Sunday, March 27, 2011

Fantasy Masterworks #28: Gene Wolfe, Peace

Unlike Wolfe's New Sun or Soldier series, Peace is a single novel that's only a shade over 260 pages. However, this 1975 novel perhaps contains within its pages even more levels of symbolism and meaning than either of those two more well-known novels. I recently re-read it for the second time and after scouring the web for other takes on it, I think it is safe to say that it is a novel that can be viewed as a lament on aging and dying, a murder mystery akin to Flann O'Brien's excellent 1967 novel The Third Policeman, a look at memory palaces and how a talented author can use them to construct a vivid story, not to mention perhaps being one of the more terrifying horror novels that I have ever read. But these interpretations only scratch the surface of this remarkable novel. While Wolfe's other works almost beg for multiple re-reads so the reader can reap the maximum benefit, Peace practically demands it.

Alden Dennis Weer on the surface appears to be a somewhat embittered old man struggling through the last days of his life. Suffering from a stroke, Weer reminisces about scenes from his childhood, all the while reflecting upon certain rooms in his old Midwestern house. Weer's stories, at first apparently devoid of fantastical or symbolic elements, comprise the majority of this story. As Weer shuffles his stoke-damaged body throughout the house, he remembers various scenes from his life. In the next few paragraphs, I shall highlight some of these scenes and how they stood out, not to mention that I shall hazard a few guesses as to their purpose and intent.

In these first passages that I quote (from pages 52-55), we see Weer as a young boy, morbidly fascinated with the idea of dead bodies and disinterment, but pay close attention to the tone in which these words are delivered:

"Aunt Olivia, if Ming-Sno dies, or Sun-sun, can we bury them here?"

"What a thing to say, Den. They're not going to die."

"When they get real old." Actually I would gladly have killed them on the spot for the fun of the funeral. Sun-sun, who had been sniffing at a woodchuck hole, had dirt of his nose already.

"Why do you want them to be buried here?"

"So somebody a long time from now will find their heads and be surprised."
Here we get the first talk about disinterment and the finding of the dead. This discussion shall be seen in a refracted form later in the novel. In the next part of this scene, we see a possible connection between young Alden (Den) Weer and the mythic but terrifying dragon, again something that is hinted at elsewhere in the novel in other forms:

A moment later we were at the top; while the professor and I sat down to rest, my aunt, facing into the wind, took off her wide hat and loosed the jet-headed pins that held her hair. It was very long, and as black as a starling's wing. Professor Peacock took a pair of binoculars from a leather case on his belt and said, "Do you know how to use these, Alden? Just turn this knob until whatever you're looking at becomes clear. I want to show you something. Where I'm pointing."

"A dragon," my aunt Olivia said. "The claws of a dragon, imprisoned in an antediluvian lava flow. When Robert cracks the rock, he will be free and alive again; but don't worry, Den, he is a relative of Sun-sun's."
While the dragon often represents a Satanic-like figure in various religious texts, it is the entrapped claws that I believe represent something more key here - entrapment. I will discuss this later, but first, the conclusion of this scene in which the first hint of secret, well-hidden murders is revealed:

Through smaller and more closely set tree, through blackberry brambles and thickets, the five of us passed around the shoulder of the hill; then, over grass now drying in the first summer sun, to its top. This was a higher hill than the first, though the ascent (on the side we had chosen) was easier, and I recall that when i looked from its summit toward the hill from which we had seen the cave, I was surprised at how low and easy it appeared. I asked the professor where the town lay, and he pointed out a distant scrap of road to me, and a smoke which he said came from the brick kilns; not a single house of any sort was visible from where we stood. While my aunt and I were still admiring the view, he tied a large knot - which he told me later, when I asked, was called a "monkey's fist" - in one end of his rope and wedged it between two solidly set stones. Then, with a sliding loop around his waist, he lowered himself from the edge, fending off the stones of the bluff with his legs much as though he were walking.

"Well," my aunt said, standing at the edge to watch him, with the toes of her boots (this I remember vividly) extending an inch or more into space, "he's gone, Den. Shall we cut the rope?"

I was not certain that she was joking, and shook my head.

"Vi, what are you two chattering about up there?" The professor's voice was still loud, but somehow sounded far away.

"I'm trying to persuade Den to murder you. He has a lovely scout knife - I've seen it."

"And he won't do it?"

"He says not."

"Good for you, lad."

"Well, really, Robert, why shouldn't he? There you hang like a great, ugly spider, and all he has to do is cut the rope. It would change his whole life like a religious conversion - haven't you ever read Dostoyevsky? And if he doesn't do it he'll always wonder if it wasn't partly because he was afraid."

"If you do cut it, Alden, push her over afterward, won't you? No witnesses."

"That's right," my aunt Olivia told me, "you could say we made a suicide pact."
But there is more to this than just the presage of murders in the still of the night that go unsolved. It is the direct reference to Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment's Rashkolnikov that I believe holds a key to understanding one layer of the narrative, that of from what point in "life" is Alden Dennis Weer speaking? More on this later.

