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David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: gene wolfe (page 2 of 2)

Gene Wolfe: The Book of the New Sun

I’ve been meaning to write on this series/book for years, but because I’m less than enthusiastic about it, I haven’t quite had the impetus. Thinking back on it now, there are striking bits and pieces that have stayed with me, but the work as a whole has not. But because Gene Wolfe is praised to the skies by many “intellectual” sci-fi fans while being ignored by everyone else, I think he represents a position that is worth exploring. I.e., why is Wolfe still occupying a marginal place in literature in spite of praise from the likes of John Clute and Michael Swanwick, while Philip K. Dick, Neal Stephenson, and William Gibson have made it into the mainstream canon?

I think there are discernible reasons for this. Wolfe may not be any worse than Stephenson or Gibson, but his particular weaknesses are much more problematic for non-sf readers than theirs. This is mostly for the sake of people who have already read the book, since I’ll be referring to lots of things not apparent until the very end of the book, if then. For those who haven’t read it, I suggest reading “The Death of Doctor Island,” a brilliant story that bests anything else I’ve read by Wolfe. The Fifth Head of Cerberus is also rather good (read all three novellas, not just the first) and deserves inclusion with other highlights of post-colonial literature.

On to the massive, ambitious, creative, and flawed The Book of the New Sun: first, there’s the style. Wolfe tends to employ a somewhat high-falutin’ style using words that appear to be neologisms but are anything but, drawn directly or indirectly from archaic words and usages, often Latin-derived. Some people I know find the resulting style insufferably pompous and awkward; I don’t, but nor do I find it to be one of Wolfe’s particular strengths. It does, however, serve its purpose, which is to evoke strangeness while preserving a depth of meaning, and I give Wolfe credit for this. Creating effective neologisms is very, very hard. (cf. “whuffie.”) What it doesn’t do is make the writing beautiful, which is one big minus in being accepted by the mainstream. Dick’s style is clunky but doesn’t call attention to itself; Wolfe’s is clunky, and it can’t be ignored.

The next issue is the plot. Wolfe is very fond of elision and narrative unreliability. Central plot points are skipped over and only referred to in retrospect. Others are presented in a highly misdirecting manner. And others are simply never cleared up. Because Wolfe’s ideas manifest themselves primarily through plot machinations, this is more of a problem than it would be in, for instance, a Faulkner novel. In so far as the entire series revolves around an obliquely laid out science-fiction scenario having to do with installing a white hole into the sun, it’s necessary to derive the plot sequence properly in order to make sense of the layers of (mostly Christian) symbolism and allegory that Wolfe has quite definitely laid into the series. And often just to figure out what has actually happened. A flurry of significant answers are delivered at the very end of the series, but these following questions, as far as I could tell, do not have apparent answers:

  1. Why does the Claw only work sometimes?
  2. Why does Hethor want to kill Severian?
  3. Is Little Severian just coincidentally a little boy with the same name, or is he the next Severian, or Severian himself?
  4. Does Typhon have any significance outside of the section in which he appears?
  5. Was Severian raised in the prisoner/starship cave?
  6. Who is Severian’s sister?
  7. Isn’t it, like, really dangerous to have the autarch pass from one body to the next, relying on the alzabo-esque transition to keep the line going, when the autarch tends to behave in wildly unsafe ways?
  8. What other characters are “projections” of the machines of the hierodules? Dorcas?
  9. Is Severian the conciliator?

People argue that Wolfe can be enjoyed without answering these puzzles, but unlike, say, Thomas Pynchon, Wolfe puts so much effort into the hints and partial answers that it very much appears as though things will come together. And they partly do. Moreover, their not coming together would not serve any evident thematic purpose. When Gravity’s Rainbow falls apart, it ties into themes and motifs that have been present from the very first page. Wolfe’s story of rebirth and redemption is anything but entropic and chaotic.

