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Peace: Fantasy Masterworks 28

by Gene Wolfe

(Gollancz, £6.99, 264 pages, paperback, first published 1975, this edition 11 April 2002.)

How do you review a story about how cover scanstories can't be trusted? How do you deal with a book that whispers, Trust me, I'm lying? Tricky. If the book works, if it successfully makes its point and gets us thinking about the suspect nature of storytelling, then we have to distrust the story itself and discount this message. But if the book doesn't work, if it shows itself to be a dodgy vessel for carrying any truths, then while the book may have demonstrated its own point, it won't have articulated it. The medium and the message can never come together. The paradox is frustrating.

Gene Wolfe delights in paradoxes like this. In a thirty-year publishing career, he's consistently been fascinated with the mechanics and contradictions of storytelling, particularly how we use memories to make stories of our lives. Storytelling and memory are inseparable in his books. In The Book of the New Sun, the SF opus for which Wolfe will probably always be best known, we are constantly reminded that it is Severian's exceptional memory which enables the first-person story to be told. In Soldier of the Mist and Soldier of Arete, Wolfe's fantasies set in a classical Greece, it is Latro's severe short-term memory loss which forces him to write down his adventures in the first place. In all his fiction, Wolfe's characters are always telling, forgetting and changing stories as a way of making sense of their lives. Above all, they constantly draw attention to the untrustworthiness of their own accounts. Stories are not to be trusted--and yet, Wolfe is obsessed with them.

These literary preoccupations were present from this, Wolfe's first published novel, Peace (reprinted in the Fantasy Masterworks series). Taking place in a Midwest America to which he has regularly returned, Peace appears on the surface to be an uneventful book of nostalgia. A reclusive, rich old man--Alden Dennis Weer--reflects on a life growing up in a small town in the first half of the 20th century. At times, in almost numbing detail, Wolfe recreates a world where people mix claustrophobic gossip about their neighbours with imaginary tales of the Indians who used to live there, where the ordinariness of people's lives will crack at key moments to reveal extraordinary passions. But this is not simply a rare Wolfe foray into mainstream literature. It is indeed a fantasy novel--not just because Weer is a ghost (my one spoiler in this review), but because it is a book filled with fantasies, from outright fairy-tales to fantastic tales which might be true, stories of secret treasures buried during the Civil War and carnival freaks whose flesh progressively turns into stone.

Peace is also a horror novel. In a series of fragmented sections, Weer recounts seemingly random episodes from his life: as a child living with his remarkable Aunt Olivia, as a young adult caught up in a book-forging scam, finally, as the ageing president of a fruit juice company. Yet the matter-of-fact, plain voice cannot hide the book's underlying sadness as Weer wrestles with loneliness and guilt, trying to understand how his life has become so empty. Slowly, from these narrative pieces, the picture of his life emerges--not from what we are told directly, but puzzled out from the clues left in each chapter, always just enough to fill the exasperating gaps left. Weer bears strong resemblance to the articulate, emotionally-repressed narrators of Wolfe's other novels: Severian in The Book of the New Sun, Patera Silk in The Book of the Long Sun, Horn in The Book of the Short Sun. But whereas they are all given a shot at redemption, Weer cannot run away from his life. For all the book's cozy atmosphere, its narrator is damned.

Alone in his mansion, not realizing that he's already dead, all that Weer has left is stories: stories from his own life, stories of the people he came across, the stories that they themselves told. But rather than making sense of what's happened to him, the stories instead conceal truths about a life riddled with fateful actions and fatal indecision. Throughout the novel, Weer tries to hide from both the reader and himself his complicity, not just in destroying his own life, but the lives of those around him. Yet the truth leeches through. Wolfe is ingenious in showing how these seemingly irrelevant tales and episodes reveal a larger narrative: stories may be used to dazzle and dissemble, but the truth will always out.

Few of the stories in this novel are completed. The novel itself isn't. The book is littered with tales that never quite finish, or if they do, their endings are left hanging, tossed to the reader in chance remarks much later in the novel. Wolfe deliberately frustrates our expectations for closure at every juncture, until we begin to realize that this is indeed the point of the book. This is a trapped story, one from which Weer cannot escape. The title is ironic: there is no peace to be had here.

Peace is an immensely clever book then, but not a readily enjoyable one. At times, its appeal is that of a crossword puzzle: a series of disconnected problem-solving exercises that don't add up to the solution of a bigger mystery. The pleasure is not in revelation, but detection. What we're left with is a book that tells us off for wasting out time in reading it. There's a point in the novel where one of the characters, a forger of rare books, defends his actions by arguing that such deceptions haven't caused any real harm. Yes, his books may be fakes, but they bring pleasure to people. Weer--and one suspects, Wolfe behind him--rejects that, citing how a forged diary has blighted his own life.

Yet I can't help feeling that most of us would rather be bamboozled than reminded that stories are just well-told lies. As in seeing a good magic trick, we're happy to pretend. I suppose as one of science fiction's most skilled magicians, this would make Gene Wolfe the field's Penn and Teller, entertaining us by exposing all the tricks of narration. For someone who began with such a distrust of the narrative form though, Wolfe has never been able to put his pen down. In his own way, he's like Weer too--driven to make sense of his world through storytelling.

Review by Philip Raines.

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