Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Book-A-Day 2010 # 77 (4/21) -- The Sorcerer's House by Gene Wolfe

Gene Wolfe's novels are always tricky things, carefully constructed to provide the minimum amount of information the reader needs and artfully arranged to conceal that information from any readers not sufficiently engaged. It's a cliche to say that the reader does half the work of making a book come alive, but, with Wolfe, both the author and the reader are working much harder than they typically would. Sometimes, as with the breathtaking but utterly insular "Short Sun" books or in Wolfe's great novel Peace, the trip is more than worth the bother. And sometimes, as with the recent "Wizard Knight" duology and odd misfits like Free Live Free, the reader is left wondering why he bothered to put in so much effort. (Of course, it may be, in the case of those latter books, that the reader has not quite put in enough effort.)

The Sorcerer's House falls on the Wolfe continuum closer to the first group than to the second; it also falls on the other axis of Wolfeness -- determining how readily it gives up its secrets -- towards the end of clarity and transparency, with Pandora by Holly Hollander and There Are Doors. It's an epistolary novel, told entirely in the letters sent by a middle-aged ex-con, Baxter Dunn, and in the letters sent to Baxter by various others.

Baxter has recently left prison -- he was incarcerated for a crime he did commit, the details of which come out in the course of the novel -- and has landed in an unnamed town in what I assume is the Upper Midwest, sometime in the last few decades. He writes often to his twin brother George, the successful and conventional one. Baxter had been a scholar of some kind, firmly ensconced in some university somewhere, but the details of his past stay out of focus -- he's telling this story in letters to people who already know his past, and so he doesn't talk about that much.

Baxter notices a large empty white house on the edge of town, and quietly moves into it when his living situation at the local motel becomes problematic. And that soon leads to his entanglement with a series of very Wolfean women -- they're all somewhat flighty and deferential, very much small-town women from the middle of the last century, without much perspective or scope -- starting with the real estate agents Doris Rose Griffin (young, vivacious, recently divorced) and Martha Murrey (older, and possessed of many secrets). Baxter comes into the possession of that old house very quickly, and of other inheritances as well -- to such a degree that the reader begins to wonder, until Wolfe explains (in a typically Wolfean, sidelong way) later in the novel.

He also comes to explore the house, which is larger every time he explores it. (Of course Baxter doesn't actually say this -- as with most details in a Wolfe novel, it's there to be observed, but the reader must do the observing.) Also, many of the windows look out onto -- and, as Baxter learns before long, lead out onto -- a vast forest that does not surround the house in its usual place. The house, as Baxter learns, is called the Black house, after the mysterious man who used to own it -- who may or may not have also been known by another name, who is supposedly dead.

Baxter and George are not the only set of twins in The Sorcerer's House -- and I'm afraid I'm being very Wolfean myself with that statement; there are other sets of twins in the book, and one set, very significantly, turns up in the house itself.

But The Sorcerer's House is a novel that has to be read rather than explained; the plot is not the point here, since the plot consists of Baxter writing about people he met, their elliptically Wolfean conversations, and the strange things he has seen and done -- with a small sideline in some of those other people writing back to Baxter. The female characters here are not as central, and thus not as jarringly of a type (and an idiosyncratic, anachronistic type at that) as in last year's An Evil Guest, but Baxter is a very Wolfean hero: quietly competent at nearly everything he turns his hand to, very successful with those women, reticent to talk about himself, but a great talker otherwise. This is a mature Wolfe novel, full of sly secrets and offhand misdirection, but not as ambitious or major as his series work. Baxter is a mostly reliable narrator, as well -- and that's about as clear as one can ever get from Wolfe!

Book-A-Day 2010: The Epic Index
Listening to: Split Enz - One Step Ahead
via FoxyTunes

No comments:

Post a Comment