"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen
Neil Gaiman has some advice on reading Gene Wolfe, which begins thus:
1) Trust the text implicitly. The answers are in there.
2) Do not trust the text farther than you can throw it, if that far. It's tricksy and desperate stuff, and it may go off in your hand at any time.
There simply is no one else out there writing speculative fiction like Gene Wolfe. There's no one else out there writing anything like Gene Wolfe. And while not all of his books are hits for me (Free Live Free and The Devil in a Forest fell flat), when they're good they're mind-blowing. Sometimes I think I have lost the capacity for awe, and then I'll read something like The Fifth Head of Cerberus or Seven American Nights, and my brain just implodes.
Peace may be the best Wolfe I've yet read. It may be one of the best books I've ever read. I'm with Gaiman, again: "It is not merely one of my favorite books (although it is certainly that); it is one of a tiny handful of modern novels of which I am in awe." I'm not ashamed to say I don't fully understand this book. Its inherent un-unravelability just adds to its perfection. This is not like House of Leaves, whose impenetrability comes off as artificial and pretentious, or Lost, where the tower of cards comes tumbling down catastrophically towards the end. This is deep, dense, endlessly fascinating stuff, and the text is strong enough to hang a thousand theories and deconstructions on.
I've just finished reading this book for the second time in a row, and the two reads were vastly different experiences. When I first picked up Peace, it was the memoirs of a senile, dying old man, recounting his mid-century, middle-American life in rambling, interrupted monologues, interspersed with vaguely-related fables and tales. The prose is beautiful, and the stories are absorbing, but all along I had this feeling that I was missing something. All this literary praise, heaped on this simple story? There must be more to it.
And what I love about Wolfe is that he really isn't in the business of twists or revelations. It's possible to read Peace on this surface level, and enjoy it, and move on. It's not like you get to the end and suddenly there's a big reveal. No, it sneaks up on you. You start picking up little hints and buried clues, and gradually you realize that something else is going on. Something you never even suspected, but as you go back and reread it from the beginning, it's all there, crystal-clear and right in front of your face. This is not a gentle memoir. This is a nightmare. This is a grotesque.
I'm going to talk a bit about some of these buried clues, so you may want to stop here if you don't want to be spoiled. But I've found that having a signpost or two of what to look for really helps with a Wolfe novel.
The first thing to pay attention to is the novel's very first line: "The elm tree planted by Eleanor Bold, the judge's daughter, fell last night." The narrator, Alden Dennis Weer, then goes on to describe how the tree's falling woke him, and how he sits alone in his vast house, in a long, narrow walled-in porch with a stone fireplace at one end.
It isn't until 250 pages later, when in a flashback Weer is interrupted by a call to his office, and tells his associate that it was a Mrs. Porter: "You heard her - she wants to plant a tree on my grave when I'm gone. That's her hobby: she plants trees of endangered American species on the graves of her friends." And Mrs. Porter, it is mentioned elsewhere in the book, is the married name of Eleanor Bold.
Weer is, then, not an old man, but a ghost, awakened by the falling of the tree planted on his grave. His walled-in porch is his coffin, with a headstone at one end, and the vast mansion he wanders not a physical building, but the architecture of memory.
But why does Weer wander? What keeps him from the peace referred to in the title?
He certainly isn't going to tell you what he's done. But it's all there in the narrative, if you pay attention. The people who die or disappear, the crimes that have been committed and omitted from mention. And all those fables and stories sprinkled throughout the text - they are all clues and symbols, too. Everything in here is here for a reason, and everything is linked together into one terrifying, monstrous whole.
Not much of this is ever spelled out, and so most of it is up for debate. Though the Weer-as-ghost interpretation is pretty universally accepted, I have read some reviews that reject it and argue convincingly that Weer is merely senile. I've read interpretations insisting that Weer is a mass-murderer, and I've read others that declare him innocent - a victim of circumstances and unjustly damned. There is debate over who was murdered, and even over who is dead, and a thousand different meanings proffered for each of the highly-allegorical fables.
I have my own theories, but they are fragile and fuzzy, because this novel isn't handing out any revelations. Weer is stubbornly, thoroughly the author of his own tale. And if there's one thing being a Wolfe fan will teach you, it's never trust a narrator.