Tuesday, June 16, 2009

An Evil Guest by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe is one of the finest and most subtle writers in the SFF field, but he hasn't been particularly noted for the depth of characterization and feeling of his female characters. An Evil Guest may be an attempt to remedy that, but, if so, it's not entirely successful. (Though, since Wolfe is such a slippery, allusive writer, it can be dangerous to make any categorical statements about his novels -- it's easy to miss something important, mentioned by implication and buried, that proves that assumption wrong.)

An Evil Guest is the story of a young, vain actress a hundred years in the future -- a future that has been carefully constructed to be very much like the 1930s, with a very few standard-SF emendations and many holes where we expect to find the standard furniture of our own society. She's a stage actress in a provincial New England city -- never named, though I suppose one is meant to assume it's Arkham, Massachussets -- which, in this world, is something one can earn at least a poor living from, unlike our own, where such theatricals are the hobby of amateurs.

Her name is Cassie Casey, and she's a bit of a ditz -- not overly so for an actress, particularly in the '30s mode Wolfe is emulating, but her head definitely contains more than the government recommended amount of air. She's pursued, for her gorgeousness and massive sex appeal rather than any more intellectual or even thespian qualities, by both Gideon Chase -- a private detective with high government connections, uncanny abilities, and ties with the only known extrasolar intelligent race -- and Bill Reis, the obligatory ridiculously rich and powerful man whom no one dares to cross.

Through a series of long but frustratingly undirected conversations and scenes that always seem to move the plot forward without quite bringing it into focus -- I did say this was a Gene Wolfe novel -- Cassie obsesses about her weight, becomes immensely famous as a stage actress in a minor city, is abducted and imperiled the requisite number of times, is maneuvered into bed by both of the above men and comes to intermittently believe she's in love with one or the other of them, and utterly fails to have any direct effect on any of the actions of the novel, which remain murky. (Note which of those verbs are active and which passive, and what that implies about Cassie and her role in the plot: she's decorative and desirable, like a valuable antique vase.) That's all par for the course for Wolfe; we don't read him for clear plots, conversations that remain on point and provide valuable information, liberated or even active female characters, or endings that make perfect sense the first time through.

Behind Cassie's story is some larger series of events, which have a slight Lovecraftian flavor, particularly near the end. But those events never come into the center of this book, and we're left, as so often with Wolfe, to figure them out from hints and lacunae in the story we thought we were reading.

An Evil Guest is wryly funny much of the time, and deeply pleasurable to read on a sentence-by-sentence level. But readers must adapt to the standards of a Wolfe novel if they want to avoid excessive grinding of their teeth during the reading, and some -- particularly women and those who enjoy direct, linear plots -- will have particular trouble doing so. This is not a major Wolfe novel, but it's successful on its own terms, and would, like most Wolfe, reward re-reading for those who can find enjoyment in it the first time around.

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