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Lost Heads

The Dead Man and Other Horror Stories, Gene Wolfe, Subterranean Press, pp. 400, $50.00

The Wolfe at the Door, Gene Wolfe, Tor Books, pp. 480, $29.99


“If all men had green glasses instead of eyes, they would have to think that the objects they see through them are green—and they would never be able to decide whether their eye shows them the things as they are, or whether they add to them what does not belong to the thing but only to the eye,” wrote Heinrich von Kleist to his fiancée in 1801, attempting to describe the horrible epiphany the new Kantian philosophy had inspired in him. “So it is with our intellect. We cannot determine whether what we call truth really is truth, or merely seems so to us.” Kleist saw in an instant that the world is not so rationally ordered as it appears, and reason, no matter how cunning, can never pierce the tinted glass of perception and illusion. The last decade or so of his life was devoted to writing fictions and dramas in which he attempted to reckon with this new world that was slowly spreading through the Continent—paradoxical and disturbing stories that frustrate easy analysis. Wagner read him constantly, and Rilke visited his grave to write. Kafka entertained himself and his friends with rehearsals of his “magnificent” sentences. Centuries after his notorious suicide, Heinrich Mann wrote, his admirers count him “among the most spiritually discerning of subsequent epochs.” He left no story, however, about the men who can only see through green glass.

A writer in his line of descent did do this, though, late in his career, in a story published in Asimov’s Science Fiction for its fortieth anniversary issue in 2017. I don’t recall how I came into possession of the text—it’s not easily available online, and only a few pages long in the document on my computer (which is ridden with typographical errors)—but in Gene Wolfe’s “Green Glass” the old horror, the collapse of man, striving for reality, into the glazing of his own perception, is again dramatized and made even stranger—and strangely American.

Joey is trapped in a series of smooth green passages, and as he and the woman he encounters search for an escape they hallucinate, meeting people they know and characters from pulpy television and film—glimpsed reflections, they guess, of their own psyches in the green glass of the walls. Of course they know what’s happened to them: they’ve been abducted by a flying saucer and subjected to experiments by little green men. They meet a science fiction film hero who convinces them he can help them escape—the film, he insists, was itself real—until he fades away. Joey’s situation is hopeless. He’s still not sure when they stop to rest that his companion won’t herself disappear, but as she falls asleep he tells her his own story. There’s another declension: the green glass in which they’re trapped, possibly, is a soda bottle he’d just picked up and imagined himself inside, a metaphor made literal and then virtual again. Then he looks down: “His fingers were fading even as they moved, their tips vanished already, the rest translucent, unsure, and unreal.”

Unsure and unreal describes most of Wolfe’s fiction. Impossible to interpret straightaway, it always has an additionaltwist, another hat to drop, a corner you didn’t think to look in. He’d never explain: “I never saw him say a single word about his books that wasn’t a put-on,” Kim Stanley Robinson writes. Happy endings turn into horror stories if you pay close enough attention; common tropes are subverted, exploited, all-around abused, and returned to themselves whole; maybe the whole story is a silly pun, or maybe it’s terribly serious—it’s probably both. It can be exhausting, but also strongly intoxicating—for his most loyal readers, the puzzling is the point, even if it never ends, and even if eventually every eye turns into a piece of glass and back again. If Wolfe’s books are mad, and they often suggest as much, the engine of his continued popularity decades after the publication of his great work, The Book of the New Sun, and several years after his death, may be the way in which they create the same condition in their readers.

The Book is a strange inflection point for Wolfe’s career. He was an engineer and trade journal editor who had written a few modest reputation-making books in the 1970s: Peace, a tricky and memorable ghost story, and The Fifth Head of Cerberus, a triptych of connected novellas that play with the edges of identity and self-consciousness; and enough decent short stories to make up his first collection (The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories and Other Stories—not a typo; the name itself is a sort of literary joke).

The Book was something else entirely. Between 1980 and 1982, the four volumes were hailed as a revelation for speculative fiction, admired for their depth and difficulty, their literary and mystical qualities, and their blending of Catholic theology with modernist narrative techniques and pulp fantasy tropes. Wolfe was already in his fifties, and he’d arrived with his masterpiece. A review in the New York Times said, “The completed Book of the New Sun establishes his pre-eminence, pure and simple.”

And then what? He quit his day job. Neil Gaiman called him “possibly the finest living American writer”; Ursula K. Le Guin, in a priceless gift to his publisher and obituary writers, “our Melville.” He was a “Grand Master” of science fiction writers, at least according to the trade association. Dozens of other books, hundreds of short stories. Did anyone read them? No one has ever attempted a screen adaptation. His death in 2019 was followed by a wave of admiring retrospectives, all praising the Book as the height of genre fiction, a genuine American literary masterpiece.

