Thursday, May 12, 2011

100 Books 25 - Gene Wolfe's PANDORA BY HOLLY HOLLANDER

I am a fan of Gene Wolfe's even though sometimes I'm not sure I know what that means. I'm not sure I've gotten all there is to be gotten out of his mind-bending books, as dense with allusion as illusion, misdirection as straightforward narrative, shifty, complicated, deceptive, almost always presented from the point of view of an unreliable narrator who is often a self-serving liar (as is Severian in the four-volume Book of the New Sun) or, as is the case here, is bright but perhaps not as bright as she thinks she is... or is it we who aren't so bright?

Pandora by Holly Hollander is at first glance a murder mystery, told by the point of view of Holly Hollander, teen detective, a young woman from a privileged Chicagoland family who has benefited about as much from her advantages as one can but who is still a bit problematic as a storyteller; her narrative voice, complete with colloquial interjections and almost-erudite observations is one of Wolfe's masterpieces. She is more aware of what's going on around her than any of her elders suspect, but she is no Nancy Drew; where Nancy teases out clues methodically and constructs a simple narrative of what really happened, Holly bulldozes her way through situations, knowing she'll be forgiven because she is young and pretty and something by way of a potential heiress, and she imposes her own will on delicate situations where a more experienced and subtle detective would stand back and observe, but that is how she gets her weird and wonderful results.

If this sounds like I'm writing about a juvenile novel, well, I am to a degree, but this is Gene Wolfe so there's lots more going on of which a surface reader is only dimly aware. One character is mad and in the custodianship of his younger brother; the brother's wife Elaine is Holly's mother and a strange figure who vibrates with mythological power and, partnered with an improbably handsome subaltern in the story's depths, warps the whole story around her; a criminologist named Aladdin Blue seems almost a Merlin figure; the whole milieu is just reminiscent enough of Wolfe's Castleview, which concerned finding a new bearer for Excaliber, that I suspect my Arthurian inklings are not imaginary.

But I must confess that right now, I can't quite tease them out. Further readings of Pandora by Holly Hollander will doubtless be required, and will indeed be undertaken because, as in all good fiction, inside or outside the mystery genre, the mystery plot isn't everything and knowing whodunnit on subsequent readings won't, I am confident, spoil my enjoyment here.

Still scratching my head over this one, but in that good way.

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