Tuesday, May 03, 2011
Book review: Peace
A complicated web of eerie, subtly related stories, the reminiscences of a confused old man named Alden Dennis Weer. This is Gene Wolfe's Peace.
Alden doesn't sleep well. He wanders through the rooms of his "house," reliving significant episodes from his life in the small town of Cassionsville on the Kanakessee River in the American Midwest. All his people have passed. There is only Alden left to remember them. As he puzzles through the mysteries of his life, he remembers stories. There is a colloquial Irish story about a banshee, related by a young nanny. There is a Shogun-era glimpse at infinity, told at a contentious dinner party. There are oddly-written letters, penned by carnival freaks. There are weighted conversations fraught with hints and clues. Taken together, the array of stories within the larger story conveys themes of disinterment, fraud, and the ambiguity of truth.
To get the full value of Peace, read with care. The book is chock full of details, facts and allusions that have subtle significance. For example, early on in the novel, Alden remarks that his secretary at the orange juice plant has gained weight. Later, as certain facts come to light, this seemingly casual remark takes on real significance and provides a clue to a mystery that develops over the course of the narrative.
Wolfe uses cleverly-concealed hints and obscure clues to sketch out a larger story that occurs in the background, as it were. Wolfe's disdain for clear-cut, fully-resolved endings can, at times be frustrating. But, in addition to the delight provided by the stories themselves, the work in its entirety is fascinating and difficult to fully penetrate. It demands examination. Peace might be a ghost story. Or, it might be the confused ramblings of an old man.
Wolfe is a great writer. His narrative descriptions are first rate. His ability to keep track of the multitude of threads that run through the novel is impressive. His characters, while perhaps not as finely drawn as those of --say David Mitchell or Ernest Hemingway --are real enough. And, while I'm still not certain that the book offers any discernible moral postulate, there is definitely a common thread that runs throughout.
I'll be reading more of Gene Wolf. To quote one of his admirers, "Wolfe is a total mindf*ck."