It’s understandable why a veteran Wolfe reader would be both constantly vigilant and forgiving when reading one of his new books. Many of the short stories, Peace, The Fifth Head of Cerberus, and (probably to a lesser extent than the commentaries would suggest) The Book of the New Sun have subtle and significant details that the reader must be very careful to notice. Much of his fiction contains subtle details even when they are not in fact significant. I am thinking here of An Evil Guest and Pirate Freedom, his two most recent novels.
I made a note to myself when reading the latter book that I had a “curious feeling, which I’ve felt before, that I want to excuse its evident badness on part of some as-of-yet unperceived subtlety.” I’ve been steadily working my way through Patrick O’Brian—”working” is not the word for something so pleasurable—and Wolfe’s depiction feels wretchedly ersatz in comparison. But here’s the thing: I also had a strong feeling that this evident badness was purposeful. That perhaps our Fr. Christopher was simply psychotic. That he symbolically transforms episodes of his life in the contemporary mafia of his father through the ludicrous time-travel scenario. There are several scenes where he mentions doing research on piracy, purportedly to compare it to what he remembers. Perhaps this research is the cloth out of which the tale is woven. Perhaps there are onomastic clues (his last name, etc.) and others that would enable the reader to piece together the underlying account of which the pirate tale is the symbolic transformation.
Wolfe, to be fair, has earned this type of interpretive suspicion (or evaluative charity). The narrator’s somewhat repellent comments on the clerical abuse scandals brought “The Ziggurat” to mind for me, which seems another example of a defensive fantasy. The entire time travel motif, and the fact that the narrator is a designer baby, or cloned, or something similar cannot simply be discounted as my notion does above, however sterile and unproductive (tacked-on, even) I found it while reading. The notion that, in a way similar to Primer, there are copies of the narrator manipulating past events in a cyclical process cannot be wholly discounted. (There’s also a shortened “Abraham” in Pirate Freedom.)
His command of youth idiom is not what it could be. And I absolutely detest the smarmy explanations of off-stage events. Anything that involves the narrator deducing things which are unlikely to be apparent to the reader based on the information so far relayed is uniformly guaranteed to be lazy writing, and I find it difficult to accept the all-too-convenient excuse of the narrator’s own haste in composition for this. (To be fair, The Long Sun books were far worse offenders in this regard, probably because of the more overt Chestertonian scenario. The hero-priest in those novels was also genetically engineered.)
There is a constellation of issues surrounding Wolfe’s treatment of the inevitable colonialism issues and his almost-incessantly winking treatment of gender in piracy (I suspect that in his research he may have been surprised at the prevalence of this as an academic topic) that I don’t feel the need to say anything about here, as the basic questions of reliability and event seem far from being established. I didn’t like An Evil Guest much either, though I was disappointed by that one less and in a different way. I have also yet to read “Memorare,” so perhaps I’ll wait until then to report back on the Wolfe front.
I’ve written several entries on Wolfe before, if you’re interested: