I’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.