Liverpool University Press, 2003, 237pp, £45 (hb), £20 (pb)
reviewed in Foundation 92, Autumn 2004
When a writer consistently returns to the same furrow throughout her career it can repay the critic to turn back to that writer’s first book. Crude as it may be, possibly even disavowed by the author, the first novel often displays, in simple, the roots of the ideas that are pursued with increasing complexity through subsequent works. Gene Wolfe’s first novel is a carelessly written, clumsily plotted near future adventure that has received virtually no critical attention, but at the core of Operation Ares (1970) we find a myth that affects the real world though it has no reality (there is no such secret organisation as ARES, but because everyone assumes it exists ARES ends up overthrowing the government) and we find a man transformed into a saviour though he neither desires nor deserves such status. It is a pattern we see again and again in Wolfe’s subsequent work, most notably in The Book of the New Sun which is a far more mature and stylistically rich working out of the same ideas. Peter Wright bows towards the way ‘fiction reshapes consensus reality’ (p35) in Operation Ares in this exhaustive (and, at times, exhausting) critical reading of Wolfe’s Urth Cycle, but I think we arrive at different conclusions from the evidence. Severian’s story is a fiction reshaping reality, and the fiction is written by the Hierogrammates (‘sacred scribes’), so much we agree on. But my reading of Operation Ares leads me to question how much veracity there was in their story, while I think Wright trusts their tale as the bedrock upon which he can construct his own reading of the sequence.
Such esoteric disagreements – this is truly a minor point, a matter of microscopically fine distinctions whose resolution one way or the other could make not one jot of difference to the sublime achievement of the original – are typical of the critical reaction to The Book of the New Sun (1980-83) and its pendant, The Urth of the New Sun (1987). As Wright points out, John Clute, a writer more noted for short reviews than long essays, has devoted one of the longest pieces of his career to the question of who was Severian’s mother. Wolfe’s sequence is, like chess, a work of astounding simplicity that becomes ever more complex the more one knows it.
Wright devotes a significant portion of this book to looking at the way other critics have read the Urth Cycle. He is concerned with the artifice of the work, the way it has been devised to open itself or close itself depending on how it is read, so variant readings are his basic tools. His thesis is that the five novels of the sequence were carefully and intentionally structured to fool the reader, to send them off after a variety of false leads. ‘Wolfe creates a text organised specifically to be understood, or at least appreciated, only by those readers who are willing to question their own literary assumptions’ (p166) he says in what is actually one of the least confrontational statements of this position. Despite the fact that The Book of the New Sun can be, and indeed has been, appreciated by countless readers who may have been aware of only the top one or two layers of this multilayered work, it is true that different understandings of the text are available the more one penetrates the book. Any critical response, therefore, is likely to express only a partial understanding of the work, though that is not to say, as Wright does, that every other critic is ‘simply wrong’ (p123). Attending Daedalus is an excellent examination of Wolfe’s novels; I must say this before my quibbles and hesitations make it seem as though I am intent on undermining everything that Wright says. Quite the contrary, there is a huge amount here that is valuable to anyone coming to the Urth Cycle. Nevertheless, there is a whiff of elitism that comes out from time to time, a sense that if every other critic is ‘simply wrong’ then Wright alone is right. But though deception is one of the tricks that Wolfe uses throughout the Cycle, clearly taking great delight in misdirection and sleight of hand, acknowledging this does not necessarily mean that Wolfe wrote five books purely intent upon fooling every reader. In fact, The Book of the New Sun is a remarkably democratic work open to many possible readings and I doubt that any of them, not even Wolfe’s own, are wholly right or wholly wrong.
There are times, for instance, when Wright seems to forget that the five volumes of the Urth Cycle were works of fiction, written over a period of years, rather than an intricate metafictional treatise created entire in one moment. When he says, for instance, that ‘the title of The Urth of the New Sun serves to remove any indeterminacy concerning the possibility of Severian’s success [in bringing the New Sun]’ (p122), he ignores the fact that anyone reading The Shadow of the Torturer in 1980 would not have the consolation of that final title in the sequence for another seven years, but would probably still not be in much doubt as to Severian’s eventual success. The success in bringing the New Sun is never really an issue (which is why, to my mind, The Urth of the New Sun is a tying up of loose ends that didn’t necessarily need tying), the drama we are watching in The Book of the New Sun is how the myth takes shape and how it shapes Severian and the world through which he moves. Thus other issues (such as who was Severian’s mother) are attendant rather than central questions, their solution might shine a fraction more light upon the mythopoesis but do not materially affect it.