This extended childhood memory scene does not come to a full stop, but instead branches out into other stories. One that might hold some interest for readers is that of Mrs. Lorn's resurrection egg, a finely-crafted easter egg that serves not just as an embodiment of virtues not otherwise seen in this novel, but also it could be viewed as being the counterpoint to the action transpiring in Weer's stories. It is the bidding on this egg that leads into other stories, but I thought I'd bring it up as a point to consider when trying to make up your own interpretation of this novel.

One particular story that has baffled many readers is that of the pharmacist Mr. T (no, you're not the only one to think of B.A. Barracus here, I promise!) and his orange. I have come across many interpretations of this "orange" in a web search, but the one that seems to best fit my own reaction to the scene is that of transmutation. Not only is there the sense that the pharmacist might be dabbling in alchemy, but with the rather grotesque figures that he is able to produce by injecting his concoctions into things like the orange (witness the woman with hands at her shoulders), there is a biological transmutation that seems to be occurring as well. But based on the passage below, I suspect there might be a third type of transmutation going on, a change from the rather ordinary into the bizarre grotesqueness that often is a key element in ghost tales, such as the one Mr. Smart appears to be telling, with this event serving as the transition:

"So, as I said, my room was the one at the back of the house, which was large and a nice enough room, but hadn't much in it but a high bed, a rickety chair, an old dresser, and an chromo - I think it was 'The Stag at bay' - and me. Well, I drifted off looking at that yellow moon and thinking about Mr. T's orange; and then I woke up.

"The moon wasn't shining right in at the window the way it had been, but was off at a slant, so just a little spot of light hit the floor in one corner. That made the rest of the room darker than it would have been otherwise. I sat up in bed, listening and trying to look around: there was someone besides me in that room, and I was as sure of it as I'm sure I'm sitting here in Miss Olivia's parlor. I'd had a dream, if you want to call it that, and in the dream I was lying in that bed like I was, and there was a terrible face, a horrible face, just within inches of mine. I swung my legs over the edge of the bed, and as I did my hand touched a spot of damp on the sheet that I knew was none of my doing." (p. 137).
But yet this dampness is not immediately explained, although one might presume by the following description of "stickiness" that it might not have been perspiration or water, but perhaps blood instead. No, instead we are launched into an explanation as to why Mr. T has been dabbling in alchemy, why we see an armless woman with hands on her shoulders, not to mention the dog boy. But yet that bit still remains in the mind, unresolved, even as the frame story shifts from that ghost tale of Mr. T's transmutations to other memories of Alden Dennis Weer regarding Mr. Smart, until we get to this scene with Dr. Black (who had been Den's childhood doctor) that closes the third chapter:

"Doctor, I have had a stroke."

He laughs, shaking his big belly, and smooths his vest afterward. There is a gleaming brass spittoon in one corner, and he expectorates into it, still smiling.

"Doctor, I am quite serious. Please, can I talk to you for a moment?"

"If it doesn't hurt your sore throat."

"My throat isn't sore. Doctor, have you studied metaphysics?"

"It isn't my field," Dr. Black says, "I know more about physic." But his eyes have opened a little wider - he did not think a boy of four would know the word.

"Matter and energy cannot be destroyed, Doctor. Only transformed into one another. Thus whatever exists can be transformed but not destroyed; but existence is not limited to bits of metal and rays of light - vistas and personalities and even memories all exist. I am an elderly man now, Doctor, and there is no one to advise me. I have cast myself back because I need you. I have had a stroke."

"I see." He smiles at me. "You are how old?"

"Sixty or more. I'm not sure."

"I see. You lost count?"

"Everyone died. There is no one to give birthday parties; no one cares. For a time I tried to forget."

"Sixty years into the future. I suppose I'll be dead by then."

"You have been dead a long, long time. Even while Dale Everitton and Charlie Scudder and Miss Birkhead and Ted Siniger and Sherry Gold were still living, you were almost forgotten. I think your grave is in the old buring ground, between the park and the Presbyterian church."

"What about Bobby? You know Bobby, Den, you play with him sometimes. Will he become a doctor, eh? Follow the family profession? Or a lawyer like his granddad?"

"He will die in a few years. You outlived him many years, but you had no more children."

"I see. Open your mouth, Den."

"You don't believe me."

"I think I do, but my business now is with your throat."

"I can tell you more. I can tell - "

"There." He wedges a big forefinger between my molars. "Don't bite or I'll slap you. I'm going to paint that throat with iodine." (pp. 164-165).
This scene can be taken one of two ways. One, since Weer reveals that he has had a stroke, we might be seeing a person (or perhaps that person's anima, or soul/spirit) who is reliving moments from his life almost involuntarily in an almost dream-like setting, with the rooms of his house serving as symbols for these scenes. Or conversely, we could be reading a ghost's account of his former life, considering that supposedly ghosts dwell most upon the traumas and key points of their lives to the exclusion of other events. While I can see why many would believe the former, I have come to the conclusion that the narrator Weer has already died. Below is one such bit of evidence that I offer up in support of this belief. Weer is chatting with a librarian with the topic dealing with the attrition of his family over time, before this intriguing bit is said:

"Various things. Let's just say that I'm conscious from time to time that my skull is being turned up by an archaeologist's spade."