In 2021, Tor re-released The Book of the New Sun in the two paperback volumes in which most readers for the last quarter century must have encountered it. Reframed cover art, new prefaces, still terrible cheap bindings. The experience is the same. The book is a menace because it’s hard to make any sense of it. Let the light catch it at different times of day: Kafka comes out in early morning, Borges at noon. At night it’s pure pulp fantasy, in the old American tradition readers hardly remember. And when you get it under examination lights and, following the example of its narrator, pull back a layer of skin: it’s now Saint Augustine, Dante, Dickens, Proust, Chesterton .    these shades run into one another over a day of reading, and out from the wash: an overwhelming urge to yell, “What is going on?” The Book is a puzzle box and Pandora’s box.

The Book opens simply enough: there’s a young man forced to leave home, a great sword, a maid, or several maids, in distress, etc. It’s effective schlocky adventure stuff, the beginning of a heroic journey—but there’s something out of place. The first line: “It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future.” And then in a few pages: “Certain mystes aver that the real world has been constructed by the human mind. . . . It is my nature, my joy and my curse, to forget nothing.” Woven into an unremarkable action scene in a graveyard, while evading marching guards and encountering beautiful, mysterious grave robbers, the narrator is taking the time to muse at us about the nature of memory and personality, ponder idealist doctrines and the mechanics of political power.

This all only gets worse for a reader trying to make any sense of digressions on morality, theology, and the nature of reality, along with a plot that multiplies its mysteries, false turns, and unexplained glimpses of the fantastic.

This “novel” is four books long with a three-hundred-page postscript. The narrator, our heroic young man, is employed without apology as a skilled practitioner of gruesome tortures, and yet assumes his audience knows him as their ruler. Again and again, he talks about his impeccable powers of recall and observation—but his story is full of mysterious inconsistencies. If you peek ahead to the end you find a Tolkeinesque conceit, a book translated into English from an unknown tongue—reading carefully, a tongue which trades in linguistic impossibilities. We glimpse angels and men from the far future, eavesdrop on missionaries going mad in a twentieth-century jungle, and see a corrupted dramatization of Genesis interrupted by the monstrous aliens who, it is suggested, have guided the fate of humanity for eons. This all must mean something—right?

Late in the first volume of the Book, the narrator, Severian, is thoughtful enough to suggest his own theory of literary style. It’s the same as his own profession—it’s torture:

Many scores and sometimes many hundreds of persons come to watch an execution, and I have seen balconies torn from their walls by the weight of the watchers, killing more in their single crash than I in my career. These scores and hundreds may be likened to the readers of a written account.

But there are others besides these spectators who must be satisfied: the authority in whose name the carnifex acts; those who have given him money so that the condemned may have an easy (or a hard) death; and the carnifex himself.

The Book itself follows this plan: the “spectators” demand simply the thrill of a good plot: “no long delays; personages who are permitted to speak only briefly yet do it well; certain dramatic pauses which shall signal to you that something of import is about to occur; excitement; and a sating quantity of blood.” But there are other purposes blended into the work: the sovereign who demands the terrible act is analogous to Severian’s own purpose in putting down his life and explaining his ascent to the throne. The executioner’s private benefactors are literary tradition, racking him between the demands of easy, simple narrative and indulgent style, both of which he must satisfy. And the torturer himself, the author, must through all of these still preserve his own, if nearly imperceptible, personal flair, a glimpse of his free artistry. But don’t let this flair distract you—at the end of the day, someone has still lost his head.

Mallarmé described the interior monologue style supposedly pioneered by Edouard Dujardin as “the moment seized by the throat.” Worse things happen to throats in Wolfe’s books all the time, of course, but there is a telling correspondence between the baffling agonies of reading Wolfe and the difficult work of the modernists of the last century. Harry Levin wrote of Ulysses that “the act of communication, the bond of sympathy which identifies the reader with the book, comes almost too close for comfort.” If you try to unravel a puzzle devised as deviously as the Book of the New Sun, you might lose sight of the dangers inherent in investing so deeply in a maze of textual tricks and subjective scene-setting.

If you’re still interested in telling heads from tails in the Book of the New Sun, you’ll inevitably resort to some secondary literature, which ranges from helpful glossaries and plot summaries to a lot of speculation that looks, respectfully, a little nuts. A critic writing for the journal Logos, in between an extended reading of one of Severian’s visions as an allegory of the Mass and a hard-to-credit claim that certain words in a fight scene are, by reference to their corresponding runes, an acrostic for Cynewulf, the medieval author of the Christ poems, writes that the arc of the character “Agia” is dictated by the sequence of meanings given for agitare in Lewis & Short. Puzzles and puns of this sort delighted Wolfe, so it’s hard to say there’s nothing there. Maybe he intended all of it. Maybe the magical amulet Severian finds is a symbol of the Eucharist—or maybe it’s the ritual cannibalism in which he partakes of the memories of the dead that represents the memorial of the Sacrament. Is the androgynous Autarch from whom Severian seizes power through this same gruesome ritual a figure of the Church? Or is it rather, as the critic John Clute claims, the narrator’s own mother, a disgraced nun named after Saint Catherine? Do the opening chapters parallel, in reverse order, the structure of the Aeneid? Or should we be looking to the sermons of Saint Augustine instead? The bigger question is whether, at the end of the onomastic games and elaborate Catholic typology, any of this means anything at all.

