Monday, May 9, 2016

How to Read Gene Wolfe


Gene Wolfe turned 85 over the weekend. In honor of this, I'm posting here an essay I wrote for a special GW issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction back in 2007, to accompany Gene's story "Memorare." It is meant to be a sort of beginners' guide to the great writer's work.

The very best way to discover Wolfe is to pick up a copy of The Shadow of the Torturer, which is the first volume of The Book of the New Sun., which is (with the possible exception of a select few of his short fictions) his most beguiling and easiest-to-fall-in-love-with work, and read the first chapter. But if you don't have a copy of that on hand and you're sadly unfamiliar with his fiction, the following may be useful to you.

The Wolf in the Labyrinth

All fiction is lies, of course.  But the best fictions tell useful lies, ones that help us make sense of an often confusing world.  The congressman and frontier yarn-spinner Davy Crockett claimed to know of a buffalo so large that it took three men to see all of it.  Gene Wolfe is something like that wonderful buffalo.  His virtues as a writer are so great and so many that a recitation of them tends to make him blend into the sky.

Here’s the short version: Wolfe is so extremely smart that he stands out even in a field that routinely attracts savants, autodidacts, brilliant loners, and wild talents; he writes both novels and short fiction with complete mastery; he’s endlessly inventive and endlessly surprising; he fills his works with what programmers call “Easter eggs,” puzzles and secret treats for those who care to fossick them out; he dares to take chances; his writing covers an astonishing range of subjects and styles; he creates people you care about; his research is meticulous and his facts reliable; he has the slyest sense of humor imaginable; and his prose is as good as prose gets.  Plus, he’s prolific.  To be prolific at any level is to be beloved of God.  But to be prolific and write like Gene Wolfe does is to be one of the Elect.

You see?  I’ve left you with no picture at all of the man or of his work.  Worse, I’m treading on the edge of the great fallacy that Wolfe’s admirers so often fall into: That of making him sound so elevated that there’s no hope of a mere mortal enjoying his work.  It’s an easy mistake to make, though.  Cresheim Creek, near where I live, flows into the Wissahickon creating a deep spot that’s called the Devil’s Pool because, so the folklore goes, it has no bottom but goes all the way down to the devil.  A Gene Wolfe story can be like that – even the seemingly simplest can turn out to be potentially bottomless.

Take “A Solar Labyrinth,” first published in this magazine in 1983, which at first glance seems barely more than a whimsy.  A Mr. Smith builds a labyrinth of isolated objects – lamp posts, statues, a retired yawl canted on its side with masts jutting overhead – scattered about a lawn, so that the walls defining its passages are not physical but shadows.  It’s a puzzle that can only be solved, moreover, by realizing that the shadows shift with the sun, opening and closing lines of escape.  The vignette explores the differing reactions of adults and children to the maze and ends with Mr. Smith and one solitary child chasing each other down its lanes in the waning afternoon.

Lovely, I thought on first reading it.  But later, looking back over my metaphorical shoulder, I felt the shadows lengthen and darken.  The imagined shrieks of the child sounded less like laughter and more like terror.  I could not help but think of Lewis Carroll, who was from one perspective the best friend a child could ever have, and from another a very frightening man indeed.  I could not help but think that the child’s predicament was a lot like life itself.

From this point, the analysis can go on and on.  Google the story and you’ll find that many think it’s a Christian allegory, while others prefer to interpret it as a key to the reading of Wolfe’s masterwork, The Book of the New Sun.  For those who care to do so, the exploration can be followed as deep as human ingenuity will take it.  Gene Wolfe is notorious for never explaining his stories, so there’s no telling at what point interpretation ends and invention begins.  A lot of people have gone to the devil, trying to track this particular wolf through the labyrinth of story and back to its lair.

There’s nothing wrong with the critical impulse, of course.  But it’s a very big mistake to think that simply because a story has deeper levels, its surface meaning can be ignored with impunity.

