Friday, February 21, 2014

How it feels to read Gene Wolfe stories

I just realized that I've been posting about writers most of this week. So let's finish it up with a bit about Gene Wolfe.

Wolfe's stories make me feel weird. You ever read Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land? You know that one part near the beginning, where Valentine Michael Smith first makes a guy disappear, and then nobody talks about it for something like twenty pages, so I had to go back and reread that sentence where the guy just vanished like twenty times to make sure I read it right and still none of the characters were talking about it and then Gillian finally asks him what he did and so I was relieved that I wasn't crazy and I really did read that sentence right?

Well, for me, reading Gene Wolfe stories makes me feel the way I felt for those twenty pages, before Michael's powers are explained, when everything is fascinating and strange and weird and only almost makes sense and your head swims and you think you might be nuts.

I started with the two novels that make up The Wizard Knight. I liked these a whole lot, especially the first half. I read an interview with Wolfe in which he states that this book was his attempt to write a story about what Europe would have been like if Christianity hadn't come there. I never saw that angle in it, but I appreciated the way a whole lot of Scandinavian ideas cropped up here and there. The second book (called The Wizard, because with the two volumes that comprise The Wizard Knight you read The Knight first and then The Wizard) gets lost for a bit in a murder mystery set in giantland, but it still rolls along nicely before and after that. It's high adventure; fantasy, but unlike anything else.

Then I read The Book of the New Sun, whose four volumes are a seemingly endless series of events that evoke that feeling I mentioned above. Every time you think things are going in a particular direction, they turn 245 degrees and mess with you. It's great.

It's almost like the altered state of mentality that comes with certain drugs. I think I could be come addicted to that feeling, which I have gotten only from Gene Wolfe books. The Sorceror's House (read that one, and you'll feel the same thing when the vampire comes out of Bax's trunk for no reason at all and then starts making phone calls), Home Fires, There Are Doors, An Evil Guest--they all give me that same feeling.

People call him the greatest living science fiction writer. That might be true, but it's hard to pin down exactly what makes him great. I'm sure that not everybody who reads his stories feels the same way I do while they're doing it. But there is an undeniable superlativity to his work. It's not just that Wolfe uses words that you might not even guess are real words (I might have invented "superlativity," but he didn't invent fulgin to describe Severian's cloak in New Sun). It's not just that his books are engaging intellectually and viscerally. He's a tremendous prose stylist. His short stories are marvels of ideas and thrilling sentences. And when I read his shorter works is that I think I've got my mind wrapped around them...until the last sentence. Every time, the last sentence of his short stories just gives me that weird, swimmy, high feeling, like I've woken from a hundred year nap.

I can't wait to read The Land Across.

by Murray Ewing

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