'How could the Outsider have chosen such a bungler? ...When had he ever offered a single sacrifice, however small, to the Outsider? Never! Not one in his entire life. Yet the Outsider had extended infinite credit to him... Certainly he would never be able to repay the Outsider for the knowledge and the honor, no matter how hard or how long he tried.' (Gene Wolfe, Nightside The Long Sun)

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Reading Wolfe is Dream-Like? (Another thousand words spent musing on the master!)

Reading Gene Wolfe is like having very vivid dreams. This simile comes to mind not least because I have been reading In Green's Jungles and Return to the Whorl where a sort of out-of-body (yet somehow pseudo-physical) 'dream traveling' is a major feature of the action. (But it's not remotely cheesy in the way that crude description makes it sound! Read in context, it's jaw-dropping, mind-bending stuff!)
Reading Wolfe is like having these vivid dreams because whilst 'in' them they seem so solid and real and they seem to essentially cohere according to their own logic (though at moments there is a quiet, bewildered voice somewhere within you asking whether this all isn't a bit strange and suspicious). But when not 'in' the dream you struggle to recall the details and why it seemed so real and convincing.

Again I'll point out that people have mentioned that Wolfe's writing is 'elusive' and yet that his 'world-building' skills are powerfully effective: that to read him is an immersive experience, so well rendered are his cultures and ecologies and economies and so forth. And all this without much, if any, technical jargon or explanation – just full tactile and psychological immersion in a world that's already and always been there, described by one of its 'everyday' inhabitants in his own everyday language.

I suppose Wolfe is reminiscent of Tolkien's Middle Earth in this but with some major differences: one is that he relates this dense secondary world almost wholly through elusive, allusive, indirect, inconsistent, enigmatic, non-linear narration that often pauses for deep philosophical speculation (in that world's terms!). I so often am reading along, seduced by this strange and mysterious, almost 'meta-fiction' narrative, having very little idea what's happening. Then I go away from the book and find that it is totally real and believable and it is indeed a genuine, 'traditional' story with a plot and so forth that I've been reading. (Well, to some degree.) But wait! This is the opposite of the dream quality I was describing where away from the dream you find it hard to recall its verisimilitude. What can I say? Wolfe's writing has both qualities. I could describe just how in each sense, but it would make my brain hurt more than I'm willing to hurt it just now. Patrick O'Leary has made some helpful comments on all this in his essay 'If Ever a Wiz There Was: The Ineffable Art of Gene Wolfe' in his book Other Voices, Other Doors. I plan to fully interact with that at some point on this blog.

The fact that Wolfe can build his worlds to such a profound level through such indirect narration is surely some form of literary alchemy! I mean, he almost seems like he writes nearly no direct description at all, but just constantly hints and alludes and presumes and assumes. (And this of course is partly what makes the world so palpable – that the narrator basically considers the reader one of 'his own', in need of no extra explanations.) Unlike Tolkien's lengthy in-depth description of landscapes and customs and so forth, Wolfe somehow comes across as expecting the reader to more or less already see or know all of this in common with the narrator in such a way that the reader eventually does see and know all this as effectively as if he'd been informed in detail. Does it sound weird? Unbelievable? It is! Believe me! Wolfe is a sorcerer, a wizard, a magus! I regularly walk away from his writing bewildered and bewitched. He is indeed one of those writers that after you've been reading him for a while, so much other stuff you might try to read just looks so childish and bland in comparison.

