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Matthew Keeley

Remembering the Great Opening Sentences of Gene Wolfe

The King of Hearts, not the wisest of monarchs, gives this advice on reading in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland: “Begin at the beginning […] and go on till you come to the end: then stop.” That advice has never served Lewis Carroll’s readers, who delight in re-reading the Alice books and solving their puzzles, and it serves just as poorly for Gene Wolfe’s readers, many of whom don’t count a Wolfe book as read until it’s been re-read.

Still, whatever failings the King of Hearts might have had, there’s something to be said for beginning at the beginning, and so here follows my examination of Gene Wolfe’s opening sentences.

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Haunting Puzzles: Leanne Shapton’s Guestbook

What are we to make of the line illustration on the cover Leanne Shapton’s Guestbook: Ghost Stories? You’re unlikely to guess the subject, as the image is an uneven blob somewhat resembling an unmarked and upended Texas, or perhaps an untalented child’s first attempt to trace their hand. In fact, the image is a drawing of the iceberg that sunk the RMS Titanic, made by George Rheims, a survivor of the disaster. Paradoxical though it may be, sometimes an old cliché is the best way to describe something new. Icebergs are proverbially ninety percent underwater; ninety percent of what makes this new collection so remarkable is what occurs off the page, in the blank places between its sparse text and its abundant images.

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A Future in the Author’s Backyard: The New Edition of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Always Coming Home

However believable you find Ursula K. Le Guin’s imagined worlds, you cannot visit the planet Gethen and cross its frozen plains, nor can you join the commune on Anarres or sail the archipelagos of Earthsea. The town of Klatsand, from Searoad, has an address in Oregon, but you can’t drive or fly there. You may, however visit where the Kesh people “might be going to have lived a long, long time from now.” They’ll perhaps live in Northern California, in the Napa Valley, and one of their towns might sit where the Le Guin family had a summer house. In Always Coming Home, her longest and strangest novel, just reissued by the Library of America, Ursula K. Le Guin built a utopia in her backyard.

A warning: If you read solely for plot, Always Coming Home might seem an exercise in Never Reaching the Point, and I’d encourage you to read The Lathe of Heaven or a volume of Earthsea in its stead. This novel represents a culmination of the anthropological or societal bent in Le Guin’s fiction. Le Guin’s first three novels were republished as Worlds of Exile and Illusionworlds, not tales or stories. The Left Hand of Darkness alternates plot chapters with bits of Winter’s lore and excerpts of its stories; while The Dispossessed, “An Ambiguous Utopia,” announces its social interests in its very subtitle. Always Coming Home doesn’t abandon narrative, but it comes close: This is a book that aspires to placehood.

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Sandra Newman Soars to The Heavens

How rare and wonderful it is to find a book that surpasses already high expectations. Sandra Newman’s The Heavens is one such title. It’s a fantasy about reality and it’s one of the best new novels I’ve read in ages.

Where did my high hopes come from? First, Newman’s previous novel, The Country of Ice Cream Star, a post-apocalyptic epic apparently far less sweet than its title suggests, was a critical favorite said to bear comparison with Riddley Walker. Second, Newman’s Twitter feed is a marvel of casual surrealism, trenchant commentary, and memorable remarks; entire books I’ve known possess less originality than one of her tweets. Finally, I’d heard editors on both sides of the Atlantic sing its praises months before publication. I worried it wouldn’t live up to the praise I’d already heard; within twenty pages, my doubts evaporated.

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Multiple Choices and No Good Answers: Sylvain Neuvel’s The Test

Few things can disrupt a schedule more than a good book; my first encounter with Sylvain Neuvel’s fiction cost me a whole day. When I picked up his debut, Sleeping Giants, I had no intention of reading the entire book in a single sitting, and yet I did. Those three hundred pages, packed as they were with giant robots, ancient secrets, conspiracies benevolent or sinister, shocking deaths, and stunning revelations, kept me glued to my chair all through a sunny June afternoon. I immediately ordered the second book of The Themis Files; it too disappeared a day.

The nine hundred or so pages of Sleeping Giants, Waking Gods, and Only Human took their characters around the world, off the world, and through more than twenty eventful years. So it’s a surprise to see that Neuvel’s latest book is a novella largely set in a single room on a single day. Perhaps the author is testing himself: Can he write a short book, about a man in a room, and make it as compelling as his trilogy? I’m happy to answer that he can.

