Review: The Very Best of Gene Wolfe

by Alex Keller

Wolfe cov

Gene Wolfe. The Very Best of Gene Wolfe. New York: PS Publishing; Limited signed edition (1 Jul 2009). ISBN: 978-1848630277

I wanted to like this collection; I really did. I read The Book of the New Sun and thought it was generally good (if hard work), and coupled with Kim Stanley Robinson’s gushing introduction, I was expecting a great read. However, I found the few problems I had with The Book of the New Sun (it was very heavy going at times) were even more prominent in his short fiction. Wolfe’s style is so alienating that, for the most part, these stories left me feeling nothing more than frustrated and disappointed, and held little to recommend them enthusiastically. They are not bad as such (although On The Train felt self-indulgent and pointless), but Wolfe’s themes are so buried in long-winded sentences, and are so over-intellectualized (a young boy quoting Virgil after a near-death experience, for example), that I found I could rarely get any enjoyment out of this collection. If you are someone who enjoys working hard to understand hidden meanings and ambiguities within a story, then Wolfe’s new collection may be for you, but personally, his cryptic, verbose prose was too much for me.

The more obvious examples of the above problems are Wolfe’s longer short stories. The Fifth Head of Cerberus is a first-person narrative of a boy who is never given a proper name, but we come to know him as “Number Five” after a rather odd meeting with his father. He lives in a bordello owned by said father in a French colony called Port-Mimizon, on a planet called Sainte Croix. At first, his life appears pleasant enough, tutored by a strange, robotic creature called “Mr Million” and having fun with his brother, David. But as the story progresses, Number Five’s life becomes less and less idyllic and, eventually, a terrible truth is revealed, ending in murder. Sounds interesting? Well, potentially it is, but because of the style Wolfe uses to tell this story, I found I lost interest even after the first few pages. If it wasn’t for the fact that I was reviewing this collection, I simply would have given up. Number Five lives in a world and tells a story that could have been wonderful, but Number Five’s narrative is so ponderous, intentionally ambiguous, and long-winded, that very quickly I couldn’t care less about what he was recounting. The odd thing was, I felt Wolfe didn’t care either. It felt as if he was using his characters as toys, or metaphysical marionettes, that performed the clever ideas he had thought up, but were over-shadowed by the author himself, who wouldn’t let his characters become the centre of attention. Throughout The Fifth Head of Cerberus, I never got lost in the story. The long sentences and unemotional tone left me acutely aware that I was reading a piece of fiction. Clever, perhaps, but entirely lifeless.

The same thing happens in The Death of Doctor Island. This story is about a boy called Nicholas who has what appears to be emotional issues (including a personality disorder). Nicholas has been placed in a self-contained, island-like space station with two other patients, a violent man by the name of Ignacio, and a young, suicidal girl called Diane. These three are watched over by the space station itself, a self-aware, artificial intelligence that calls itself Dr. Island. The story focuses on these four characters, culminating in the death of one of them. As with The Fifth Head of Cerberus, I very quickly became frustrated with the pretentious style Wolfe was employing. See the following sentence as an example:

Behind him there were only palms and sand for a long distance, the palms growing ever closer together as they moved away from the water until the forest of their columniated trunks seemed architectural, like some palace maze becoming as it progressed more and more draped with creepers and lianas with green, scarlet, and yellow leaves, the palms interspersed with bamboo and deciduous trees dotted with flaming orchids until almost at the limit of his sight the whole ended in a spangled wall whose predominant color was black- green.

This style may appeal to some, but personally, I find it detracts from, rather than enhances, the story, burying it in dense descriptions and slowing adjectives that make the text difficult to read.

As The Death of Doctor Island progressed, I understood more of Nicholas’ predicament, but inversely, I came to care less and less about it. The reading of The Death Of Doctor Island, like Fifth Head before it, became a chore rather than a pleasure. When the death of the title came, it had no emotional impact for me whatsoever. Also, The Death Of Doctor Island is part of a trilogy where “Death”, “Doctor” and “Island” are rearranged to create a new story, so as a reader, I was aware that the story was nothing more than an exercise, therefore invoking a feeling of emotionless intellectualism, and little else. (However, The Death of the Island Doctor is a much better story for reasons mentioned below.)

In Forlesen, my final example of his longer works in the collection, the main character, called Forlesen, wakes up in an ordinary, if futuristic, domestic situation with no recollection of how he got there. It’s (relatively) clear from the start that he is trapped in some Kafkaesque nightmare and, as the story progresses, he goes through a number of situations showing he has little control over what happens to him and we learn that his, and everyone else’s, life has been accelerated, so he lives and dies in the space of one day. While Forlesen is in a position akin to Josef in The Trial, he doesn’t fight his situation and merely accepts it despite a few misgivings. This made the story tedious and it was difficult to empathize with the character. I wanted the protagonist to react to the possible simulacrum he found himself in, but he did nothing except act as a means through which the reader could look at Wolfe’s hellish world. Again, the protagonist was an intellectual tool of a story that is acutely aware that it is merely a piece of fiction and nothing more. Perhaps others would enjoy attempting to work out where and why Forlesen is in this position, but, as with Number Five and Nicholas, I just didn’t care enough about him to put in the effort.

Overall, Wolfe could have gotten away with these overly-intellectualised themes if he had made the prose briefer and more direct, and the characters more realistic, but the ponderous nature of the stories and the shallow characterisation make them grating to read, alienating the casual reader. I imagine that studying these stories in a class, or poring over their meaning in a thesis, would appeal to some, but aesthetic problems with the texts will put many people off.

However, and this is a big “however”, there were times where I was genuinely impressed by his writing. When Wolfe wrote much shorter stories and placed them in a more contemporary and perhaps prosaic setting, like Kevin Malone, From the Desk of Gilmer C. Merton, The Death of the Island Doctor, and Red beard, I found that I enjoyed them immensely. They were clear, concise, entertaining, human, and humorous, and showed that Wolfe could be an intelligent and observant person, rather than a dry academic toying with metaphysical concepts in borderline-sadomasochistic text. From the Desk of Gilmer C. Merton, for example, is just an exchange of letters between a new writer and his agent and is very entertaining (especially when reading the frustrations of the writer trying to get his first advance), while Kevin Malone is about an out-of-work couple given a luxurious lifestyle without knowing why. It is an interesting look at people’s perceptions of their places within society. Sadly, though, there aren’t enough of these sorts of stories within the collection to really recommend that people seek it out.