Nov 12 2013 11:00am

Gene Wolfe’s The Land Across is Lonely Planet Meets the Necronomicon

The Land Across Gene WolfeI’m on to you, Gene Wolfe. You and your tricksie word games. I’ve gotten wise to your sideways translations, your σπάρτα into σπαρτον making Spartans into Rope-Makers, I’ve puzzled out the name of the protagonist of The Fifth Head of Cerberus and when Jonas talks about his pet merrychip, I know you are talking about the extinct proto-horse Merychippus. When I saw there was a new Wolfe book with the title The Land Across, the wheels and cogs in the old noggin started spinning and grinding. I’m no great linguist or scholar of languages but what jumps out at me is “across”—trans—and from there and the context clues of the description—“Eastern European” particularly—even before I cracked the page I had a hypothesis.

The Land Across is Gene Wolfe’s Transylvania novel.

Popular geek culture tends to focus on Gene Wolfe’s big science-fantasy epics. Well, heck, epic, singular, since the Book of the New Sun and the Book of the Long Sun and the Book of the Short Sun all weave together into one Solar Cycle, though Latro and The Wizard Knight get some attention, as well. If this was a body building competition, that would be one pose, one way to showcase Mister Wolfe’s talents. Another slice of the pie are books more similar to Peace; apparently quiet books with dark depths. The Book of the New Sun is about an apprentice torturer with a sci-fi sword making his way in a post-historical “Urth.” The opposite of Macbeth’s famous line; it is full of sound and fury, but signifies a great deal.

Books like The Land Across or Peace (or An Evil Guest or There Are Doors or…) are like Lake Baikal. No, Crater Lake, that is even better, because in the middle of Crater Lake is Wizard Island. They are books that are apparently placid but deceptively deep. You can read Peace straight through, and enjoy it, without even realizing what Peace is about. The Land Across has that sort of…well, two-faced isn’t the right word. It isn’t so much deceptive as it is double-sided. It is a story about a travel writer who gets caught up in the Orwellian bureaucracy of a failed state in Eastern Europe. It is just also a struggle between supernatural forces that go from surreal to horrifying to horror film.

Gene Wolfe asks you “who do you believe?” as you read The Land Across, and that question includes the narrator, our protagonist. People buzzed about Gone Girl but cyclical novels, recursive meta-fiction, unreliable narrators? Those are some of the well-worn tools in his torturer’s kit. I mean his doctor’s bag, I’m sorry, slip of the tongue. While you muse on that, muse on The Third Policeman—oh, I’m sorry, I mean the third policeman, no caps or italics. How silly of me. Gene Wolfe is musing, as well, on freedom and benevolence, on democracy and dictatorship. I’ve talked about Tolkien’s thoughts on that same subject previously, but here rather than hinging on the strange figure of Tom Bombadil, the exemplar of freedom, Wolfe focuses on an equally mysterious paternal—literally and figuratively—authority figure.

This is my first read through. I’m going to re-read it though, boy howdy, and how! Translate all the seemingly innocuous words, try to connect all the characters, to see past the trees to find the forest. To make a treasure map. I don’t doubt on further delves that I won’t discover new things. I took copious notes along the way, this read: the root tongues of names, taking careful note of the painting of the satyr’s and the nymphs, to the wolves in the wood. Then I realized how little any of that mattered to anyone who wasn’t also in the middle of reading the books. Like a series of coded chalk marks left in a labyrinth. To me, the reader, invaluable, but to anyone else not lost in the maze, meaningless…

But I don’t want to give the illusion that The Land Across is impregnable. This is a story about a post-Cold War spy agency, with creepy mannequins, haunted houses, cults, a cold-case murder-mystery, wizards, love triangles and Dracula. Heck, the Hand of Glory shows up! In much the same way as The Sorcerer’s House used some of the clichés of a cozy mystery and An Evil Guest was hardboiled with a dash of Lovecraft, The Land Across is part fish out of water thriller, with the fun that entails. With a heaping spoonful of spiritual horror when you dig farther into it. The book is complex, it reveals itself in layers, but like an Oreo each layer has its own merits that collude to make the whole greater than the sum of its parts.

Tor.com published an excerpt of the book; go on, give it a look! What do you have to lose? (Besides your sense of a secure universe, that is.)


The Land Across is available November 26th from Tor Books

Mordicai Knode thought long and hard to try to come up with a way to make that Oreo analogy actually be about Pringles but he couldn’t come up with anything, and hasn’t he already done that bit of trivia to death? Tell him what you think on Tumblr or Twitter.

Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
Like, chocolate covered Pringles? I know those are a thing but it isn't a good fit...also, kind of gross?
2. D-D-David
I'm not trying to be a jerk, but after reading your article I have absolutely no clue as to what this book is about, nor do I have a clue as to whether I should pick it up or not.
3. Eugene R.
Like a can of 101 assorted flavor Pringles chips, with the Old American Circus Funky Mustard chip just lying in wait ...
Mordicai Knode
4. mordicai
2. D-D-David

Hm. Well! The book is written in the style of a travel writer who goes to an un-named Eastern European nation & is caught up in an ominous Keystone Cops situation; mis-managed & bungling with a malicious tone, where failing to follow irrational bureaucracy may result in death. On another level of the text, & in certain spookier moments, it becomes clear that the conflict is actually spiritual, actually supernatural. I hemmed & hawwed a lot because, well...from there, it enters "spoiler" territory.

3. Eugene R.

I bow to y0ur superior Pringle-Fu!
5. Cool Bev
I read through the Sorceror's House and loved it. Then my wife said she loved the trick ending, and I was like, "What trick ending?", so she told me. Now I love it more.

I wonder if there is something like that lurking in some of his other books. Probably not, right?

I've found the ending of some of his stories, like Peace and Castleview to be disappointing, because he sets out so many fascinating possibilities, but in the end has to pick one - not always my favorite. But maybe I've missed the point? Maybe the ending isn't what it seems?
Mordicai Knode
6. mordicai
5. Cool Bev

There are wolfes wolves in the walls, Bev! Peace famously-- I talk about it a little more spoileriffically in this post-- but I have a confession...I haven't read Castleview! I have been saving his out of print books for a rainy day. Some of them...well, I've seen my share of rainy days! That one I haven't gotten to yet. That said, I think the deeper you delve into Wolfe, the more...tricks you'll find. Traps.
Chris Palmer
7. cmpalmer
Wolfe did a reading from this book at a convention last year. Actually, I was lucky enough to meet Wolfe at two consecutive conventions I attended. One of the things I asked him was whether, underneath his frustratingly unreliable narrators, if anything in his books was ambiguous to him as he wrote them or if he always knew the "absolute truth" as to what was happening. He said, "Of course I know! To do otherwise would be cheating." As a follow-up I asked if he always provided enough clues and context to figure it out. He said that he always tried and always believed that he did, but that he was, he supposed, fallable and occasionally buried things a little too deeply. He also admitted that, particularly for his older books (and I'd been re-reading Peace when I asked this) he didn't always remember the exact details and that looking back, he often had to re-interpret his own clues. He didn't offer to make it easy on anyone by telling the straight story inside the book or in interviews and usually restricted himself to simple answers to direct questions - not a lengthy exposition on why he wrote somthing the way he did.

I've read Peace maybe six or seven times now. Every time I discover something new and every time I change my mind about things I believed about the book before. Based on his comment, I trust him that there is an unchanging core inside there and that it's not just some literary hand-waving or someone saying "It means whatever you think it means." If I didn't believe that, I might feel cheated or feel that it was "sound and fury, signifying nothing." Believing that, it boggles my mind that Peace was his first book, one of his shortest books, and yet is so large and complex that it rewards so many repeated readings.

Reading Wolfe is exhausting at times and I've read most of his books, but not all of them. I've been looking forward to this one in particular since his reading. He is an amazing writer.
Paul Weimer
8. PrinceJvstin
Gene Wolfe's novels are amazing, frustrating, entertaining, and enthralling. Sometimes on successive reads, and sometimes on the same one.

I need to read this one, too, of course.
Mordicai Knode
9. mordicai
7. cmpalmer
He also admitted that, particularly for his older books (and I'd been re-reading Peace when I asked this) he didn't always remember the exact details and that looking back, he often had to re-interpret his own clues.
A fittingly Wolfeian meditation on memory. Needs more ghosts though (or their scifi equivilent...if you think there is a difference...)

8. PrinceJvstin

& sometimes when you aren't even thinking about Gene Wolfe...something will "click" or dislodge & then an idea will come crashing into place...you scribble it in your notebook, to remember to check out when you get home...get home, forget it...discover it in notebook a few weeks later...try to remember the context of what your now-enigmatic note was about...then "click" so you scribble a note...
10. tam2
What is 'Lonely Planet'?

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