Utterly Arbitrary Jottings on Gene Wolfe’s Book of Days

“How the Whip Came Back”

This seems transparently misogynist.

Might link Gershenfeld’s When Things Think to the robot.

Last image of the husband in chains is clearly meant to be symbolic–should
also pay closer attention to what kind of memory alteration the protag. has

UN again.

Soviet domination–penology.

Note “Lincoln’s Birthday”

“Of Relays and Roses”

32 our economy has come to depend on people getting married more than once

Mark XX: Mark 10-11 and 10-12 tell of Jesus forbidding divorce
Is there a hint of the subversion of the natural order by Marcia choosing
him as a husband here?

“Paul’s Treehouse”

clearly set against the background of urban riots

scotch set in his stomach like a pool of mercury

48 Russell had been an engineer at one time; Morris had never been quite
sure of the reason he no longer was

Another murderous gang that effete Americans aren’t prepared for via an
overreliance on technology.

It seemed as if Paul’s retreat into the treehouse might mirror the protest
groups’ dissociation from society, but that’s not what the ending reveals.

“St. Brandon” (from Peace)

Fairly incomprehensible.


Exposition of the libertarian position on enivornmental regulation and original sin.

“Car Sinister”

Might be thought of in relation to American blues tradition of comparing
women to automobiles. Last line is somewhat mysterious.

“The Blue Mouse”

UN again. File under deprivation of free will through social engineering, deleterious effects of.

“How I Lost the Second World War and Helped Turn Back the German Invasion”

Am teaching this one. Will report back later.

“The Adopted Father”

96 hundred million people drew unemployment benefits
98 abnormally perfunctory Martian terraforming plan
98-99 implanted memories, also in “How the Whip Came Back”

The ending requires more comment.


I think Alice Turner on the Urth list once noted that Wolfe had his Borges
mode and his Kafka mode. This story is clearly in the latter.

It’s also quite funny and not as mysterious as it might appear. Forlesen is
not in a computer, as some enthusiasts have suggested, but he’s in the
ontological equivalent–the goal of the rationalized society in which he
lives. The final comment about the aliens attempting to recreate
civilization as it might have been confirms this and is not meant literally.

The idea about a brain tumor also appears in the Book of the Long

The final answers seem to match the list of roles, as contributors to the
Urth list have noted. The man says “yes” to priest, theologian, actor,
National Hero, and aged loremaster. He also says “maybe” to novelist. I
doubt I’m the first to point out that this might very well be how Wolfe sees
himself (he served in the Korean War).

“An Article about Hunting”

This, were it not for the type of humor, probably wouldn’t out of place in
an NRA pamphlet.

“The Changeling”

The voice of the beginning itself changes from what follows.
Brainwashing is clearly in the background of this story. One way to think of
it might be that the narrator has in fact come back from China after
defecting but that the subsequent confusion about his identity and memory
comes from his reeducation. The violence he committed against the frog and
his competitive instincts could be manifestations of an individualist vs.
collectivist propaganda. (I’m aware this point may be unclear; I’m thinking
about it.) He can only now live in the west as a ghost, a vestige, a figure
outside of time and place. The Peter Pan legend has supplied the details of
his psychotic ideation.

“Many Mansions”

Perhaps is set in the same general world of The Fifth Head of
. Could it be an ancestor of David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men? Probably not, though I wonder when the unprinted questions conceit first appears.

“Against the Lafayette Escadrille”

The LE was a group of volunteer American pilots who fought with the French against the Germans before the U.S. entered WWI. Well, I didn’t know.

The “flammable dope” was a varnish applied to the cloth surface of airplane parts (OED).

No actual dresses were used for the “Silk Dress Balloons,” though they were made of silk.

Nostalgia. Craft as reclamation of lost time. Aura. Authenticity.

“The War Beneath the Tree”

There are clear similarities to the feminine world depicted in There Are Doors with the robots designed to provide company for lonely children, etc. The substitution of technology for interpersonal relationships as a way of meeting the world and its attendant perils is the main idea here.

“La Befana”

I’ve written about this in the Island of Dr. Death and Other Stories and Other Stories entry.


I didn’t know about tulpas, a clearly fascinating concept.

We have a bit of the hypocrite lecteur at the end there. Reminds me in form of “Car Crash While Hitchhiking.”

3 thoughts on “Utterly Arbitrary Jottings on Gene Wolfe’s Book of Days

  1. Is “Beautyland” really libertarian? The outcome of the market forces seems to me presented as rather horrifying–people value nature/beauty only to destroy it. Original sin, that’s good.

    You didn’t think “Forlesen” was mysterious. I’ll be. So the idea is that society reduces people to playing the exact role, so that they have no memory of their previous days. I’d like to hear more, if you care to say more.

    I don’t have the book here but I didn’t hear the final answers as corresponding to the roles; they’re not positioned so as to be an answer to that utterance, I don’t think. What does he say “No” to?

    “The Changeling”–Urth list pointed out the Peter Pan thing and suggested time travel. I don’t buy the time travel–but I’m reading this from the tradition of ghost stories rather than SF; in SF one expects an explanation in terms of some laws of the universe; in ghost stories explanations may be available at some level, but they will still ultimately be supernatural.–So I think.

    I thought perhaps Pete Palmer had done something truly awful, so that his own memory of it and the town’s memory of him had been expunged. Cruelty to animals as a predictor of later murderousness, and China after the Korean War being a great place to do horrible things. But I don’t have a worked out theory at all. Need to reread it, anyway.

  2. I saw “Beautyland” as being about what Wolfe saw as the futility of governmental regulation of the environment, though I can imagine other readings.

    “Forlesen” is quite subtle, but I think that much of the mystery disappears when you realize that relating it to the recognizable world (is it an afterlife, a dystopia, etc.) is not possible. Still, upon re-reading “How I Lost the Second World War,” I’m more inclined to take seriously the computerization idea, though I still think it’s about the inner life of the fully rationalized man.

    The legend of the changeling involves the substitution of a baby, with the soul being stolen. Brainwashing might be a metaphor for the stealing of the soul, and the experience has to be understood through half-remembered myth and legend. The remembered violence could be imaginary, though the behavior in the prison camps is certainly not.

  3. Forlesen can’t be related to the recognizable world? Only if you haven’t lived as a middle class worker in turn-of-the-century (20-21 that is) America I guess, or lack the courage to see the metaphor’s perfection. Kafka indeed.

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