Monday, July 16, 2007

Just Read: Pirate Freedom by Gene Wolfe

Reviewing a Gene Wolfe novel is a tricky business; he's a writer who works almost entirely by indirection and the slow accretion of incidental details. At times, Wolfe can seem to be playing a game against the reader -- if he can conceal the true importance of the events of his plot, he wins. And so even a thoughtful and careful reader hedges his bets and says that a new Wolfe novel seems to be about X, or appears to feature a character who is secretly Y -- because, with Wolfe, there's always the chance that you're completely wrong.

And yet we still read his books. Why? I can't speak for everyone, but the thing I enjoy more than anything in fiction is voice, and Wolfe is a master of voice. His best books are all intensely narrated, told from very particular, and never completely reliable, points of view. Latro, Patera Silk, Severian, the narrator of "Book of the Short Sun:" -- Wolfe's best books are all in some particular voice, stories told by one specific man, in one specific place, obscuring some details and confusing others for his own ends. I also can't deny that the challenge of teasing out the truth from the labyrinthine corridors of Wolfe's plots is appealing; reading Wolfe is, in some sense, like matching wits with him, and reaching the end counts as a win...or at least a draw.

Pirate Freedom is Wolfe's new book for this year; it will be published in November by Tor, his long-time publisher. Since it's not available yet, I'll need to be somewhat vague. (I could blame the vagueness on Wolfe, as well, or claim to be trying to provide a Wolfesque experience...but I won't; it wouldn't be true.)

Our narrator this time is Chris -- Father Chris, Captain Chris -- who is writing in our near future, but telling the story of what happened to him several hundred years ago. (Some things, I have to tell you, just will not be explained in a Wolfe novel, and the precise reason for that temporal oddity will never be clear -- though a careful reader will put together the timeline and figure out the important facts.) The Chris who is writing the story is a Catholic priest, in some American city. The Chris of the tale is a younger man, first growing up in a school/monastery in Cuba, and then traveling. Look: the word "pirate" is in the title, yes? You and I both know that Chris will eventually fall in with pirates, right? So take that as written -- but I won't tell you how. There are adventures, gold, combat on ship and shore -- all the things you expect from a pirate story. But this is a Gene Wolfe pirate story, told as a confession, years later, by a man whose intentions are not to dwell on the blood and gore, but to list and atone for his sins. Oh, and Chris's last name? We're never told it specifically, though I suspect someone with all of the clues and the right outside information could work it out.

Similarly, a student of the period could probably tell you exactly what years Chris was active in the Caribbean and thereabouts; all I can tell you is that it's after Sir Henry Morgan sacked Panama (1671) and presumably before the death of Blackbeard (1718). And that same student, I don't doubt, would be eager to point out the historical sources for events in this story, which I also cannot help you with.

One thing I can talk about, and want to come back to -- I said above that Wolfe's best books are all told in the voice of one specific man. And I mean "man," not person, because Wolfe rarely writes in a woman's voice. (I can think of Pandora by Holly Hollander, a pleasant but minor novel, but not much else.) For that reason, among others, Wolfe has been accused of sexism in the past few years, and it's not an entirely unfounded accusation. Wolfe's narrators are usually men, and their attitudes towards women are not that of equals to equals. His novel narrators are typically a bit more chivalrous, more honorable, and more pious than is the norm in their societies, so they're generally not debauching and raping women (which is sometimes going on, nearly unremarked on, in the background). But women are the cause of troubles more than they are friends and comrades, and women in Wolfe's stories are essentially unknowable. You can sometimes predict a woman's behavior, if you're a particularly smart and thoughtful Wolfe hero, but you can never understand her. I suspect Wolfe has more male fans than female, simply because his women are so secondhand, so intensely Other. A woman, to a Wolfe hero, is, at her best, someone you love, someone you have sex with, someone you protect and cherish, but not someone you ever entirely trust.

Again, I'm talking in vague generalities, because the book hasn't been published yet, but Pirate Freedom is a novel in which sexual relations play a part, and I'm sure the women of Pirate Freedom will be much discussed. (So perhaps what I'm doing here is sending up a signal flare to the Secret Feminist Cabal -- because this is a good novel, with many strong points, and there's a lot of interesting material to work with here.) Wolfe, I know, is himself a Catholic, and this book is more overtly Catholic than many of his works -- perhaps the virgin/whore dichotomy would be a useful tool for sorting and explicating the women in this book. (Though, among pirates, you don't find many virgins.)

As I said above, Chris is just slightly too good to be true (much like the heroes of Wolfe's last series, "The Wizard Knight"). There's also the odd fact that far too many of the people he meets seem to like him and believe him on sight, which is a bit unlikely. Perhaps that's another unreliable narrator trick, and I was meant to figure out something else from that odd fact, but, if so, it escaped me.

Lastly, I'll have to warn you that this has a Gene Wolfe ending, and that Wolfe is inordinately fond of circularity and returns in his endings. It's about what I expected, but it's not what one would expect from a rip-roaring pirate tale. Then again, you don't go to Wolfe for rip-roaring anything.


Carl V. Anderson said...

I am loathe to confess this, figuring I am in for a verbal whipping, but the only Wolfe I have read to date is his Wizard Knight series. I became so wrapped up in it and loved in enormously. I know, I know..I need to read some of his older works. My question is, considering that I like those two book so much, how does this book compare with those?

Andrew Wheeler said...

Carl V.: Well, if your tastes are anything like mine, you're in for a treat, since I found "The Wizard Knight" a letdown. (I liked the first book a lot, but thought the second one frittered away its energy in multiple levels of narration and events that weren't really important.)

Since you've already read two Wolfe books and liked them, your best bet would be to jump into his recognized masterwork: the four-book "Book of the New Sun" series. If you like that, you can read the sequel The Urth of the New Sun and then the "Long Sun" and "Short Sun" series. (I personally think "Short Sun" is Wolfe's best work, but you really have to have read "New Sun" and "Long Sun" for it to work right.)

If you're looking for something in one volume, I quite liked There Are Doors, but that's pretty minor. Peace is a very interesting book, but it's a novel with One Big Secret that you need to figure out as you go. And The Fifth Head of Cerberus is also excellent -- it's three novellas which are more closely linked than they appear to be.

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