'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)

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Alive and Kicking

Just for the record, this blog is still alive and kicking and I've tons more to post about the mighty Wolfe in due time. Lately most of my blogging energies have been expended at my R. A. Lafferty blog: The Ants of God Are Queer Fish, as I'm trying to write a paper on him for a chapter in a book that may someday see the light of day. At some point, I'm going to outline the Wolfe-Lafferty connection as they were mutually endorsing of one another and were fellow outside-the-box s.f. Roman Catholic literary geniuses. (I say 'were' not because there is breaking news on Wolfe, but because Lafferty died in 2002.) Interestingly, Lafferty and Wolfe are two of the biggest influences on the urban/gods/gothi-comic/mythpunk sort of fantasy of Neil Gaiman (by his own confession—and if you read enough of the works of all three, it’s easy to see).

Some months ago I finally got onto to some more recent Wolfe stuff and read Pirate Freedom and An Evil Guest. Reviews will be forthcoming. There’s definitely gold in both, but on a first read I don’t love Pirate Freedom as much as other Wolfe stuff and I feel mixed about An Evil Guest (though the latter has some really great stuff on a number of levels). I’ve also read some recent short stories—‘Lief in the Wind’ and ‘The Giant’. (I found the latter much better than the former and will comment on them in due course also.) Also, I recently read Wolfe’s essay ‘Scribbling Giant’ about R. A. Lafferty (found as an afterword in Lafferty’s novel East of Laughter).

The Wolfe still howls in my soul if I cannot at present release the lupine from my lips.


Ed said...

I look forward to your in-depth reviews, but I feel kind of the opposite, re: Pirate Freedom and An Evil Guest. After a very promising start, An Evil Guest just seemed to deteriorate into an unfocused mess, narratively. Maybe I just didn't "get" it. On the other hand, I think Pirate Freedom is kind of brilliant, and there are still aspects of that story that I don't quite get either. For example, who killed Valentin and why? Also, I'm convinced there's more than one time traveler in Pirate Freedom. I think the guy Chris is writing his confession to reads it and follows him back in time. In the narrative, he might be either Captain Burt or Lesage or one of the other monks. And then there's the question of the "ghost" on the ship, who is probably an older version of Chris on his second or third trip back through time. Besides these puzzles, from a characterization standpoint, I find Chris and his malleable ethics and his rationalizations to be fascinating. I think Pirate Freedom holds it own in Wolfe's oeuvre.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yes, Ed, I've noticed most (perhaps all) online comments to be in line with yours. I might be a minority of one. Pirate Freedom probably is the tighter narrative and I too loved Chris's ethical and theological ruminations and some of the action. But half way through I just wasn't compelled so much to read on - but I did and of course the ending is stellar. I think I like a bit more overt fantasy in my Gene Wolfe and the only fantastic element is the time travel itself (which is indeed wonderful, especially in terms of the 'present' Chris talking about misinformation on the internet etc.!). But I just felt it was begging for a monster or two, a theophany, a miracle, a shape-shifter or wizard or something! Heh heh.

An Evil Guest obviously fulfills this desire in spades hence my more keen interest. Both are sophisticated, if perhaps uneven.

Thanks so much for your comments, Ed! Really love to hear from folks what they're thinking on Wolfe.

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed An Evil Guest, but it was tough to get into at first, having come right off finishing The Book and Urth of the New Sun. Once I got accustomed to the pacing and "tricks" it was wonderful. I think it is going to need a reread very soon though, because there is a lot that I realized in retrospect that will make more sense after an actual revisiting of the passages in question.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yes, I definitely plan to re-read it and am fairly expectant for how that will enrich it. Glad to hear you really enjoyed it. I've been disappointed at how many readers are dubious or downright dismissive of AEG. (Thanks for commenting!)

Did anybody notice the following gobsmacking line on page 62? 'Ebony rose, waving.'


Anonymous said...

I think a lot of people go into reading things like An Evil Guest either a) thinking it will be like the Sun books, or b) having not read any Gene Wolfe and deciding to give him a try. I can understand why these two types of readers would be initially thrown off, but as always, Wolfe rewards the patient, and if you stick with it and trust him, the book is wonderful.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Couldn't agree more.

James said...

An Evil Guest is appealing on the same level as the short story "The Tree is My Hat" which is in the same universe (and the same island). Both are kind of obscure and unresolvable. I watch for that world in subsequent short stories (such as Christmas Inn) to get more clarification on what is going on.

Pirate Freedom makes you think that it would be fun to be a pirate under certain circumstances. What more can you ask from a story like that? There is an alternate universe in which stories about fantastic tales of seafaring are as popular as tales of boy wizards are here. In that universe, Gene Wolfe is a literary god and all his books are made into movies. (Wasn't the 'ghost' Chris's first girlfriend?)

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yeah, I noticed the 'Tree is My Hat' connection and the time on that island toward the end of AEG is one of my favourite parts. I'm amazed at Wolfe's ability to revisit a world he's already created, sometimes with totally different characters and plot. He revisits Blue (from the Short Sun series) in the short story 'The Night Chough' and it feels exactly like the place as described in the novels, even though the only shared character is a bird. Similarly, in Return to the Whorl (final book of Short Sun series), they breifly revisit the city of Nessus from the Book of the New Sun and it feels exactly the same as in the original series. Gene Wolfe's built worlds stay put!

