Fri
Oct 26 2012 5:00pm

Gene Wolfe’s Peace Will Leave You Anything But Peaceful

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.


Mordicai Knode thinks everyone should read Gene Wolfe. He also thinks everyone should read his Twitter and follow his Tumblr. Or well, you don’t have to. He’s not the boss of you.

This article is part of Ghost Week on Tor.com: ‹ previous | index | next ›
22 comments
Raskos
1. Raskos
It all clicks into place, does it?
And then you understand?
And when can I look forward to this happening, exactly? My copy of Peace is falling apart from my reading and re-reading of it. The most gnomic of all of Wolfe's books, I think.
Mordicai Knode
2. mordicai
1. Raskos

You're right, "understand" is the wrong word. Glimpse? Or...gnosis? Where you turn it sideways & things suddenly make a lot more sense. A leap of logic, a fire walk with me, a...I'm not sure what!
Michael Grosberg
3. Michael_GR
I'm no stranger to Wolfe - I've read all of the "sun" novels and The fifth Hand of Cerberus, and while I appreciate and love Wolfe's literary genius and his mastery of prose, I also like the fact that on the surface, most of his books can also be described in terms that would make a fan of pulp fiction want to pick them up. New sun? badass executioner with a cool sword, tackling beasts, robots and time travelers on a future earth on a quest to find his DESTINY. Long Sun? revolution against the gods. Blue/Green? space vampires!
So, can anything similar be said about Peace?
Mordicai Knode
4. mordicai
3. Michael_GR

Well, no. Not really! Like I said, while the Solar Cycle has your, yeah, crazy hooded man with a mercurial greatsword wandering a post-historical landscape or a priest who reached Enlightenment weilding a lightsaber, Peace represents a less pulp influenced novel. I think you can see the Proust influences more clearly than the Vance, so to speak. It is more personal in scope, more contemporary in outlook. Still-- as a reader of science fiction & fantasy-- I don't say that as a downside. Of the things you suggest, it most resembles the novella "Fifth Head of Cerberus" from the three part collection; it has a lot of the same sort of underhanded storytelling like, "what is the name of the protagonist?"
Raskos
5. Gerry__Quinn
Well, _Peace_ doesn't have much in the way of science fiction eyeball kicks, but if your pulp fan likes creepy stories about ghosts, or buried treasure, or quack doctors administering dangerous medicines to carney freaks, he will find plenty of those.
Mordicai Knode
6. mordicai
5. Gerry__Quinn

I gotta admit that I...what do the kids call it..."lulzed" at the phrase "eyeball kicks."
Raskos
7. XenaCatolica
Have to admit I love every Wolfe piece I've ever read, but I've put off reading "Peace". I haven't read any reviews that state unambiguously that this one's worth the trouble of teasing out the answers.

When I think of Wolfe ghost stories, the first one that pops to mind is "The Island is my Hat". Does a recording of him reading it with Gaiman exist? That would be super.
Raskos
8. Sabalos
I love Peace. I can't seem to find it now, but there's an essay somewhere online that makes a surprisingly convincing case that Den (and/or his family) is Lucifer, and the whole story is a retelling of Faust from the Devil's point of view.

..or something. It's a good example of how much you can read into Peace if you want, at least.
Raskos
9. Rick_B
XenaCatolica: There is in fact a radio play of Gene Wolfe's "The Tree Is My Hat", with Neil Gaiman playing one of the characters. It is a wonderful and terrifying adaptation, and you can find it here:
http://www.starshipsofa.com/2008/11/06/aural-delights-no-49-gene-wolfe/
Mordicai Knode
10. mordicai
7. XenaCatolica

I would put this up there! I haven't given it the obsessive attention that I have The Book of the New Sun-- an icon for a reason-- but I gotta tell you, the more I dwell on it, the crazier I feel. You know, you can see the cracks & you know they are all radiating out from the same flaw, but you just can't find the center? Yeah.
Mordicai Knode
11. mordicai
8. Sabalos

There are LOTS of shades of Faust; funfact, I wrote my high school research paper on Faust, comparing Goethe to Marlowe. (Hint: Marlowe rules & Goethe lets his Faust get off scott free, guess which one I prefer?) I guess that means any time I see the name "Margaret" I start looking for devils...
Raskos
12. XenaCatolica
thanks, Rick B!!

Weird that the title here is different than in the "Best of..." volume. But I'm not complaining.
Michael Ikeda
13. mikeda
mordicai@11 There are LOTS of shades of Faust

50 shades?

:-)
Raskos
15. XenaCatolica
duly encouraged, I got a copy of 'Peace' as an early Christmas present. So, after a couple of reads, I say: take notes. Seriously, I diagrammed the familes in the back, filling in names/relationships as we go. And I had a running list of questions, writing in answers & page numbers as I went. A few questions I haven't found good answers to, but that's okay.

In days gone by, I would have written an essay on Dante in this work and Garcia Marquez's "One hundred Years of Solitude" and thank God I won't be doing that. But it did make me want to read more Borges.

As for the tomb where no wizard hath lain, what if it's true that Gold also has the power in his mind/words to change reality? About the 3rd time I read it, I thought that the text Gold reads aloud to him, in a voice like nailing the coffin, was a show-don't-tell explanation of how this happened, with a big pun on "binding".

anyway, thanks for the warm endorsement of the book--I like it very much!
Mordicai Knode
16. mordicai
15. XenaCatolica

Not for nothing, but I'll mention that "The Book of the New Sun" explicitly talks about "The Book of Gold" on more than a few occasions...

I've been giving real thought to doing a "Solar Cycle" re-read here on Tor.com...if I do, I highly recommend you join in & take notes!
Raskos
17. XenaCatolica
A reread here would be great! I reread "New Sun" every year anyway. If you do the reread, can we include Wolfe's own remarks in "Castle" and the Peter Wright interviews?
Mordicai Knode
18. mordicai
17. XenaCatolica

Heck, I was thinking of throwing Borski in, even! Still it is a tall order; I'm wondering how to break it all up, still-- New Sun, pause, Long Sun, pause, Urth of the New Sun, pause, Short Sun?
Raskos
19. XenaCatolica
Well, all depends on what you can convince Tor.com of, no? I'd say figure out first how to break up New Sun, and plan to adjust for the others depending on the response. As for Borski, I think once you get away from what Wolfe has said himself, there's likely to be a big drop in reader involvement 'cause the interpreters just aren't good reading. Maybe include links/references for those interested but not make them central.
Mordicai Knode
20. mordicai
19. XenaCatolica

More like what Tor.com can convince ME of...that is a lot of reading!
Raskos
21. XenaCatolica
You have something better to read? :) But seriously, maybe you should try dividing New Sun into discussion chunks and see how that works--what chapters ought to go together, what chapters might need a session of their own and whether or not you want to do any topical posts--i.e. play/stories told, religious imagery, etc. Also, to borrow a tool from Dante, it might be helpful to distinguish between Severian Guildsman and Severian Narrator, (or something along those lines) so commenters don't have to explain which they mean.
Raskos
22. James B. Jordan
I have taken from the title of Peace that it can be seen as a man in purgatory working through his life and coming to peace. Or, better, as a spin on the idea of purgatory. Wonder what others think.

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