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Absurdist Allegory Unclay is Back in Print at Last

T.F. Powys’s novel Unclay holds the unwelcome distinction of being triply obscure. The first level of obscurity: you’re vanishingly unlikely to meet anyone who knows of an author named Powys—I’ve met three, and two were publishers of authors named Powys. The second level: those who know the name are most likely thinking of John Cowper Powys, elder brother to Theodore Francis. The final level: most everyone who has heard tell of, or even read, Powys, knows only his 1927 allegorical fantasy Mr. Weston’s Good Wine. Unclay, the final novel Powys published in his lifetime, last received an American issue in 1932, four years before Harvard underclassman and steel heir James Laughlin published the first title under the New Directions banner. Eighty-six years on from its last appearance in the US, New Directions has revived Unclay.

I’m not sure how or where they found it, but I’m glad they did: this book deserves to be in print.

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Unnerving and Unusual: Bedfellow by Jeremy C. Shipp

Some words don’t like to get out on their own. You can’t be spick without being span too, while “nitty” pines away unaccompanied by “gritty.” Similarly, “bedfellow” has hardly ever appeared without a preceding “strange.” Like its one-word title, Jeremy Shipp’s new novel, Bedfellow, is unnerving and unusual. And like a bedfellow without its strange, there’s something missing.

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Giants, Saints, Chickens, Hobos, and Hobbits: Andy Duncan’s An Agent of Utopia

Andy Duncan may not be the fastest or the most best-known writer in science fiction and fantasy, but he’s one of the best. His books might not fill an entire shelf—he’s published just two prior collections and a handful of chapbooks—but the awards he’s won, including a Sturgeon Award, a Nebula, and three World Fantasies, could easily fill a bookcase. His first two collections, The Pottawatomie Giant and Beluthahatchie, are currently out of print, so Small Beer Press’s publication of An Agent of Utopia: New & Selected Stories, is an occasion to celebrate, and cause to hope that this fine writer finds a broader audience.

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Night of the Demon: M.R. James Reinterpreted as a Classic ’50s Horror Film

Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon begins, like so many of the best ghost stories do, on a dark night in the English countryside. A panicked man—we soon learn he is the skeptic and debunker Professor Henry Harrington—speeds along empty roads until he arrives at a grand country house. He pounds at the door and is admitted by the great home’s owner, of whom he begs forgiveness and pleads for mercy. Dr. Julian Karswell, calm and collected, offers vague promises of help, and sends his victim home to a terrible fate. The police, when they find Harrington’s body the next morning, claim that he backed his car into a utility pole and electrocuted himself; the horrible marks on his body must have been inflicted postmortem by an animal. But we viewers know better: we’ve seen the demon.

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Ben Marcus’s Challenging and Oblique Stories in Notes from the Fog

Notes from the Fog, the latest collection of stories by Ben Marcus, was initially announced as Speeding Pieces of Light. I think the final title is the more appropriate: light and fog are equally ungraspable, but Marcus proves fonder of shadows than of illumination. Readers and characters remain in the fog, and such beams of light that appear are precious indeed.

Ben Marcus is a writer who should be dear to my heart: in his twenty-odd years in American letters, he’s been a tireless advocate of fiction that is challenging or experimental, fabulist or fable-like, uncompromising and unnerving. He’s also a fine critic—his essay on Thomas Bernhard for Harper’s, for example, is wonderful—and he deserves a medal for the return to print of Jason Schwartz’s A German Picturesque, a book of sinisterly fluid babble forever hesitating on the border of perverse sense. All of this explains why I wish I could give Notes from the Fog an unqualified rave, and why I’m sad to write a thoroughly mixed review.

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The Inexorable Strangeness of Robert Aickman’s Compulsory Games

For far too long, Robert Aickman has resided in a bookish limbo. He’s not quite gone—small presses have kept his work available for readers with daring taste and deep pockets—and he’s certainly not forgotten—writers like Peter Straub and Neil Gaiman never fail to name him when asked favorite authors—but he’s not quite here either. Like his stories, which aren’t quite fantasy and aren’t quite ghost stories, and like his characters, frequently caught between the everyday and the impossible, Aickman has seemed stuck between here and there. New York Review of Books Classics has just published a new Aickman volume, Compulsory Games. At long last, American readers have easy access to one of the world’s great purveyors of the uncanny, the unknown, and the uncomfortable.

