna), and indeed, this sort of atomistic symbolism makes me think of something Ernest Gellner said about psychoanalysis in The Cunning of Unreason: the psychoanalytic model had to walk the line between scientific precision and mythical ambiguity so as not to seem banal or spurious.

A purely hermeneutic psychoanalysis would not sound like science, confer no power, and few men would turn to it in distress; a purely physicalist or biological psychoanalysis would have been too much like a science, and no fun. But the plausible-sounding fusion of both is very different, and most attractive.

Ernest Gellner, The Cunning of Unreason

And weaker writers rely on exactly this careful navigation between the Scylla of simplistic allegory and the Charybdis of pointless ambiguity, so that they may seem profound when they really are not. I am thinking her of Alberto Moravia’s endless rationalism, where there is a neatly placed psychological explanation for every character trait and every movement proceeds from the careful arrangement of forces logically arrayed. (See The Conformist.) Moravia does it so well that the ultimate weakness of construction is a shame. (Removing the explanations, as was done in the wonderful movie of L’Ennui, can produce amazing results.)

L'Ennui: "I could tell you what I'm thinking but it would make the movie less interesting."

I know: The Marriage is just a game. Humble did not mean to make any sweeping statement about marriage in general, and the game is clearly so personal to him that I feel a little bad using it to exemplify a certain type of thinking. But speaking just personally, if my partner wrote this game and explained the game to me in that way, I would be frightened out of my wits.

Update: Rod Humble has responded kindly in the comments, and I appreciate his openness to discussion and critique. I also wanted to point out Derek Badman’s essay on Lewis Trondheim’s Bleu, since comics rely on the sort of abstracted narrative visual representation that games do as well. Bleu “tells” of the interaction of a green blob with two stars and two dots. To the best of my knowledge, there is no “key” to the abstraction. Yet the similarity is striking!

a page from Lewis Trondheim's Bleu

Gene Wolfe Challenge Won!

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.

My Secret Science Fiction Past

Perhaps not so secret, but I was raised on the stuff and so I’ve read far more of it than I might have had I been born into a different environment. This list of Gollancz “classics” is going around, and modulo its omissions and overinclusions due to rights issues and the like, it’s got a fair amount of good stuff on it. And some less good stuff. (It overlaps a great deal with David Pringle’s list, and gives similar overweighting to British writers…which is probably not a bad thing.) But if I’m a fan of any genre (that’s not literary modernism, that is), it would have to be sf. So I figure I should engage in an exercise like this from time to time.

I bold it if I’ve read it. I italicize it if I liked it and still like it today. I could go more deeply into degrees of liking vs. respecting vs. enjoying, but I’ll leave it at this.

I – Dune – Frank Herbert
II – The Left Hand of Darkness – Ursula K. Le Guin
III – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
IV – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
V – A Canticle for Leibowitz – Walter M. Miller, Jr.

VI – Childhood’s End – Arthur C. Clarke
VII – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
VIII – Ringworld – Larry Niven
IX – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
X – The Day of the Triffids – John Wyndham

1 – The Forever War – Joe Haldeman
2 – I Am Legend – Richard Matheson
3 – Cities in Flight – James Blish
4 – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? – Philip K. Dick
5 – The Stars My Destination – Alfred Bester
6 – Babel-17 – Samuel R. Delany
7 – Lord of Light – Roger Zelazny
8 – The Fifth Head of Cerberus – Gene Wolfe
9 – Gateway – Frederik Pohl
10 – The Rediscovery of Man – Cordwainer Smith

11 – Last and First Men – Olaf Stapledon
12 – Earth Abides – George R. Stewart
13 – Martian Time-Slip – Philip K. Dick

14 – The Demolished Man – Alfred Bester
15 – Stand on Zanzibar – John Brunner
16 – The Dispossessed – Ursula K. Le Guin
17 – The Drowned World – J. G. Ballard
18 – The Sirens of Titan – Kurt Vonnegut

