Friday, November 15, 2013

Gene Wolfe's PEACE

On the surface, Peace seems the most quotidian Gene Wolfe novel I've yet read, but the surface is never to be trusted with this guy. Oh, no. This is very likely the most elusive, occlusive and deceptive writer ever.

And this is -- and I say this as a passionate fan of all 12 books of Wolfe's maddening Solar Cycle but especially of the Book of the New Sun -- one of his most remarkably elusive, occlusive and deceptive books. And also, and this is probably because of its quotidian elements, the most tantalizing, because grounded in ordinary reality, mostly, and thus promises a certain possible relative ease of interpretation.

Not that it delivers on same. Or at least, not very much. Ahh, Gene Wolfe.

So on the surface this is just the regretfully nostalgic meanderings of an old man who lived an idyllic and improbable (to the modern reader -- c.f. how I felt reading Philip K. Dick's In Milton Lumky Territory) early 20th century small town in the American midwest, with all the Normal Rockwellian pastoral pleasures and soda shop scenes that implies. Albeit with a slightly sinister flavor, in that there's an awful lot of death and talk of death. And of course there's the way the narrative skips around in time, which may just be a dotty old man free associating but may also be a bit of a Billy Pilgrim-unstuck-in-time thing. And you can totally just stop there and read Peace as Gene Wolfe's Slaughterhouse-Five. But...

But then you notice all these recurring themes. How every single story that our man Alden Dennis Weer (usually called Den, one of the many onomastic clues that led good old Robert "Solar Labyrinth" Borski to spin out a whole involved theory about how Peace is Wolfe's version-cum-inversion of Goethe's Faust, with Den as Mephistopholes) tells or is told has certain repetitive elements that fractally echo other parts of the story that all relate back to Den's childhood sin of pushing a little boy down some very dangerous stairs.

And then there's that ending. Not since I first read Infinite Jest have I felt so compelled to go back to the beginning of a novel and read the beginning again because only now did I finally have the clue I needed to understand what was going on there. Except Peace is not over 1000 pages long. It's not even 300. You can read that in a night.

And Bog help me, I did. Yep. For the first time ever in my life, I read a novel twice in a row, with not so much as a short story, poem or internet article in between. And when I got to the end, even after hours and hours of figurative light bulbs popping and exploding over my head, I was still somewhat tempted to start again from the beginning*. But, as you'll see shortly, I have other reading and blogging obligations in the offing, and none of them allow for re-reading a novel almost as old as I am.

There. I almost read a book three times in a row. If that's not a ringing endorsement, nay, command, to drop everything and go read Peace at your earliest opportunity, what is?

*Neil Gaiman has famously observed that he only realized that Peace is a horror story on his second reading. And while elements of horror and ghost stories were noticeable the first time around -- I was especially seized by the theme of humans slowly turning to stone while they were still alive (there's even a mention of the Cardiff Man hoax! Hooray!) and the whole creepy carnival theme that springs up in the novel's second half -- I still don't read it so much as a horror story in the sense that term is usually used. The horror is that of guilt realized, of atonement rendered as impossible as redemption. Peace is simultaneously the most ironic and most perfect of titles for this book.

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