Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Book Review: Peace, by Gene Wolfe

"To myself, I am an artist, shaping the past instead of the future. I write, yes. My hand moves across the paper carrying my pen, and there are words and I try to tell myself they have all come from me. It may be that all mankind, living and dead, has a common unconscious, Mr. Weer. Many great philosophers have thought that. It may also be that more than man takes part in that unconscious. The world shapes itself, I find, very fast, to what I write."
--Peace, by Gene Wolfe.

First: for those who don't want to discuss a well-written, cerebral novel concerning memory and growing old, there's a discussion of a well-written, high concept comic book in the post below. Something for everyone, that's my motto. That, and "one more pizza pop."

If you're an avid enough reader, the odds are that, somewhere in your collection of authors, you've got One of Those. An author whose work you've heard praised up and down. Who's respected by people whose opinion you respect. And yet, every time you sit down to read one of his books, you're left scratching your head, because you don't get it. Is the problem with you, with the author, or with the world in general?

For me, Gene Wolfe is One of Those. I have attempted to read several of his books. Two I didn't even finish: The Knight, which is sort of the story about a knight in (transported to?) a fantasy realm, and The Shadow of the Torturer, which I got 3/4 of the way through when I realized that I had been reading this book off and on for weeks, and I had no idea who half the characters were. The one I had finished was Pirate Freedom, and I wasn't too impressed. Plotwise, it was the story of a boy who had travelled through time from modern times to pirate days for no particular reason (it's several months, in fact, before he notices he's gone back), and then travels back to modern times, becomes a priest, and writes down his life story before trying to get back to the pirate days. Compared to the others, it was actually a fairly stock fantasy plot, and though well-told, it was a little disappointing. It was like sitting down to watch a Luis Buñuel movie, and finding out that it was Downey's Sherlock Holmes, instead. It's good, but it wasn't what you thought you were starting.

Peace is not straightforward. This is an understatement. It is, variously, the story of an old man of eighty, gone senile in his home alone, or the story of less old man of sixty or seventy, gone senile in a doctor's office, or the story of a child fallen asleep in his aunt's house. All right, let me try again. Peace is the story of Alden Weer, as he muses back (or, through a more extreme reading, forward) on his life. The novel is a series of loosely-connected vignettes, stringing together various parts of his life. The retelling is vaguely chronological: a childhood accident that takes the life of a friend, a Christmas with his mother and grandfather, growing up with his aunt (which includes a deep character study of, first and foremost, her, but also of her four suitors), a buried treasure plot with a maybe love interest, Lois Arbuthnot, and an encounter with a book forger and his daughter. And in between these scenes, we get the stories of the people around him: the factory that sells orange juice concentrate, the druggist working as apprentice to a man who deliberately created circus freaks and is slowly turning to bark himself, and the diary of a servant girl--plus countless short stories of folklore. And all of this is recounted by a man living in a house in which the rooms have been made up to resemble the places he has lived in throughout his life.

My problem with most of Wolfe's writing is that they're not fantasy in the sense that I'm used to, with magical kingdoms and elves and whatnot. Rather, they're fantasy in the sense that reading them is like moving through a waking dream. Most of that feeling comes from the sense that his books are composed of ellipses, or lacunae. The text has these weird gaps in it--a story that's been building up for pages and pages suddenly breaks off to talk about something else, and the only reference you have to its conclusion is a offhand comment fifty or so pages later--or sometimes, fifty or so pages back. In Peace, for example, most of the folklore-based stories don't have endings at all, just places where the narrative stops, because the speaker's been interrupted, or a page has been torn out, or whatever. This fragmentary mode can have a sinister aspect. Often, it turns out that the one of the characters died in an accident, or was killed, and there is a hint that our narrator may be the one who killed them. Obviously, a novel where it's completely ambiguous as to whether the main character is a serial murderer is not going to be to everyone's taste.

It's not always a break, either; on occasion, you see a drift, as Weer's memory seems to shift. At the beginning of the section with Ms. Arbuthnot, he confesses that he has entirely forgotten her name. In his recollection, they discuss the St. Louis Library system, King Louis the Fourteenth, and the book seller Louis Gold, and the next time they talk, she names herself Lois, and his forgetting her name is never mentioned again.

These breaks and slips appear throughout Wolfe's writing, but in Peace, I think they're the main event. On the book's jacket, someone has commented that "The novel reveals a miraculous dimension as the narrative unfolds. For Weer's imagination has the power to obliterate time and reshape reality, transcending even death itself." This blurb entirely misses Wolfe's point, which is that we all do that, all the time: that's what memory is. And though it happens throughout our entire lives, we're used to seeing it (narratively, at least) in the very old and the very young--try to unite the fragments in Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. I think that's why I preferred Wolfe's work here--when the character he describes is very young and/or very old, a fragmented, broken up story seems more natural, and less frustrating.

Bottom line: I really enjoyed this book, and although it's definitely not to everyone's taste, it's convinced me to go back and try his other books again. Except Pirate Freedom. I'm done with that one.

Later Days.

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