A Rigor of Chessmasters, Not of Angels: Gene Wolfe, Literature as Puzzle

A Rigor of Chessmasters, Not of Angels: Gene Wolfe, Literature as Puzzle

The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe’s ponderous four-volume fantasy[1] novel, gets brought up a lot in discussions of science fiction as high literature. Perhaps not unconnectedly, the book has an extremely ardent core of fans among the more conventionally SF-oriented geek crowd, some of whom call it the “hardest” book they’ve ever read.

This is a strange claim, and the case for New Sun as serious literature is a flawed one, because the book is difficult (and formally interesting) in only two ways, one superficial and one more deeply telling. The first is its vocabulary; Wolfe is a committed dictionary-digger and the book is salted with archaisms, obscurities, loanwords, and obliquely justified coinages.[2] The vocabulary poses no tremendous difficulty in reading, as it’s mostly (a) ignorable, (b) obvious, or (c) clear from context; sadder, though, Wolfe’s wordiness is of no particular beauty. When a writer like Hopkins or Banville dredges a word up from the depths of the OED, readers happily tolerate the imposition because the word is savored, palpably rolled around on the tongue, celebrated as a novelty; Wolfe’s undistinguished prose takes (or gives) no special pleasure in sound or cadence, and many of his obscurities are comparatively ugly words.[3] So the obscurity of the book’s vocabulary is relatively inconsequential; it’s more like crossword-puzzle vocabulary than any really literary formal gambit. On the level of sentences and paragraphs there’s just not much to say of Wolfe’s style beyond “undistinguished.”

The second difficulty, the real one, is the series of narrative involutions and obscurities — puzzles, really — around which the book is constructed. So much of the eight-hundred-page novel is built around retrospective revelations that the first of its four books lacks almost any overall narrative until it’s reviewed in the light of the later ones; indeed the entire novel, read straight through, is a rather lumpily episodic picaresque punctuated by frequently lengthy digressions and stories-within-stories — sometimes it reads more like the Thousand and One Nights than a novel. What seems arbitrary at first almost never is, though; each seemingly happenstance encounter and scene is later redescribed as a matter of world-shaking importance, generally arranged as a result of either (or both) alien intervention or time travel. For instance, Baldanders, initially a fat man with whom our narrator seemingly by chance shares a bed in an inn on his first night away from home, later turns out to be a travelling actor of great importance to the Empire and to the rebels against it; later still, he is revealed to be a mad near-immortal experimenter in mystical alien technologies of self-enhancement. A series of similar retrospective revelations is attached to each other character of any importance in the novel, and the predestined rise to power of our narrator Severian himself is finally rationalized as a matter not of coincidence or luck but of alien-sponsored time travel.

There’s a great deal of obliquity in how all this is done, which Wolfe himself seems usually to describe using a language of clues and hints and mystery-solving; this suggests that the book’s ideal reader is some John Irwin-like reader-as-detective, and that its great claim to literariness is founded on the analogous puzzle-games of predecessors like Nabokov and Borges and Lewis Carroll. The trouble is that Wolfe’s book, unlike these antecedents, does almost nothing but create these mysteries and drop clues about their solutions; it has none of their linguistic pleasures, psychological subtleties, or surface-plot coherence and compulsion. It’s a Pale Fire centered entirely on Kinbote, and without Shade’s glorious poetry or any of the humor; a Lolita whose meaning is in Clare Quilty rather than Humbert; a Through the Looking-Glass where the chess game is the story’s deep meaning; a “Garden of Forking Paths” whose solution, instead of being finally revealed in a burst of genre-defying irony, is left as an exercise for a reader immersed in a pile of Enyclopedia Brown-style hints. (The Book of the New Sun ends, in fact, with the most Encyclopedia Brown-like announcement of solvability I’ve ever seen in an adult-audience novel.)

The beauty of this style of narrative puzzle, and what probably accounts for the aggressiveness of Wolfe’s fans, is that it allows the reader a symmetrical self-congratulation to the author’s. There’s certainly enough semi-interpretive work to be done in putting the clues together to keep anyone busy; and both the casual geek readers and the academic are prone to trumpet this effort as though it amounted to the same thing as literary close reading — though the language of game-playing, of clues and puzzles and solutions, seems a more natural way of describing it. Beneath the narrative mystery-solving, on Wolfe’s part as on his readers’, runs a thoroughly simplistic rationalism — every mystery, it promises, will be explained, every clue find its place — and a deep hostility to subtlety, nuance, hint, or indeterminacy.[4]

The perspicacious Waggish has preceded me to most of these observations in a pair of incisive posts on The Book of the New Sun — which we could well describe in his terms as literature for engineers, based on the aforementioned complex-but-rationalist puzzle plotting, and the substitution of clue-planting for subtlety and nuance. I can only endorse the conclusion of the one non-defensive-fanboy commenter on Waggish’s second piece: “[C]rafting the series as a puzzlebox mortally wounds the text’s artistic unity. […] [It’s full of] too-long episodes that seem to exist only to set puzzle apparatuses in place […] [They stick] out in the larger narrative, seemingly pointless except as puzzle apparatus. One could say that we keep hearing the author shout, ‘Please, please pay all your attention to the man behind the curtain!'” The point is not that Wolfe’s puzzles are frustrating or unenjoyable, nor that they’re without significance; just that puzzle-solving is not literary close-reading, nor is puzzle-setting, by itself, literature. The intricacy of Wolfe’s world-building and narrative construction have to be balanced against the ugliness of the book’s prose and its indifference to psychology, to superficial narrative coherence, to the usual kinds of formal unity — and this balancing act all too closely resembles the usual compensatory logic behind the judgment that what makes good science fiction (clever world-building, intricate logic) does not necessarily make good literature (formal and thematic unity, linguistic craftedness). Wolfe’s puzzle-plotting is interesting as a curiosity, but grounds no claim of artistic merit.

[1] There are some problems with calling it “fantasy,” in the conventional swords-and-sorcery sense, as the book turns out to be about swords but also spaceships; most (though not all) of what, on first reading, appears to be supernatural magic is eventually rationalized in purely science-fictional terms — predestination turns out to be time travel, puff-of-smoke vanishing becomes teleportation, otherworldly visitors become interstellar travelers, magic lightning becomes energy beams, et cetera. What looked like “fantasy” becomes science fiction in the same process of post-hoc rationalization that the book’s narrative form is staked on.

[2] The less literate of Wolfe’s geeky devotees maintain, as a seeming point of pride, that Wolfe doesn’t just make words up, “they’re all in the dictionary” — but a good-sized chunk of the book’s vocabulary is, in fact, new coinages, albeit based on old or foreign word-forms.

[3] E.g. for some reason he prefers prehistoric animals’ scientific names (e.g. “smilodon”) over more evocative descriptors (“saber-toothed tiger”).

[4] In fact, the “solutions” to some of the seeming puzzles — especially those that involve characters’ true motivations and psychology — are so deceptively simplistic that they seem to conceal greater mystery. For instance, Waggish lists the motive behind Hethor’s hostility to Severian (and he could add Agia’s) among the unsolved puzzles of the book; the fanboys’ answer seems to be simply that Agia hates Severian and seeks revenge for his initial murder of her brother, and has seduced Hethor into virtual slavery to her whims. That this is closer to the “psychology” of Ming the Merciless than Emma Bovary seems not to strike Wolfe’s most devoted readers as either a problem or a mystery; the answer to Waggish’s confusion is hidden in plain sight. This dilemma is completely representative of the book’s frequently shocking shallowness in areas apart from its complex plotting.