Gene Wolfe – Peace

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Why I didn’t write a post about Peace straight after reading it is a mystery to me and now I’m left wondering if I can really do it justice. Despite not enjoying The Fifth Head of Cerberus all that much, I consider myself an enthusiastic fan of the late great Gene Wolfe after enjoying the awesome tetralogy The Book of The New Sun – which Publishers Weekly described as “a masterpiece of science fantasy comparable in importance to the major works of Tolkien and Lewis”.

Perhaps fittingly my copy of Peace appeared mysteriously to me at the start of this year having sat forgotten on a bookshelf under the shadows of my desk (one side is supported by an Ikea Billy bookcase, and two shelfs are under the horizontal). I had put it on my Christmas list two years ago and had been pleased to receive it, but then a little bemused by its non-standard size. I think it’s an American thing and so it had to live on a slightly bigger shelf along with graphic novels and Dummy’s books rather than my collection of books that I had yet to read. I did a bit of clear out and was delighted to find it once more. Like a phoenix egg.

Peace is an enigma. A puzzle to be cracked. My copy had an afterword by Neil Gaiman in which he describes how he didn’t get the book the first time around and then years later went back and read it again, and realised a few things that I am smug to admit I already figured out on my own. However it still left me wanting to read it again. I’ve read a few reviews to make sure what I was thinking was along the right lines and I’m torn about whether to reveal too much in this post. I guess I’ll try not to, but just in case let me say ‘watch out for spoilers’. I’ll try to keep it vague.

Ostensibly Peace is the story of a man from a small town in the American Midwest who lived sometime in the early to mid-20th century. Alden Weer describes various anecdotes from his childhood, early adulthood, and later years. He lives in a complicated house full of rooms copied from various times in his life. Whether this is a construction of his own mind or some kind of afterlife is left to the reader to decide. There are stories within stories and the reader has to work hard to peel away the layers and get to the truth of the nature of Weer’s existence.

The fact that Weer is as unreliable a narrator as Charles Kinbote in Nabokov’s Pale Fire or the narrator in Wolfe’s Fifth Head is a given. The magnitude of his deceptions or self-delusion as his narration slips around in the space-time continuum is the real conundrum of this book. Some laud Wolfe as a genius in this respect.

If I was being less generous I might suggest that Wolfe had a bunch of intriguing short stories he wanted to mash together and backward engineered the red thread that stitches the tales together to make an American quilt that if stared at for long enough with an open mind reveals a hidden shape like those 3D images back in the late 1980s. It’s something I think David Mitchell has made a career out of and something I wish I could do myself in my books.

Regardless of Wolfe’s writing process, the finished result is a masterpiece deserving plaudits mostly reserved for The Book of The New Sun. If you hear a distant child’s voice in your head calling out about the emperor’s new clothes, just ignore it and enjoy the confusion.

 

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