Yeah, I think I spoke out of turn about not digging Pirate Feedom due to the lack of fantastic elements - that's really a minor complaint. (I actually loved Peace, which has vague fantasy elements - and found Devil In a Forest at least satisfactory as a non-fantastic medieval adventure.)

It's more that the action and drama itself felt slightly flat - a little *too* like brisk journal entries or letters. There were definitely thrilling moments and aspects. I think I liked it more than my offhanded comment above conveyed. We'll see how I feel when I get a chance to analyse it a bit for reveiwing it. It's definitely got some of the most important moments I've come across in Wolfe for putting together the puzzle of his total body of work in terms of certain themes.

Jonathan Strange said...

An Evil Guest is also a sort of homage to Lovecraft. The Storm King is Cthulhu, and there is also an appearance of the town Kingsport. If you check out the WolfeWiki, you will notice that there are a ton of obscure references to other fictional works / universes in An Evil Guest. Unless you are well-read enough to pick up on the references, the book might end up looking like a mess. (For example, having never read Doctorow, the washing machine line threw me for a loop.)


Also, I am really happy to have found your two blogs. Gene Wolfe is, along with Thomas Pynchon, my favorite writer. Lafferty is fantastic as well, although I have had the misfortune of only finding one of his books so far. Anyways, thanks for the discussion!

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Jonathan, thanks for stopping by, commenting, and for the encouraging words. I still haven't read Pynchon, but I place Cormac McCarthy up with giants like Wolfe and Lafferty. So few practitioners of prose can really hang in this top spot for me. I like lots of other good stuff that doesn't quite attain to these literary heights, but these guys just make the rest pale.

I totally caught the Lovecraft/Cthulhu references right off as I've been reading a fair bit of ol' H. P. over the last few years (the sunken city of R'lyeh is mentioned directly in AEG after all). One of the things I'll say in my review though is that I was disappointed that it only seemed an almost humorous reference or 'shout out' to Lovecraft rather than any real engagement with that work and worldview.

I found Wolfe's reference to Lovecraft in his early novel Peace much more effective and interesting. And the very Wolfean take on the Cthulhu Mythos in Wolfe's short story 'Lord of the Land' (totally outshining every other story in the anthology *Cthulhu 2000*) is one of the finest things I've read. So I know he can do it. Nevertheless, I loved the shark god stuff and many other elements in AEG.

Jonathan Strange said...

There are actually more similarities between Wolfe and Pynchon than one might think at first, considering how infrequently one will find them shelved in the same section of bookstores. One of the main characters in Gravity's Rainbow, for example, shares several interesting features with Severian, and the more I think on it, the more intriguing it gets. Both writers are masters of dense, allusive novels that throw around clever misdirection like it is going out of style. They are also, interestingly enough, both American writers who served in the military, and both have engineering backgrounds. I see Pynchon and Wolfe as the main pillars of literary speculative fiction, although Pynchon's role in the development of science fiction is more subtle than Wolfe's.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

I understand that Nabokov (whom I also still have not read) resonates with Wolfe in similar ways.

I didn't know Pynchon was related to s.f. (subtly or otherwise) - that's interesting.

I guess I've not noticed any direct parallels with McCarthy and Wolfe (although they do exist between Lafferty and McCarthy). In fact, they are quite different I suppose.

Although one theme they share is a direct portrayal of violence, almost coldly recorded and seemingly uncommented upon. Yet both problematise that violence subversively through the the body of the narrative itself. Indeed, they wax eloquent without preaching. Well, heck, I guess I did just discover quite a huge resonance. Glad this discussion provoked that observation! It must be studied in the future!

At any rate, it's just the sheer non-stop high quality of the rich prose style of both that puts them into the same category for me.

Jonathan Strange said...

I haven't read any McCarthy, but I will look into him once I make it through my massive list of to-read books! The cold, detached treatment of violence in The Shadow of the Torturer is one of the things that interested me most when first reading The Book of the New Sun. The fact that the Guild goes about its grisly duties without emotion was very striking, and got me hooked on Severian as a character.

Pynchon incorporates the fantastic in his books very subtly, which is one reason he and Wolfe appeal to me in the same way. There are a lot of tricks, and alert reading is a must.

William Gibson (one of the major developers of the cyberpunk genre) has credited Pynchon as a major influence for all of his writing, specifically Gravity's Rainbow (which was, interestingly, nominated for the Nebula in 1971).

Pynchon's first novel even touches on artificial intelligence and the question of what it means to be human when he has the main character "talk" to crash test dummies.

Anyways, I don't want to hijack the original post anymore, but I am always willing to try and win over a latent Pynchon-fan!

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Ha, ha, consider me very interested. He's been hovering near my reading list for some time anyway, so this is another good nudge.

Ed said...

Interesting discussion. To continue the thread-jacking, as much as I love Wolfe, Gravity's Rainbow is my all-time favorite novel. A lot of people can't get through it, but, for those who do, I think it is immensely rewarding. Mr. Strange should consider moving Cormac McCarthy up on his immense to-read list. Suttree and Blood Meridian are two of the finest novels I've ever read.

Daniel Otto Jack Petersen said...

Yeah, I agree about Blood Meridian. I have a friend who swears by Suttree. Still haven't picked it up. But it's in my plans as well. (His The Road is also one of my favourite books I've read - too bad it's so Oprah-popular that it now sounds lame to say so.)