The other way Wolfe is generally different than Tolkien is that most of his world-building is in authentically science fictional terms (barring, of course, the Soldier series and the Wizard-Knight series). That is, in all twelve books of the Solar Cycle Wolfe is creating not 'alternate realms' of 'sword and sorcery' (oh yes, it sometimes looks and feels like this to a large degree so that he is often labeled 'science fantasy'), but genuine far-future, technologically advanced (so vastly advanced that it is in long forgotten decay), space-faring, interplanetary, alien ecospheres and economies. The Solar Cycle is indeed a subversive or alternative or 'punk' form of classic Heroic Fantasy, but it is in irreducibly science fictional terms. Of course, Wolfe also writes these books in a way that richly and readily includes the 'fantastic': the paranormal, the preternatural, the supernatural, the 'transcendant', the spiritual, the 'trans-dimensional' (though curiously, nothing authentically 'magical' that I can see). In this sense it is also fantasy literature but more in the vein of Lovecraft or Gaiman or Tim Powers or 'magic realism' or what have you. This kind of fantasy is neither Tolkien's Middle Earth on the one hand nor Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast on the other (though it includes a 'feel' from both). So when I call Wolfe's writing 'science fantasy' what I mean is something like 'science fiction fantasy', which I know is uncomfortable (not to say oxymoronic!) to some out there. But Wolfe's fiction is nothing if not uncomfortable, uncategorisable, and disturbing – but all, in my opinion, in ways that are ultimately enlightening and humanising.

To say reading Wolfe is dream-like then, is profoundly misleading in some ways because though there is so much that continually defies comprehension, there is also so much precision and solidity of setting and character. Perhaps it is better to say that reading Wolfe is both dream-like and 'wake-like': sometimes alternately, sometimes simultaneously, and usually both disturbingly and pleasurably, mixed.

Note: I am speaking in these ruminations mostly to those who have already read several of Wolfe's works, like me. If you have not done, for some temperaments (like mine) this attempt at describing a Wolfean reading experience may sound enticing. Rightly so, in my opinion. However, I'm not sure you should really go into the experience expecting all these sensations and reverberations I've clumsily outlined. Inevitably, what you hear me to be saying in trying to make sense of my own encounter with these writings will create in you, the 'inexperienced' lupine neophyte, some expectations of things you're just not going to find in Wolfe. Remember, for one thing, that I haven't described qualities that some might label 'irritating' or 'off-puting'. And though I think Wolfe is every bit as 'great' as I've described him, and moreso, I think he achieves and maintains his greatness in a highly unusual and, therefore, sometimes somewhat alienating way. It sounds strange, I know. And it is. For some of us, though, that's all part of the seduction. Just thought I should add this cautionary qualification.


Aaron said...

Hi. I've been a follower of your blog for a while now because, like you, I really enjoy the work of Gene Wolfe. I have just started a forum dedicated to the discussion of Wolfe's fiction. The address is: http://usefulphrases.yuku.com
I am a semi-regular poster at the urth.net mailing list, but many people, myself included, think its format is too restrictive and cumbersome and that it is off-putting to new readers of Wolfe. Anyway, I hope to see you there and keep up the great work here.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Thanks for commenting, Aaron! So sorry for the unspeakably belatedly reply. I've signed up to the yuku mb and am excited to participate. Thanks for getting me in on that.

Thanks too for your encouraging comments about what I'm doing here and for following along. Hope you enjoy my latest post. Keep up your own great work with fostering Wolfe discussion online also. All the best,


American Wind said...

I agree to the extent that you are referring to his 'solar cycle' But in Wolfe's other works he all to often uses the 'journal' or 'letters' method - like the 'soldier' books & 'the sorcerer's house', which are jarring to me & never quite reach that dream quality you are referring to. Reading Jack Vance is dreamlike.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Thanks for commenting, A.W.! Yes, I still need to read the books you've mentioned. The Wizard-Knight books are ostensibly something like 'letters' to the narrator's brother. They achieve the quality I'm describing here I think.

But I now almost regret ever using a phrase like 'dreamlike' as it's potentially so misleading. Some of George MacDonald and R. A. Lafferty might be described accurately as dreamlike.

But what I was getting at with Wolfe was something a bit different - more like the relation between dreaming and waking and how they make each other seem 'real'. It's not that Wolfe's writing is 'visionary' (though it can be in moments) or 'free-flowing' or something but that he very subtly and slowly messes with perception and awareness. He builds his worlds in this indirect way that just blows my mind and defies description.

I'll have to take another stab at it sometime.

I still haven't read Jack Vance, either. Do you recommend? Cheers!