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Atomic Aftermath: Yoko Tawada’s Mysterious New Novel, The Emissary

Catastrophe is a popular subject for writers: what better way to show the true character of individuals or of a society than through examining how they react when faced with the perils, both physical and moral, that disaster imposes? And of course the action of the disaster itself is exciting: what better way to propel a plot and keep a reader holding their breath and turning their pages?

The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor meltdown—the first since Chernobyl to merit designation as a Major Accident by the International Atomic Energy Agency—occurred on March 11, 2011. Although there were no fatalities, 50,000 households were evacuated, and seven years later, a miles-wide exclusion zone remains in place around the former plant. National traumas invariably inspire writers; Japanese writer Yoko Tawada’s The Emissary, recently published by New Directions, is her eccentric treatment of Fukushima. It’s a story of aftermath, but not one of heroic responders or desperate survivors. Rather, it’s about the new routine of a world that cataclysm has changed, diminished, and shrunk.

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The Demanding, Essential Work of Samuel Delany: The Atheist in the Attic

Sometimes it seems as if all the publishers and bookstores of the land are engaged in a conspiracy to make Samuel Delany appear less unusual than he is. All of his fiction, whether autobiographical, experimental, pornographic, or some combination of the three, is shelved under “science fiction,” and while a given edition of Dhalgren might or might not advertise its million-seller status, it’s unlikely that any back cover copy will address that book’s games with structure, experiments in typography, or literal unendingness. It’s not until you actually open the books that you realize you’re in the hands of one of SF’s great experimenters. Sometimes Delany himself seems to be in on this game of concealment. His author biography coyly states, for example, that “his four-volume series Return to Nevèrÿon is sword-and-sorcery,” as if he were a latter-day Robert E. Howard, eliding any sense that these strange books, with their disquisitions on language, their Matryoshka structures and their shifting narrators, might better be described as sword, sorcery, and semiotics.

How, then, to best introduce a reader to this strange and wonderful writer? I had hoped the book under review might fit the bill.

[It’s intriguing, but is it the best place to start with Delany’s work?]

Fear and Farce: Jeremy C. Shipp’s The Atrocities

If form follows function, as so many designers have attested, then Stockton House, the Gothic manse at the center of Jeremy C. Shipp’s novella The Atrocities, was surely built to be haunted. Let’s consider some of its amenities. On first arriving at the House, the visitor will find herself in a hedge maze; around any corner she may encounter the book’s namesakes Atrocities, the gruesome statues drawn from Biblical stories. They’re a tad unpleasant, but they’re useful signposts for any unlucky visitor who navigating the maze: “Turn left at the screaming woman with the collapsing face” and “turn right at the woman sliced into twelve pieces” are, after all, unusually clear directions. The unusual ornamentation isn’t confined to the grounds: when the new guest arrives, she’ll note that beneath the house’s pyramid spires, “dozens of headless figures populate the yellowing, weatherworn façade.”

[She’ll find the interior just as foreboding…]

Ursula K. Le Guin’s Essential Internet Writing, Now Between Two Covers

No Time to Spare, a collection of nonfiction drawn from Ursula K. Le Guin’s blog, draws its title from a statement she made at the very beginning of her first full post: “I am going to be eighty-one next week. I have no time to spare.” Anyone looking at her career must wonder if she ever had spare time. After all, in addition to her science fiction and fantasy novels and collections, almost any one of her which could cap a lesser writer’s career, she’s published realistic fiction, a dozen volumes of poetry, several essay collections, a writing guide, and translations from both Portuguese and Chinese. I’m probably forgetting several things: the list of Le Guin’s publications that opens No Time to Spare, though it runs two pages, is far from complete.

Le Guin attributes her decision to start a blog to reading a selection of Portuguese Nobel winner José Saramago’s internet writing, though with, she avers, “less political and moral weight.” I do not know the Portuguese for “blog,” but perhaps it’s more euphonious than the English word, which Le Guin hates: “it sounds like a sodden tree trunk in a bog, or maybe an obstruction in the nasal passage.” In any case, the form suits her. Le Guin is, in fact, a better political thinker than the great Saramago, and even the essays she worries are most “trivially personal” are so animated and so entertaining that no reader can skip them.

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