The Mysteries of Gene Wolfe’s Peace (and Why They Keep Me Up at Night)

I’ve had trouble sleeping lately, found myself wide-eyed as the LED lights flicker beside me, my breaths labored, my mood dark. What past sin or future worry waits at my bedside, prods and pushes slumber away. Climate change? Business reverses? Lost love?

No. Well, yes, but not primarily. That question which has been tormenting my evenings like Poe’s lost Lenore is a simple one, though the answer itself is not: Who was it that got killed in the orange juice factory freezer? And who was it that killed him?

*

Say there was a library. No, say there was the library, the absolute repository of all human literature. Say I was walking amidst the stacks, found myself in the Fantasy/Science Fiction wing. A room vast and cavernous, hardwood shelves leading up to a distant and barely glimpsed ceiling, a rolling ladder with which to peruse the wares.

Say there was—heaven forbid!—a fire. Some embittered bibliothecary, some mad miscreant has set a spark, and I watch weeping as it swiftly grows beyond my capacity to combat. There is nothing to do but, in the few fleeting moments before this treasure trove is turned to cinder, grab a few works from off the shelves, to preserve some tiny portion of this vast catalog for humanity’s erudition and my own personal enjoyment.

What do I save? Not Lovecraft, whose existential ennui, tentacled horrors, and anti-Semitism would have no respite from the flames. Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, I am sad to say, would go in the same direction—future generations would have to labor without their pulpy goodness. Poe would get a moment’s consideration, but not more than that. T.H. White, Tim Powers, and Martin himself I would consign, sadly and with regret, to the rising inferno. Murakami I would pass over without a glance. Le Guin, to the misfortune of the coming age, would remain on the shelves. King’s vast oeuvre would pass into oblivion. Grimacing, horrified, weeping and embittered, I would allow Borges’ great treasure trove of wit and wisdom to pass into ashes. I would let Gaiman go up in flames, I would ignore Tolkien, Dunsany, Delany, Heinlein, Dick, and Zelazny. I would sprint, burnt-handed, from this literary cenotaph carrying Gene Wolfe’s Peace, and afterward I would commend myself for such swiftness of thought.

*

Note: Some minor spoilers follow, or perhaps not; because who would be so arrogant as to imagine they can say, for certain, what exactly Wolfe has intended in any of his writings?

Peace is—is it?—the ramblings of one Alden Weer, an elderly man in a decaying house, looking back on his life, trying to make some sense of it. It leaps about in time, from his childhood in a Midwestern farmhouse, towards his maturity in post-war America, and an adulthood which sees financial success but little in the way of happiness of contentment. Embedded within it are any number of stories, some that are told to a younger Weer, some that he recalls reading, none of which ever come to a proper conclusion, each of which serves to shed some light on the broader narrative—that is to say, the life of Weer himself.

This is the surface reading, though of course with Wolfe a surface reading is like going snorkeling above the ruins of Atlantis. With the sort of cunning technical precision which reminds one that before and in addition to being a writer Wolfe was a mechanical engineer, the structure of the novel is crooked, bending back on itself in strange and fascinating ways. The narrative of Weer’s life is riddled with ambiguities and contradictions, with holes we are encouraged to investigate and riddles that can never quite be solved. His sins and shames are carefully hidden away, from Weer as much as from us, but they can be identified by the scars they leave in his memory. In time, they begin to consume us with their import, and we are left—as the intro to this essay makes clear—confused and saddened and in awe of Wolfe’s brilliance.

There is a story I came across while reading various critical discussions of Peace in the last few days, to the effect that when the book first came out, the reviews were generally positive, but no one identified the (reasonably) clear mystical hook to the story. Possibly apocryphal, but easy to believe. Because Peace works, first and foremost, as a moving and beautiful meditation on death, memory, youth, aging, family, love and loss—in short, all of the most important things a book could be about. If you were ignorant of Wolfe’s reputation as being one of genre fiction’s foremost geniuses—one which he had not yet acquired when this book was released—it would be altogether possible to miss the subtle clues with which the book is filled, to miss them altogether and to still walk away touched by the book.

More than anything else, more than the beautiful prose, more than his brilliant obfuscation, what Wolfe possesses is a profound moral sense, one all but unique not only within his genre but throughout the wider world of literature. This is a man who has thought clearly and deeply about the nature of sin, and evil, about its corrosive effect on the human spirit. Perhaps this is because of his religious background; perhaps it is because he was one of the very few genre writers who has direct experience with war; perhaps it’s just because he’s much, much smarter than most of the rest of us. I can’t say—what I can say is that it is this sense that elevates Peace into the highest and rarest ranks of literature. The mysteries of the novel are not simply ones of character and plot—who did what and why—they are more essential, more ineffable. They are about what it is to be human, in the best and deepest sense.

If you want to be frightened this Halloween season, go out and buy a copy of Peace. If you want to engage with a writer of rare prose styling, go out and buy a copy of Peace. If you want a master class in storytelling, go out and buy a copy of Peace. If you want a contemplation about the most fundamental concerns of existence, go out and buy a copy of Peace. In short, just goddamn go out and buy a copy of Peace—I’m not sure how much more clearly I can put it.

Finally, if anyone has any good answers to the question I asked in the first paragraph—also, what exactly was it which stopped Den and Margaret from getting married, what is the parentage of poor Doris the would-be carnie, and why Napoleon kept his hand in his vest (my understanding is that it was simply the fashion back in the day)—please drop me a line in the comment section. I would like to be able to get my nights back, if it’s all the same to Mr. Wolfe.

Daniel Polansky is the author of four novels, including the Low Town series which began with The Straight Razor Cure, and Those Above, the first book in the Empty Throne series, as well as the new Tor.com novella The Builders. He was living in Brooklyn when he wrote this, but by the time you read it he might be somewhere else.

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