Published April 15, 2019
When people ask me who the greatest authors still living are, the two that came most swiftly to my mind were always Thomas Pynchon & Gene Wolfe. I can no longer say this. It appears that Mr. Wolfe passed away today, & we are poorer for it. Fortunately for me, a Wolfe fan, & for you, perhaps a fan or perhaps someone who has yet to become a fan of Mr. Wolfe, he has left us an immense corpus. In this way, he can never truly die. So long as people continue reading his words, he will live on, & live on he shall. Let me make the case for his immortality.
Gene Wolfe was radically underrated by the Western literary establishment for two reasons. The first is that his works are ghettoized in the category of “genre fiction,” which tends to keep the “literary fiction” crowd away. & the second is that his works are so much more complex & ornate than his shelf companions that the average “genre fiction reader” tends to give up on him, as they would a Pynchon novel, or Melville’s Moby Dick. It was Ursula Le Guin who first compared Wolfe to Melville, & it is an apt comparison in some respects– namely, his status as an under-appreciated genius during his lifetime. Some of the authors he himself admired include: Nabokov, Proust, Chesterton, Borges, Kipling, Poe, Lovecraft, Lafferty… Truly, he was as voracious a reader as he was a writer, & for this reason, he fits snugly into the general development of gothic anglophone literature, which began with Poe’s revolutionary narratological innovation, the detective story.
A Gene Wolfe novel is not something to be read through once & be done with. He is a writer who rewards rereading as much as any of the modernists. His plots are fine-tuned machines. His slippery narrators are part of the mechanism. His best works are full of false trails, lies, deceptions, camouflages, divine ironies, & metatextual plays– all of them shifting & reflecting each other, like the psychedelic patterns in a kaleidoscope. To read Wolfe is to enter the hyperbolic time chamber of hermeneutical weight training. He will force you to become a better reader & a better perceiver of the world. By the time you’ve read enough of him, you will find yourself becoming a detective in the world. You’ll be looking under the floorboards of flimsyplolts, & checking your bookshelf for secret passageways. He is the sort of writer who ruins one’s enjoyment of mediocre writing forever. It would be akin to returning to “Easy” mode after gaining the skills to survive a much higher difficulty. Or perhaps, it would be like driving a used Volvo after owning a Maserati.
It is no coincidence that Wolfe was an established industrial engineer (like Pynchon) prior to his literary career. In fact, Mr. Wolfe made so much money on his patent for the machine which creates Pringles brand potato chips, that he was able to retire early & devote himself entirely to literature. If you can imagine how difficult it would be to design the machine which produces Pringles, our beloved snackfood, & the only one in the shape of a crisp hyperbolic parabaloid, you’ll begin to understand the level of genius at play in the architectures of Wolfe’s works.
I have yet to read all of his books, as he has so many, but every one I’ve read has been as delightful as my favorites. His tetralogy, The Book of the New Sun, was my introduction to his writing & it remains one of my favorite reading (& rereading) experiences I’ve ever had in my life. I’d place it up there with Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Melville, Nabokov, Borges, & Pynchon. It is this work which I shall focus on, though it is by no means his only work worth reading. Some swear by The Fifth Head of Cerberus, others by Peace, & others by his short story collections… I have even encountered one person who claimed his Soldier trilogy to be his best work of all. You could start reading him anywhere & be rewarded. He was one of those rare authors for whom this is the case.
However, I believe that the world he fashioned in The Book of the New Sun & its spinoffs (The Urth of the New Sun, The Book of the Long Sun, & The Book of the Short Sun) will be remembered as his most audacious literary project. It compiles all of the best elements of his writing together into one immense shelf of works– dwarfing Proust’s À la recherche in heft. One could spend years upon these works alone. & even here I must limit my scope further, not even to The Book of the New Sun, but to the first novel in that first tetralogy: The Shadow of the Torturer — which I recommend as highly as possible.
An important thing to keep in mind when reading Wolfe is that he was a devout Catholic. His erudition in the mythologies of all times & spaces in human history is always at play, but it is the Catholic Christ who resides at the center of his imaginative universe. In The Shadow of the Torturer we are introduced to a christ-type figure by the name of Severian. He is writing his memoirs from a time & space far beyond the events of the first novel, but this is unimportant for the first time reader. Upon a reread, however, you will find its seemingly innocent opening line to be quite radically explosive in meaning.
It begins: “It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future.” It is a line that I’ve never forgotten. It weaves time & space together in the same psychedelic fashion that two of my other favorite opening lines do– from Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice…” & Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow “A screaming comes across the sky. It has happened before…” To explain the import of these three opening lines could be the subject of an immense thesis on literary modernism, but that is not my job today. Rather, I am trying to entice you to go beyond this line, to the very end, so that you might see what I see in it & receive that spinal chill of frisson that accompanies the fleeting moments of the literary sublime.
The next line describes a rusted gate, the & it is the path from this gate, to another (& then beyond in the expanded universe) that Wolfe will guide you on. It is the path that Severian treads, in a world so far into the future that the Sun is dying out, & remnants of several extremely high-tech civilizations (including our own) exist only as rubble. It is a world which blends fantasy & science fiction by incorporating the medieval tropes of sword & sorcery fantasy with the jargons of genetic engineering, automata, faster-than-light travel… It blends aliens with angels, Catholic theology with Mayan mythology, Byzantium with the Aztecs, & Christ with a Torturer.
As Wolfe wrote in a book of essays titled The Castle of the Otter: “It has been remarked thousands of times that Christ died under torture. Many of us have read so often that he was a “humble carpenter” that we feel a little surge of nausea on seeing the words again. But no one ever seems to notice that the instruments of torture were wood, nails, and a hammer; that the man who built the cross was undoubtedly a carpenter too; that the man who hammered in the nails was as much a carpenter as a soldier, as much a carpenter as a torturer. Very few seem even to have noticed that although Christ was a “humble carpenter,” the only object we are specifically told he made was not a table or a chair, but a whip. And if Christ knew not only the pain of torture but the pain of being a torturer (as it seems certain to me that he did) then the dark figure is also capable of being a heroic and even a holy figure, like the black Christs carved in Africa.”
The Christ-like Torturer, this seemingly paradoxical hero, is the protagonist of this work– & more, he is blessed with not only his own photographic memory, but through an ingeniuos & horrific plot device, the complete memories of many other characters. He begins as a child raised by the Torturer’s Guild, & the first novel describes the events that lead to his banishment, setting the stage for the picraseque journey of the next three books (& beyond). Along the way you will learn archaic english words like fuligin, which describes Severians cloak, a shade of black so dark that folds in its fabric cannot be seen. You will learn the name Terminus Est, which Severian calls his immense executioner’s sword (which potentially inspired the ones Cloud & Guts carry in the iconographies of Japanese fantasy, as these books were translated into Japanese in the 80s). You will encounter metamynodons, thaumaturges, hierodules, & find the Catholic trinity renamed as the Panjudicator, Pancreator, & the Increate… If you decide to read The Shadow of the Torturer, you will be rewared with the greatest work of Fantasy literature & one of the greatest novels of the 20th century. Though we have lost its creater, we have not lost the opportunity to read.. It is we, his readers, who must pass it on. There is no better way to honor Gene Wolfe’s memory, & hell, the tradition of literature itself, than to pass it on.
In memory of Gene Wolfe