Here’s a thesis on Gene Wolfe’s work: he is a storyteller, a tale-teller of the old sort. He all but admits this in his introduction to the collection Endangered Species, when he places us in an uncomfortable position again: “Most important to me, you will be my willing partner in the making of all these stories—for no two readers have ever heard exact the same story, and the real story is a thing that grows between the teller and the listener.” What is growing between us and him? Here’s what I think: Gene Wolfe wants to drive us all a little mad—or at the very least he’s a little mad, and we’re all coming with him.

As Leon Edel wrote of Dujardin’s We’ll to the Woods No More, “When we ask ourselves how a tale so hackneyed can be so vivid, we discover our interest is held by the way in which the story is told.” Unlike a traditional storyteller, whose “presence and his authority, his wisdom, his omniscience, above all, his temperament” the reader must accept on faith, in subjective fiction

the author has left the room even before we arrive. He has placed the only seat available directly before the window and that is where we must sit. Somewhere else, beyond, below, behind, he arranges the scenery to give us an illusion that what is happening outside is happening to us. We seem to be in one of our own dreams: we become observer and actor at the same time. If we stop to remind ourselves, we may become aware that it is all an illusion artfully created for us. The degree of our participation depends on the degree of our empathy as well as our interest.

There are no neutral observers to storytelling like this.

Last summer, a small press released The Dead Man and Other Horror Stories, with a print run limited to a thousand copies (it’s sold out, but cheap on Kindle, if you’re interested), with eleven stories that are anthologized for the first time. And last fall, Tor put out The Wolfe at the Door, fiction and poems and “ephemera” billed in the publisher’s copy as never-before-seen material. Never-before-seen, that is, unless you have yourself been driven mad enough by Wolfe to hunt them down, as I once did—all two hundred thirty or so pieces of short fiction he published over seven decades in chapbooks and genre fiction magazines and convention handouts.

A lot of the stories in The Wolfe at the Door could have been left in old issues of Worlds of If and Weird Tales, though they’ll give devotees enough enjoyment. Two pieces of juvenilia from the 1950s are included, though the editors do a disservice by not marking them as such—they’re little just-so schlock plays. The poems are also just curiosities. But Wolfe’s off-cuts get stronger by the 1970s: “Remembrance to Come” is an early indication of later preoccupations, explicitly with Proust and the workings of memory (or is it, as is so often confused in Wolfe, hallucination?) but also the uncertain relation of past and future and the doubling of identity.

The story’s relative simplicity helps show how Wolfe’s tricks can work in more mature works. The protagonist, a literature professor at a vaguely sketched college campus in a future dystopia, is visited by a black-cloaked phantom standing in the back of his lecture room. He recalls a line from Swann’s Way: “When a man is asleep, he has in a circle round him the chain of the hours, the sequence of the years, the order of the heavenly host.” The black cloak was his own graduation robe; he was both the haunted—as an aging professor, being chased by something he’d forgotten—and the haunter, observing his future on his graduation day and vowing, as the story ends, “He would not teach. He would wake up.”

Wolfe does not use any typical tricks of science fiction to show how the professor sees his double. The preoccupations of modernist literature are literalized, but not explained away. If Wolfe’s work is genre fiction, packed with robots and aliens and vampires and demons, it engages with these trappings in an almost indifferent way. Where a weaker storyteller would show fantastic facts placing men in extreme situations, the suggestion in Wolfe is always otherwise: our human situation is itself extreme, and the truer unreality isn’t a spaceship or a genetic experiment, but the instability of our own experience. The final twist in Wolfe is never just a monster lurking around the corner—the only thing around the corner is another self, that final illusion we meet when our dreams become nightmares. If his best work leaves us with less light and only darkness on the face of the deep, it is only because all our supposed certainties only seem so to us.

Gene Wolfe left one last novel, Interlibrary Loan, published the year following his death. It’s mysterious and hard to decipher, like everything else he wrote. It’s a sequel to A Borrowed Man, a detective story self-consciously steeped in potboiler pulp and structured around a metaliterary conceit that’s not worth explaining to you here, and the final scene, a dramatic single page, tells a story of its own with a simple action. Audrey has come back to Mr. Smithe, from the dead after a fashion, and does not recognize her lover. He pleads with her and she sighs, and moves to grab at the mysterious box that has troubled the narrator throughout his story. He lunges to stop her, and snatches the box away. Wolfe’s last line: “I triumphed, and reality reeled.”

“At least half of the art of storytelling consists in keeping one’s tale free of explanation,” claims Walter Benjamin. “A story is different: it does not use itself up. . . . It resembles the seeds that retain their germinative power even after being shut up in the airtight chambers of the pyramids for millennia.” The power of a story is in telling and retelling, in the capacious lack of a fixed meaning that lets readers give their own significance to the facts they’ve been presented. If Wolfe triumphs over his readers and demands they become as mad as these mysterious men and monsters, it is only because he’s a true storyteller—he wants to make us lose our heads.

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Christopher McCaffery works at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and writes the Washington Review of Books, an email newsletter.