I’m thinking here of the response to Wolfe’s recent novel The Wizard Knight (for reasons of length, lightly revised and published as The Knight and The Wizard) in which a teenaged boy finds himself transported to a beleaguered fantasy world and into the body of a physically powerful adult, and in convincingly short order makes himself into the perfect knight.  The world creation is a brilliant conflation of Norse mythology and Christian medieval theology, with just a touch of Relativity thrown in for seasoning.  Many readers have gone haring up and down the levels of invented reality, gleefully identifying sources and hidden implications, while completely ignoring the central concern of the novel.  Which is: What qualities make somebody a good knight?  This is an interesting question even before you’ve given it serious thought.  But by the time Wolfe is done examining and expanding upon it, it’s revealed as one that has serious applications for how you and I should lead our lives.  The Wizard Knight is one of Wolfe’s wisest books, and one I know I’ll return to often.

Some time ago, in a short essay titled, with disarming modesty, “What I Know About Writing (in no particular order),” Wolfe wrote that "Almost any interesting work of art comes close to saying the opposite of what it really says.”  Which is almost a Zen koan in how straightforwardly it can be stated and yet how complex it is in application.  But it helps to remember that Wolfe is a practicing Catholic, and that to a Catholic all human beings are engaged in an ongoing struggle for salvation.  There is good in the worst of us and evil in the best, and nobody knows which side will land uppermost when the final coin is tossed.  Which can make Wolfe’s characters unnerving in the way that real people are unnerving, and unpredictable in the way that all good literature confounds our expectations.  There are no heroes who can be trusted unequivocally, no villains beyond redemption, and nine times out of ten, the difference between a tragedy and a comedy is crucial but slight and occurs in the final pages.

For those who are still feeling intimidated (and, looking back, I see that I haven’t done a very good job of allaying your fears), all of the above can be boiled down to three simple rules for enjoying his work:

1.  Look for hidden implications. 

2.  Remember Poe’s purloined letter, and pay serious attention to the obvious.

3.  Never forget that people are human.

“Memorare,” in this issue, is a good example of everything I’ve said so far.  The surface story, sufficient in itself, is an extremely good science fiction adventure.  Note the careful engineering of the suits and cenotaphs.  Note the craftsmanship.  Nearing the end I thought for sure there was no way Wolfe could wrap it all up satisfactorily in the little space left.  But of course he did.

So read the story first for the excitement of the ride.  Then, if that’s your bent, you can look deeper.  I personally think (but you should be aware that I have a long history of creating clever theories that turn out to be wrong, so take this one with a grain of salt) that on a symbolic level Kit and Redd and even Kim, who pops up near the end, are all aspects of the same woman, so that the entire history of March’s marriage is folded through the story.  Fiction can do that, you know.  There’s nothing that says it has to limit itself to a literal reading of what’s on the page.  But you don’t have to accept my version of what’s going on.  Wolfe always leaves room for multiple interpretations in his work.  Feel free to roll your own.

Or don’t, if that sort of thing gives you the pip.  But you should definitely reflect on the moral significance of the story.  I don’t mean that it has a “moral,” a tidy little platitude that you can reduce it to and maybe embroider on your handkerchief.  Wolfe is too good a writer for that.  But almost all serious fiction is about how we human beings live and, if only by implication, how we ought to live.  When a story is titled “Memorare” (I suggest you look up the prayer to see what Wolfe left out) and is played out pretty much literally in the shadow of the grave, you know that it’s not about trivial matters.

A minute ago, I reduced this essay to three rules for appreciating Wolfe.  But if I had to boil it all down yet further, into a single guideline, it would be:  Most of all, have fun.  Disgruntled writers confronted by a bad review are fond of quoting Georg Christoph Lichtenberg’s aphorism that “A book is like a mirror; if an ass peers into it, you can’t expect an apostle to peer out.”  But the reverse is true as well.  If you’re a good reader, as I presume you are, sometimes the image that peers murkily from a badly-written story is unworthy of you.  It as good as calls you an ass.  Which insult, thrown in your face when you expect it least, is where the anger comes from when you find yourself flinging a book or magazine at the wall.  But you don’t have to fear that here.  You’re in good hands with Gene Wolfe.

He tells the very best lies.

Essay copyright 2007 by Michael Swanwick.

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