"You shouldn't feel dead before you are, Mr. Weer."

"That's the only time you can feel it. You're like the people who tell me I talk too much - but we're all going to be quiet such a long time."(p. 177).
It is not so much a vapid conversation (which it could be, taken by itself), but that this theme of disinterment mentioned earlier reappears here as a little hint. Conversely, just before this scene occurs, there is a brief allusion of sorts to the image of Mr. T's orange:

What was her name? I can't remember it, I who pride myself upon remembering everything. And of course there will be no coffee. The drawers of this desk are nearly empty, but not completely so. A few stale cigarettes, a picture of a girl caracoling a clockwork elephant before the eighteen-foot-high orange in front of this building, the orange that shines like a sun by night. In a moment I will leave this place and find my way back to the room with the fire, where my bed is, and my cruiser ax leaning against the wall. (p. 174).

There are at least three things going on in this brief passage. First, it is but one of many asides, a reference not to a past event alone, but also to Weer's "present," such as it might be. Second, the orange reappears, perhaps to stand for yet some other transmutation, perhaps not. Finally, there is this mention of a "cruiser ax." If you pay close attention to the narrative, there are many allusions to all sorts of weapons, from axes to swords. I suppose some might argue that these are just hints that Weer might be a bit violent, considering the numerous deaths that occur around him, but which are never followed to their conclusion. I suspect that might be the case, but I am not completely convinced of that, although it certainly is plausible.

I spoke earlier about the possibility that Weer is dead and is living in a sort of hell. Part of what led me to consider this hypothesis is found in a book Weer finds that Mr. Gold possesses:

When he [Gold] was out of sight, I walked to the back of the store where his office was. There were several books on his table, and I picked one up. It was Morryster's Marvells of Science and, opening it somewhere near the middle, I learned that though it was a mortal sin to do so, the man who wished might, if he knew the procedure, summon devils or angels, "and this not by fayth, for he that doth as he is instructed shall gayn his end, whether he believeth or no." And that angels are not, as commonly pictured, men and women whose shoulder blades sprout wings, but rather winged beings with the faces of children; and that their hands grow from their wings, and in such a way that when their wings are folded their hands are joined in prayer. That Heaven is (by the report of the summoned angels) a land of hills and terraced gardens, with cold, blue freshwater seas; that it is shaped like an angel - or, rather, like many for (like Hell) it repeats itself over and over again, always different and yet always the same, for each angel Heaven is Perfect, as each is Unique; and that the various angel Heavens touch one another at the feet and wingtips, and so permit the angels to pass from one to another.
And again that Hell is a country of marshes, cindery plains, burned cities, diseased brothels, tangled forests, and bestial dens; and that no two devils are of the same shape and appearance, some having limbs too many, some limbs too few, others with limbs misplaced or with the heads of animals, or having no faces, or faces like those long dead, or the faces of those whom that hate so that when they see themselves reflected they detest the image. But that all of them believe themselves handsome and, at least compared to others, good. And that murderers and their victims, if they were both evil, become at death one devil. (pp. 211-212).
Not only is there a sense of the grotesque in Weer's depictions of his childhood (see the earlier passages about burying the Pekingese dogs and, of course, Mr. T's strange orange), but again there is that passing reference to the merger of murderers and evil victims into a single devil in Hell. While there certainly are other, more mundane explanations, there seems to be a circumstantial body of evidence mounting in this novel for the argument that Weer is trapped in some sort of a personal Hell, reliving his past in flashes before certain decisions are made. But it is in the final pages of the novel, where the sidhe are referenced in relation to long-lost geese, that we get the final clue: Weer's aunt Olivia's voice comes to him from the intercom, asking "Den, darling, are you awake in there?"

Perhaps this story is but like a dream of pastiches finally coming to a close. If so, it certainly would be more of a nightmare. But I suspect what we are seeing is the residual memories of a ghost haunted by its own past, realizing in its remembrances of former events that it is guilty of some terrible wrongs. While these wrongs are only hinted that (there are certain unexplained deaths that otherwise would have to be due to Weer's actions), I cannot help but to conclude that like O'Brien's narrator in The Third Policeman, Weer has been condemned to relive his past misdeeds. If so, then Peace is a very ironic title for this complex, nuanced novel. Peace is the furtherest thing from the events in Alden Dennis Weer's narrated life. Truly worthy of the epithet of "Masterwork."

1 comment:

  1. The usual evidence re Weer's current state is his opening sentence, see the Wolfe Wiki. I recently saw the joking remark about _The Book of the New Sun_ as Wolfe's _Ulysses_. _Peace_ has as many puzzles and pastiches (as you note) as both those works. And fewer hint sheets: I still don't know for sure about Bonaparte's hand.

    But the overall feeling I take away is not so much disquiet, but nostalgia for a time and place I never experienced [a recent read of the coda to McCarthy's _The Orchard Keeper_ gives a similar thrill]. Anyway, along with _The Fifth Head of Cerberus_, my favourite Wolfe, and one I would recommend to those wondering what all the fuss about Wolfe is about.