Read Peace, by Gene Wolfe.
If that sentence is enough to convince you, stop reading now and go pick it up. You’ll be richly rewarded. If not, let me say this: Peace is a novel that will sneak up behind you and scare the bejeesus out of you. Not as a shocker or a slasher, but as a creeper. It falls on you like a shadow, it crawls up your skin like goose bumps. It is the slow dread of dawning comprehension. Peace will spook you because you’ll be the one figuring it out. Like Pinhead’s puzzlebox, once you read Peace you’ll find yourself drawn back to it, fiddling with it, reflecting on what you read until it all clicks into place and you understand.
If that is enough to persuade you to read it, just close the browser, find a copy of the book, and give it a whirl. If not, read on, but be advised that I skirt the edge of “spoilers.” I will talk a little about the secrets inside of Peace, secrets you’ll find most rewarding to suss out on your own. You can come back when you finish, but if you still need convincing…read on.
Gene Wolfe hit me like a revelation. In all honesty, Gene Wolfe affected me in my twenties in a way that I can only compare to the way J.R.R. Tolkien made me feel as a teenager. I imagine you have an inkling of the sort of Tolkien obsession I mean. (Pun completely intended.) You probably know someone who was bit by that bug…or you were that someone. I didn’t go all the way down the hobbit hole; I was the guy with the dictionary of Sindarin, with the crib sheet for the elven runes, not the one who ended up fluent in Tolkien’s constructed languages. I still doodled the Cirth over my notebooks though, and I still remember enough roots, prefixes, and suffixes to throw together an infinite number of cool sounding names for elves in a fantasy campaign. Well, Gene Wolfe was the same way for me in my twenties; down to owning dictionaries devoted to his work and books of academic literary criticism. Heck, I’m in my thirties, and it doesn’t show any sign of slowing down.
The bulk of attention Gene Wolfe gets is for his “Solar Cycle,” three related series that all center around—respectively and eponymously—a New Sun, a Long Sun, and a Short Sun. They range from “science fantasy” to science fiction and rightly deserve to be canonized. His more straightforward fantasy offerings—The Wizard Knight—are also well appreciated, as is his “what if we used Ancient Greek historical fiction to tell the story of Memento fourteen years before that movie comes out” series Latro in the Mists. Gene Wolfe’s body of work is broad, however, and full of hidden gems. The “Philip K. Dick meets Philip Marlowe meets H.P. Lovecraft” of An Evil Guest or There Are Doors, the time travel May-December romance of Home Fires, the musing on identity and the Other in Fifth Head of Cerberus and… perhaps most insidiously, Peace.
You could easily read Peace as a “literary novel.” Now, I think “literary novel” is a genre of its own, and could more accurately be called the “drama fiction,” to compare it to “science fiction” or “mystery fiction” but that is just me. (As a brief aside—Gene Wolfe has said “magic realism is fantasy written by people who speak Spanish,” which is a quote that fills me a special glee, as a defender of the sometimes beleaguered genre of science fiction and fantasy and a fan of magical realism.) On first glance, Peace seems to be the story of a life, of Alden Dennis Weer; of a boy who grows into a young man, who grows into an old man and looks back on the alienation and struggles of his life. A story of a search for meaning in a life in its twilight, of melancholy musings on the inevitable degeneration of personal relationships.
Peace is good enough to let you stop there, but if you did you’d be short-changing yourself. Peace is a much stranger and more mysterious book than that. Beneath the meditations on small town life, Peace is a story of murder. Murders, even. One of Gene Wolfe’s hallmarks is an unreliable narrator—a protagonist who cannot be trusted. Alden Dennis Weer is one of these. Never one to talk down to the reader, Mister Wolfe doesn’t lay out breadcrumbs in a trail…but the clues are there. Peace, read on a deeper level, is a Hitchcockian mystery, a novel in which very little is what is appears to be. Small crimes and large are speckled throughout. If the first level of the book is memory—and Weer moves through his reminiscences much like memory palace—then the next layer of the onion is mystery.
The water runs even deeper than that. Peace is subtle, subtle like Claudius pouring poison into the ear of the king. If Lethe and memory seems to be the strongest current, well, the undertow often surprises swimmers. Under the clear water of the river of forgetfulness is the black water of the Styx: Alden Dennis Weer is dead. The evidence for it is buried, but convincing. “The elm tree planted by Eleanor Bold, the judge’s daughter, fell last night.” That is the first line of the book, and if you chase all the details to their roots, you’ll find that Eleanor Bold took the married name of Porter, and when Weer says—much, much later in the book—“Mrs. Porter? You heard her—she wants to plant a tree on my grave when I’m gone” you should read there that Eleanor did plant the tree…because Weer is buried and done. He’s a ghost, haunting himself. The house of memories is no palace, but a coffin. The tree falls, and Weer’s ghost is free to wander. What was it that H.P. Lovecraft said? “[H]appy is the tomb where no wizard hath lain.” Given that Peace contains a bookseller named Gold who has a not insubstantial collection of Lovecraft’s fictional books, rendered here meta-real, real-within-another fiction, I think that quote is of paramount importance. It is eminently germane. Peace is…not a happy tomb, but it is a tomb.