Gene Wolfe creates his myth by misdirection, and Wright provides a valuable series of chapters examining the tools of deception used. These are, in the main, likely to be familiar even to casual readers of the Urth Cycle: the intentionally arcane vocabulary, the use of what Wright terms ‘Intergeneric Operations’ and ‘Metafictional Devices’. Severian’s perfect memory is itself deceptive and the occasion for Wright to make some particularly interesting points not only about the usual suspects – Frances Yates’s The Art of Memory, Jorge Luis Borges’s ‘Funes the Memorious’ – but also a genuine case history of a mnemonist. Just because Severian remembers everything there is a tendency to assume that all he tells is correct. But Wolfe has a history of using unreliable narrators, and Wright points out not only the significant gaps in Severian’s tale but also the occasions when he may not be telling the entire truth. But these deceptions and misdirections hang from one continuous thread that runs throughout Wright’s reading of the Urth Cycle: mythopoesis. The central myth created in the novels is the story of how Severian brings the New Sun to Urth. This myth, especially as it is rounded off in The Urth of the New Sun, has tempted many critics to read Severian as a Christ figure, an image that Wolfe does little to discourage by loading his narrative with images of resurrection, raising the dead, eating the flesh, and a host of other references to Catholic doctrine and worship. This reading is helped greatly by the otherworldly figures who gather around Severian and eventually carry him off to the heavens and arrange his rebirth with the rebirth of the Sun, figures whose names translate as ‘sacred scribes’ (Hierogrammates) and ‘sacred slaves’ (Hierodules), figures who transport him to a final judgement before the angelic Tzadkiel (Ezekial?). Ah but we critics who have made this identification of the Urth myth with Christian myth (for I am indeed one of them) are roundly condemned by Wright. This is no religious analogy, he insists, ‘Hierodule’ and ‘Hierogrammate’ are not cognate with the angels but simply alien beings pursuing their own selfish survival agenda. This pursuit temporarily benefits the people of Urth, but is not done for that reason. In this reading he is right, despite the fact that Christian references shroud the Urth Cycle and Attending Daedalus. But the reading stops short where it should go on; by showing that the myth of Urth is based on something selfish and decidedly non-sacred, there is no reason to assume that Wolfe is not intending a religious analogy. Those who seek to challenge God seek to become God – an idea becoming increasingly popular in fictions such as Appleseed by John Clute and ‘His Dark Materials’ by Philip Pullman (and Wolfe’s ‘fascist celestial order’ (p73) seems very close to Pullman’s in that respect) – and it is easy to imagine Wolfe asking us to consider what were the true motives of the Christian celestial order. That Wolfe is a Catholic does not preclude him asking testing questions.
Having spent considerable energy trying to convince us that Wolfe wrote the whole of the Urth Cycle with the deliberate intent of bamboozling us, a thesis that is not beyond the bounds of possibility though I can’t help feeling that Wolfe used deception techniques in order to guide our discoveries rather than to hamper them, Wright then goes on to suggest that everything Wolfe has written since then has been an attempt to explain the Urth Cycle. So far, Wright has provided a fascinating excavation of different layers of The Book of the New Sun in order to arrive that conclusions I quibble with but don’t necessarily dispute. Now, however, I think we part company. It is clear that the two Latro novels bear a significant relationship to The Book of the New Sun, as if it is seen through a distorted mirror. The misty past replaces the distant future, an reliable narrator with a faulty memory replaces an unreliable narrator with a perfect memory, a confusingly hieratic vocabulary is replaced by an equally confusing demotic. Nevertheless, I see no need to read the one as an overt commentary upon the other. When Wright offers the following perception – ‘ “Those who stare at the sun go blind”, Latro warns, and his words imply that if the reader wishes to understand Severian’s story fully then he or she must look beneath its surface or risk being dazzled by its extravagant complexity’ (p196) – I admit to seeing no such implication. A reference to Apollo in a book set in Ancient Greece and beset with gods does not have to be read as a crib to The Book of the New Sun.
Having said all that, if we glide over the last chapter of this book (and the occasional infelicity of language: ‘Naturally, if the reader perceives Wolfe’s recontextualisations, the inclusion of “Severian’s” hypothesis of textual construction confirms that his intention was, in reality, to obfuscate information in a manner that reveals it to be obfuscated’ (p174)) we are still left with perhaps the keenest and most consistently interesting examination of the narrative techniques employed by Gene Wolfe in the Urth Cycle that I, for one, have read.