But where the book most seriously fails in its ambitions is on a more fundamental level, which is that in the stability of the text itself. We know that Severian is a liar quite early on. We also know that what he is writing is destined for public consumption by people in his world, and that Wolfe claims to be acting as a translator of Severian’s manuscript which has traveled long and far, without knowing anything about that audience. These two facts cause the book to be underdetermined with regard to Severian’s motives and to the purpose of the text itself. Because we do not know what intent may be behind Severian’s lies, we can’t derive from the whole what the meaning of any particular piece is, because we do not have the whole context. If Severian were known to be telling the truth, we could inductively grasp the meaning of his history in the world. But because both are uncertain, the book loses sense structurally. This is not a matter of obscurity; rather, it is an intentional choice that indicates a serious failure on the part of Wolfe to push his book past the realm of entertainment. Without our being able to grasp the deeper sense of Severian’s words other than as a maybe-true story, he reduces the book to decontextualized apocrypha, a gnostic gospel without an accompanying authoritative text.

For all their faults, the other writers mentioned above make their metaphysics and their internal structures quite clear. Even the underrated Christopher Priest, who has made an art of unreliable narrators, is sure to place them within a determinate (or determinately indeterminate) context. But Wolfe uses these devices without appearing to have a larger sense of what they might mean; like the lesser Oulipo novels, they’re just a game. And it is this myopia that I think is his greatest debt to the flaws of science-fiction, and the reason why his crossover remains unlikely.

Christopher Priest: The Affirmation

I started rereading this book while in the middle of Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s far more difficult War and War, without consciously realizing the similarities between the two. Both concern rather addled men and manuscripts to which they are too close. Because I haven’t quite figured out what to say about the Krasznahorkai book just yet (other than that you should read it), I thought I would write on Priest’s, and maybe it would help me focus on the other. (There is irony in their relation.)

Priest is about to gain some notoriety since his later work The Prestige is the subject of Christopher Nolan’s next film. But even in his own right, Priest has done some major, underrated work around the science-fiction genre, from the surreal Inverted World (the famous first line: “I had reached the age of 650 miles”) to the proto-VR A Dream of Wessex. His later work makes heavy use of unreliable narrators, though unlike Gene Wolfe, the unreliability generally becomes explicit and is structural rather than narrative: the lies and revelations of such form the underlying architecture of the book. Nowhere moreso than in The Affirmation. It is among the most relentlessly self-referential books I have ever read, and it puts the self-conscious metafictions of Barth and Coover to shame.

The setup is simple: spurred by his girlfriend’s suicide attempt, Peter Sinclair runs away from her and London, holing up in a country house to write–or rewrite–the story of his life. He quickly announces, however, that he is making changes to the facts, altering names and moving the setting to an imaginary city called Jethra, intended to substitute for London. And his Jethra counterpart has just won a nationwide lottery for which the prize is immortality, though at the price of total retrograde amnesia.

It becomes apparent quickly, though, that the book itself is nothing more and nothing less than the manuscript Sinclair describes himself as writing, and that Sinclair’s actual state is as unstable as the narrative of the book/manuscript. This results in a series of disorienting figure-ground reversals, where the figure is the supposed narrative and characters and the ground is the text and physical manuscript itself…or vice versa. Priest piles on complications until one has no choice but to read parallel asynchronous narratives into the single text of the novel. It is useful to imagine the book as two funhouse mirrors facing one another.

With such a book whose goal, like that of Dick’s best work, is a psychological confusion in the reader, it is difficult to read into the text itself because it is so focused on a particular effect. But it’s a marvelous achievement in story, even if the book, like Sinclair, ultimately folds in on itself and collapses into a black hole.

What I didn’t think about when I first read The Affirmation ten years ago was how amnesia and immortality analogize one another in it, and I was shocked to realize on rereading how I had buried that theme, albeit in very different form, in the novel I’m currently writing. Never underestimate the resources of the unconscious.

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