19 – Emphyrio – Jack Vance
20 – A Scanner Darkly – Philip K. Dick
21 – Star Maker – Olaf Stapledon

22 – Behold the Man – Michael Moorcock
23 – The Book of Skulls – Robert Silverberg
24 – The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds – H. G. Wells
25 – Flowers for Algernon – Daniel Keyes
26 – Ubik – Philip K. Dick
27 – Timescape – Gregory Benford
28 – More Than Human – Theodore Sturgeon
29 – Man Plus – Frederik Pohl
30 – A Case of Conscience – James Blish

31 – The Centauri Device – M. John Harrison
32 – Dr. Bloodmoney – Philip K. Dick

33 – Non-Stop – Brian Aldiss
34 – The Fountains of Paradise – Arthur C. Clarke
35 – Pavane – Keith Roberts
36 – Now Wait for Last Year – Philip K. Dick

37 – Nova – Samuel R. Delany
38 – The First Men in the Moon – H. G. Wells
39 – The City and the Stars – Arthur C. Clarke
40 – Blood Music – Greg Bear

41 – Jem – Frederik Pohl
42 – Bring the Jubilee – Ward Moore
43 – VALIS – Philip K. Dick
44 – The Lathe of Heaven – Ursula K. Le Guin
45 – The Complete Roderick – John Sladek
46 – Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said – Philip K. Dick
47 – The Invisible Man – H. G. Wells
48 – Grass – Sheri S. Tepper
49 – A Fall of Moondust – Arthur C. Clarke
50 – Eon – Greg Bear

51 – The Shrinking Man – Richard Matheson
52 – The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch – Philip K. Dick
53 – The Dancers at the End of Time – Michael Moorcock
54 – The Space Merchants – Frederik Pohl and Cyril M. Kornbluth
55 – Time Out of Joint – Philip K. Dick
56 – Downward to the Earth – Robert Silverberg
57 – The Simulacra – Philip K. Dick
58 – The Penultimate Truth – Philip K. Dick
59 – Dying Inside – Robert Silverberg
60 – Ringworld – Larry Niven

61 – The Child Garden – Geoff Ryman
62 – Mission of Gravity – Hal Clement
63 – A Maze of Death – Philip K. Dick
64 – Tau Zero – Poul Anderson
65 – Rendezvous with Rama – Arthur C. Clarke
66 – Life During Wartime – Lucius Shepard
67 – Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Kate Wilhelm
68 – Roadside Picnic – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
69 – Dark Benediction – Walter M. Miller, Jr.
70 – Mockingbird – Walter Tevis

71 – Dune – Frank Herbert
72 – The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress – Robert A. Heinlein
73 – The Man in the High Castle – Philip K. Dick
74 – Inverted World – Christopher Priest
75 – Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle
76 – H.G. Wells – The Island of Dr. Moreau

77 – Arthur C. Clarke – Childhood’s End
78 – H.G. Wells – The Time Machine
79 – Samuel R. Delany – Dhalgren (July 2010)
80 – Brian Aldiss – Helliconia (August 2010)

81 – H.G. Wells – Food of the Gods (Sept. 2010)
82 – Jack Finney – The Body Snatchers (Oct. 2010)
83 – Joanna Russ – The Female Man (Nov. 2010)
84 – M.J. Engh – Arslan (Dec. 2010)

I’m only torn over Hal Clement, who is brilliant at what he does, but what he does well is not “fiction” per se. Ballard and Gene Wolfe (yes, really!) deserve more entries, probably in lieu of the excess of Dick.

A few more genre authors who really should be on the list: Thomas Disch, Richard McKenna, R.A. Lafferty, Russell Hoban (for Riddley Walker, of course), Stanislaw Lem, Mark Geston, Michael Swanwick, James Tiptree, Carol Emshwiller, Iain Banks, John Crowley, Octavia Butler, Robert Charles Wilson (Spin was the best genre-SF novel I’d read in ages). There are other big names missing, but, offhand, no one comes to mind that I would want to read again.

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!

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.]

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