Gene Wolfe's The Sorcerer's House, or, Why I Like Puzzle-Box Fiction

Wed Mar 24, 2010

For those of us who pre-order the latest Gene Wolfe novel and read it immediately, irrespective of the circumstances, the last two books have presented some difficulties. Wolfe seems to have entered a “late style,” where the natural suspicion, caution, and, to be fair, interpretive charity that veteran readers of Wolfe bring to the text have yielded unusual results. Pirate Freedom seems to have escaped much of the exegetical explosion that An Evil Guest received on the Urth mailing list for Wolfe enthusiasts, even though both books involve reality distortion and time travel (well, I think there’s some type of reality distortion in Pirate Freedom), fictional devices that admit no logical limits on narrative analyses. His latest, The Sorcerer’s House, certainly has reality-distortion (alternate realities in the form of the venerable faerie-land and also in the possibly demented imagination of one of the main focal characters); there’s also at least putative differential time-flow, though this is only considered time-travel by the scrupulous. I liked the book a great deal more than the last two, and it still remains a great mystery to me that I didn’t so much like a Lovecraftian pastiche written by Wolfe. Perhaps I’ll give it another try.

Among many cute things about this latest novel is that it’s epistolary. Wolfe is usually careful to make up a frame story for his various fictions; The New Sun and Latro books rival this one for its ridiculousness, but it does give him a chance to make some coy paratextual remarks. Our main character, Baxter Dunn, has acquired two PhDs, one in 19th British literature (apparently from the University of Chicago; I believe this information is revealed to another character from a reading of the diploma, which is not terribly plausible) and the other in “ancient history.” He had a reason beyond scholarly interest in earning these degrees, it turns out, and he obviously does not seem to have been a very diligent or successful scholar. (Wolfe seems to have a slightly higher than normal resentment toward academics; one of the book’s lower points involves a nasty joke about a Mt. Holyoke Women’s Studies professor.)* Baxter’s letters to his twin brother George make up the bulk of the material, though there are also letters to Millie, George’s wife; to Sheldon, a former cellmate (filled with insinuation); and several letters of Millie to Baxter, Sheldon to Baxter, and a psychic to him as well. Wolfe’s “Compiler’s Note”** ends this way:

Baxter Dunn was unquestionably a most imaginative and picturesque liar, but all that he tells us cannot be false. By some means he came into possession of Riverscene, the Black House, and the house that had been Mrs. Martha Murrey’s. The back files of the Sentinel fairly bristle with Hound of Horror stories.

How much is true? How much fabrication? Perhaps we shall never know. (300)

The experienced Wolfe reader, and probably anyone, really, will take that last statement as a direct challenge to re-read the text and figure out exactly what is real and what is fabrication. The “perhaps” is a dare and also a paradoxically authoritative statement that the textual evidence is there, if you’re willing to find it. I was willing at the start to claim that this was madness, and that we have to get out of the habit of giving Wolfe this much leeway on the example of some of the short stories, Fifth Head of Cerberus, etc. On what grounds are we to decide how any of this farrago is to be believed? At one point we learn of a GEAS corporation that has owned the mysterious house which drives so much of the plot. I amused myself thinking that, unlike a substantial portion of his audience, Wolfe in all likelihood did not learn that word from AD&D.; Baxter does seem to have had a geas placed upon him, but he’s also precisely the type of figure who would, through indirect suggestion, create an elaborate fantasy in which this happened.

Here’s an example of the book’s difficulties. In the early going, Baxter writes that he encounters a young boy in the apparently abandoned house he’s squatting in. After a struggle, the boy drops a candle and a peculiar apparatus. (We are later going to learn that this boy is also a twin, and either a time-displaced version of Baxter or George or an imaginative projection of such.) The apparatus has three rings inscribed with various sigils and a pointer; its true name, unsurprisingly, is triannunlus. Baxter deduces that its use involves lining up three similar sigils on the rings and pointing the arrow at them. (Each expanding ring has symbols that are not on the inner, which leads to questions about what else the device is capable of.) By accident, he is able to fulfill the requirement’s of the device’s function, and three fish, for this is the symbol he chose, are soon brought to him. He learns, or tells us that he learns from Emlyn, the apparently good parallel brother, that he has catastrophically misused the sorcerous device by allowing the candle to go out before its request was completed. Now its numen (this is the word that the boy uses) is unbounded. Emlyn tells Baxter that he was using the triannulus to find a face-fox, which is type of female reverse lycanthrope (the human incarnation of which is another one of the book’s slightly objectionable bits), though it seems more likely that he was actually looking for something else.

If we are to take all of this at its word, it’s hard enough to make sense of. Faced with the strong possibility that this is some type of projective or transformative fantasy on an arranging narrator’s part, however, it seems almost impossible. And yet I enjoy the challenge and difficulty here in a way that I tended to resent and dismiss as encroaching incompetence in An Evil Guest. I am not prepared to give a full interpretation of the book now, needless to say. The last book I wrote about, Banville’s The Infinities, also had a great deal of subtle narrative tricks and reality distortion in it, and was written in a far more ornate style. Colin Burrow had this somewhat piercing comment about it in his LRB review (possibly subscriber only):

It’s just that such a writer is not likely to be entirely likeable, except perhaps by people who are a bit like Banville people, those who combine aspirations to universal knowledge with doubts about their own identities, and who have a fascinated sense of their own singularity. We often call people of this kind ‘men’; sometimes we call them ‘academics’.

Wolfe’s style, on the other hand, does not achieve the type of malice and sophistication that a Banville narrator has. And, Greek gods and all, Banville’s fictive creations do not lend as much credence to the fantastic and speculative as Wolfe’s, but Wolfe’s are still far more puzzling in terms of reliability and event. I am probably not doing a good job of describing just how difficult and challenging this can be, and I thought that this well-known remark from Eliot about Poe might help:

That Poe had a powerful intellect is undeniable: but it seems to me the intellect of a highly gifted young person before puberty. The forms which his lively curiosity takes are those in which a pre-adolescent mentality delights: wonders of nature and of mechanics and of the supernatural, cryptograms and cyphers, puzzles and labyrinths, mechanical chess-players and wild flights of speculation.

Of course this wasn’t fair about Poe, and it doesn’t apply completely to Wolfe. But I wonder sometimes if my affinity for Wolfe does derive from the same source as my love of puzzle-filled interactive fiction and games like Rhem, which, according to King Bolo, is arrested development.

*A member of the mailing list disputed my interpretation of this, so I will reproduce the passage here for you to decide. A bit of context: Millie is writing here about how she understands that her husband (and other people) only value her for her looks:

A lot of the girls did not like me at Mount Holyoke and made jokes about blondes. As if I would not know that I had to buy a ticket.

But my grades were bad and that helped. Except for Prof. Foley, who gave me good ones in Women’s Studies. She was really down on all men and wanted to hold my hand so I let her. (238)

The aforementioned correspondent thought this just meant “hold her hand through the work.”

**I understand that this note cannot be automatically assumed to be diegetically closer to the implied author than anything else in the text and may in fact just contain lies.