(I do have one last Infinite Summer post in the works, even though we’re almost into next year now, but it’s held things up long enough. When it happens, it’ll happen. Meanwhile!)
I can’t say with complete confidence that The Best of Gene Wolfe is the best of Gene Wolfe (although Clute says yes), but it is astoundingly good, and remarkably consistent. If I’m putting together a team of books that can hold their own in a short-fiction cage match before Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories ultimately delivers the death blow, I’m torn between this volume and its sibling, Endangered Species. On the one hand, “The Death of Doctor Island,” “Seven American Nights,” “Petting Zoo,” “The Tree Is My Hat” (which I’ve always had a special affinity for because it was the first Wolfe story I felt I had truly understood), and particularly “The Eyeflash Miracles”; on the other, “The Last Thrilling Wonder Story,” “When I Was Ming the Merciless,” “The HORARS of War,” and “Silhouette.” (I haven’t yet got my hands on The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories, so for all I know it’s got a shot at the roster too.)
My point is, while I might quibble over the exact contents of a short-fiction collection called The Best of Gene Wolfe, it will inevitably be among the most gripping, exciting books of stories and novellas I have read. And it is.
I’m not really interested in writing a story-by-story review, though, or a subjective defense of Wolfe’s writing. Instead, I thought I might pay some analytical attention to Wolfe’s technique. Let me draw another circle around myself, even smaller: I’m going to look at one particular kind of technique Wolfe often uses, a species of unreliable narration.
Much of Wolfe’s work is written in the first person. He has said, “It always seems to me that if you have a narrator, if the narration is not by an all-knowing, all-seeing author, . . . then the narrator is damn well going to be unreliable. Real people really are unreliable narrators all the time, even if they try to be reliable narrators.” One interesting thing about Wolfe’s versions of the unreliable narrator is the ways in which they are unreliable. He often presents an in-story explanation for their possible unreliability. One narrator may at some point eat a hallucinogenic candy without knowing it; one is unconsciously in denial about his identity; a couple excise pages from their journals (which are the text) because they expect those journals to come into police custody. (In another example, which I will address again, it’s not the narrator who is unreliable—the work is in the third person—but the central character, who often serves as a kind of interpreter of events. He may have been contacted by a deity, or he may have a brain lesion.)
In keeping with that quote, Wolfe’s narrators are often not (wholly) deliberately unreliable. They tend simply to not know as much as they suppose—or as much as you might ordinarily want your narrator to know. This ignorance of the limits of their knowledge can lead to narratorial assertions that to the reader plainly cannot be true, but to the narrator obviously must be. Alternatively, the narrators are often mystified or confused by events in the story. Sometimes they merely report the cause of their confusion then throw up their hands; sometimes, though, they try to explain what has happened. In these cases, they are frequently wrong: They may accurately note the facts that have occurred while missing the meaning of those facts, or they may strenuously attempt to divine an ultimately unconvincing interpretation of the facts. Wolfe plays some of these miscues for comedy, but some of them are crucially dramatic, and one at least is the engine for an entire series of books.
The in-story narrators are not the only avenues Wolfe uses to introduce uncertainty; even in his third-person work, the narration often tracks close to one or more characters, without the kind of distance between narrator and narrated that is necessary for an omniscient perspective. Indeed, at explanatory or interpretive moments, Wolfe often exercises the third-person narrative prerogative of diving into a character’s thoughts; the narrating voice in fact doesn’t explain at all, ceding its authority instead to that character and temporarily adopting a first-person point of view—with all the same reliability risks outlined before.
But none of this has yet touched on the subject I want to wrestle with, which is the technique (the writerly craft, that is, not the specific operations) of this unreliable narration. Brace yourselves for the simile I’m about to lay on you:
It’s as if the substance of one of these unreliably narrated works—the characters, the setting, the plot, etc.—is a magnificent cubic sculpture, baroquely burrowed through, complex with caverns and crystalline with combs. The narration is then a polished brass facing affixed to the surfaces of the cube. When you first see the sculpture, the brass is all you observe. It’s aesthetically self-consistent, pleasing, perforated here and there with curious gaps, but a finely made thing. Thanks to the spaces inside, the sculpture is only a little heavier than it looks. It makes satisfactory sense as an aesthetic object, but something about those punchouts haunts you. You keep coming back to the sculpture, turning it over in your hands, looking at it from different angles. Then one day you notice that, at this new angle, you can see through one of the perforations into the cube’s cathedral interior, and suddenly the whole sculpture makes a deeper and more awesome sense. Now that you know what angle to look from, the gaps in the surface all show chambers and structures in the heart of the cube that reveal an organization you only suspected before. You see details that were wholly concealed, and echoes you couldn’t have matched to each other; what seemed merely decorative now stands in prominent dialogue with other areas, and some region that occupied your attention now melts into a fuller pattern.
The trick here—and I use the word not to demean Wolfe’s accomplishment, but to emphasize its intentionality and createdness—is the writing of a narration that seems like a complete piece of art and yet still, perhaps almost subliminally, hints at a fuller conception that supersedes and frequently contradicts it. This isn’t quite unreliable narration, and it isn’t quite obfuscation; given the religious bent of much of Wolfe’s fiction (or, more properly, the religious interpretations that much of Wolfe’s fiction permits and sometimes encourages), it probably makes more sense to see in this tactic a palimpsest of the Book of Nature: careful observation and contemplation of the “natural” (that which is presented directly to the senses) leads to the revelation of what was hidden.
And I wish I came up with these interpretations earlier in the process of writing these posts, because it feels like there’s a lot more to say in that direction—but if I’m going to say it, it’s going to be in a different post. For now, Seacrest out. (Spooky: it’s like EROCK and Matt Roe know who I am…)